4 years after thrilling cave rescue, sleepy park readies for onslaught

The entrance to the Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai province, Thailand, on Aug 17, 2022. The rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in the cave in 2018 has since become the focus of documentary films and Hollywood blockbusters. (NYT photo)

CHIANG RAI: Four years ago, it was a muddy, chaotic and emotionally fraught scene outside the Tham Luang Cave, where thousands of people, from volunteers to parents to cave divers from around the world, had gathered with one goal: to rescue 12 boys and their football coach trapped deep inside.

Over an 18-day ordeal, much of the world’s attention was fixed on the cave, with many fearing the worst. But against incredible odds, the entire team was brought out alive.

The miraculous rescue has since become the focus of documentary films and Hollywood blockbusters, as well as more than a dozen books, and today, the scene outside the cave is a construction zone as the national park readies for an expected rush of tourists who want to see the site for themselves.

Gone are the tented areas where family members anxiously awaited word on the children’s fate, and torn down are the shelters where divers recovered from arduous forays into the cave. In their stead, workers are building a visitor’s centre, tourist facilities and a large replica of the surrounding mountains.

Long a sleepy and little-visited national park, Tham Luang has been put on the map by the astounding extrication of the Wild Boars football team.

“I never expected it to change this much, because before the boys got stuck in the cave, no one knew about Tham Luang,” said Naphason Chaiya, 54, the chief of nearby Baan Jong village. “Even our own people in neighbouring districts didn’t know about the cave.”

In a first wave of improvements, roads were repaved and new hotels, stores and coffee shops sprang up. In honour of Saman Gunan, a volunteer diver and former Thai Navy SEAL who died during the effort, a statue of him — with 13 wild boars at his feet — was erected at the Tham Luang Khun Nam Nang Non National Park headquarters.

Soon after the rescue, so many tourists began coming that traffic was sometimes backed up more than 1km into Baan Jong, a collection of houses, shops, food stalls and open-air restaurants clustered along the main street.

To the dismay of local merchants, however, the tourist boom was cut short in 2020 by the arrival of Covid-19.

But now, with the virus receding and the release of two major new film productions, many residents are hopeful that Tham Luang will again be a magnet for visitors when the rainy season ends and the cave reopens in October.

In late July, Amazon Prime released “Thirteen Lives”, a dramatic retelling of the rescue directed by Ron Howard. Last week, Netflix released “Thai Cave Rescue”, a six-part series told from the boys’ perspective. And in August, Lionsgate released “Cave Rescue”. 

“I am optimistic,” said Pansak Pongvatnanusorn, who built the Teva Valley Resort 5km from the cave in 2019 and kept it open during the pandemic. “The cave is bringing in more tourism and a better economy to the town itself. I see many new projects, new businesses, new restaurants and cafes.”

Tham Luang lies within the rugged Doi Nang Non mountains, a range that runs along the border with Myanmar in Thailand’s northernmost province, Chiang Rai. The mountains, considered sacred by many locals, rise sharply from the valley floor, overlooking the green rice fields and scattered villages below.

During the dry season, Tham Luang is a long, narrow cave system punctuated by occasional underground chambers. During heavy rains, it quickly becomes a raging underground river, which is how the boys were trapped.

Vern Unsworth, a cave explorer hobbyist who has spent years surveying Tham Luang, played a pivotal role in the rescue by recruiting the British cave divers who found and helped rescue the boys. Since then, he has led efforts to expand the cave system by finding new entrances and chambers and connecting segments disconnected over time.

In one area, where two cave sections are separated by a metre-thick barrier, teams clearing a passage from opposite sides are already in voice contact, he said. Since they began their expansion efforts, the cave system has doubled to more than 11km in length.

“By next year,” he predicts, “it will be the longest cave system in Thailand.”

For all the international attention the rescue received, little has been heard since from the boys and their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong.

One reason is that they and their families sold the rights to their stories to a government-connected company, which in turn sold them to Netflix. Under their contracts, the boys and Ekkapol are barred for years from telling their stories publicly. (Several of the boys, their parents and Mr Ekkapol, contacted by The New York Times, declined to speak or did not respond to messages.)

Mr Unsworth said that some of the boys and Mr Ekkapol had returned to the cave to go exploring with him — when the weather was dry — and appeared to enjoy it.

“They have no hang-ups about what happened,” he said. “No nightmares. They have just tried to get on with life as best they can. They haven’t put themselves on a pedestal. They have remained very low key.”

Several of the boys are devoting themselves to football. One, Duangphet Promthep, was recently accepted to Brooke House College Football Academy in Britain, a step toward a possible professional football career.

Adul Sam-on, who greeted the British divers in English when they found the team, is now studying at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where he received a full scholarship. He was one of three stateless boys who, along with Mr Ekkapol, were granted Thai citizenship after the rescue.

Adul, a 12th grader, is proficient in five languages and once dreamed of becoming a local doctor, said his great-uncle and guardian, Go Shin Maung. But the rescue and international attention broadened his worldview and now he hopes to perform humanitarian work, possibly with the United Nations.

“The boys are going their own ways,” said Mr Go, pastor of the nondenominational Mae Sai Grace Christian church. “Some will pursue their studies and some are following football. They still chat and message with each other, sharing their experiences.”

Although most residents of the region are Buddhist, many have maintained a traditional belief in spirits and say they see the figure of a sleeping woman in the mountains’ shape.

Local legend has it that long ago, a princess fell in love with a stable boy, and after she became pregnant, they fled to the cave to escape her father’s wrath. When the boy went out to find food, he was slain by the king’s men, prompting the princess to stab herself to death.

Her blood became the river that flows through the cave and the mountains above assumed her shape. The mountain’s name, Doi Nang Non, means “Mountain of the Sleeping Lady” and the cave’s full name, Tham Luang Nang Non, means “Great Cave of the Sleeping Lady.”

During the rescue, many volunteers prayed and left offerings at a shrine to Nang Non outside the cave entrance, asking her to release the boys. When the Wild Boars were discovered, the location of their chamber affirmed for many that the lady was indeed keeping them safe.

“Destiny is written because they were found below the eyes of the princess,” said Kamon Kunngamkwamdee, a park ranger who aided in the rescue. “It means she was watching over them. Their destiny was to bring all the people together to save them.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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