The plight of 12 lost boys in a cave has brought a turbulent Thailand back together

In recent years, Thailand has undergone a significant period of instability. Now it is focused on a unifying thread of hope. 

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On 23 June, 12 boys and their football coach from the “Wild Boar” team entered Chiang Rai district’s Tham Luang cave system after football practice. Many of the boys, aged between 11 and 16, had been into Thailand’s northern cave before, though not during the monsoon season. What was initially an adventurous celebration of one of their birthdays became a dire situation when torrential rain prevented their exit. The group became trapped in a cave system over 10km long, with several winding passageways, dead ends, and cliffsides within. In the next week or so, an international search and rescue operation was launched with more than a thousand Thai volunteers and aid from more than half a dozen countries. Seal teams and expert help flowed from the United States, UK, Japan, China, Australia, Myanmar, Laos, and Myanmar, and cave divers were deployed to try and locate the missing group.

Although it is situated within a national park, the cave itself is rarely visited by tourists, due to the dangers of getting lost. Its tunnels wind in many directions. Certain sections require expert navigation. Spelunkers – as cave explorers are known – must crawl single file through the tighter spaces. There’s a Thai tale that the cave holds a spirit within — legend has it that there was a princess in love with a horse keeper, and when they tried to elope, the horse keeper was killed by the king’s guards. The princess later took her own life and is believed to have become the mountain. After news of the disappearance broke, Buddhist monks held vigils, and parents made traditional offerings to beg the mountain to release their children. 

The rising rainwater called for the help of professional scuba divers, but in the first few days, it was impossible to make any leeway in penetrating the cave, because the constant rainwater caused rising levels of water within the system. Eventually, over five large pumps were used to drain the water out. Finally, after the rainfall ebbed enough, cave divers were deployed. Nonetheless, the divers still faced immense challenges. Cave diving is dangerous enough in crystal clear conditions without the added risk of raising rainfall levels, muddy waters and lack of visibility in a relatively uncharted tunnel system. Within the cave, divers tied ropes to keep from getting lost, and left oxygen tanks along their dives at 25 metres intervals in case they needed air. The Thai Seal team camped out on a sandbank within, refusing to leave until they found the boys.

Outside the watery cave, the overall national mood was one of extreme sorrow and loss, but also unified hope. Thais saw the missing children as their own family, and flocked to help in any way possible — from offering water, meals, and supplies, to free Thai massages for any of the members aiding the search. King Maha Vajiralongkorn of Thailand and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha helped to boost morale and keep press updated, while Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn organised the rescue forces. What was recently a nation divided by political factions and civil unrest transformed into a unified force – bonded over the common goal of rescuing the trapped group. The boys became a symbol of national hope, which was only further cemented when, after 10 days of searching, 24 hours a day, two British divers located the 12 missing boys and their coach. They were 400m beyond the “Pattaya Beach” area from where they were expected to be. All 13 were thin, but alive and well.

Questions arose as to how they remained alive for 10 days without food and limited supplies of clean water. Their coach, a young man in his twenties, credited his experience in monkhood (many Thai boys train as monks for a period of time) as what taught him to lead the group to meditate in order to calm their minds and conserve energy. Additionally, he instructed them to only drink dripping water from the cave, and not contaminated water on the ground.

Thais usually greet each other with “have you eaten?” Naturally, the first order of things was to check the boys’ health and feed them. While they were given high protein liquid diets, electrolytes and antibiotics to regain their strength, the rescue operation now has to devise a way to get them out safe and sound. The focus of the task lies in extracting the boys – none of whom are divers, but who may be required to scuba dive through precarious cave systems filled with murky water in order to escape. Cave diving is usually already a risky form of diving, requiring specific training and qualifications in order to practice the task as safely as possible. However, for those without the experience, and compounded with the current conditions, such a task in claustrophobic settings may be life threatening should something go awry. In the meantime, the Thai government has thanked the national and international volunteers for their efforts in helping bring the Wild Boars back home.

What is it about this story that has struck such a resonant chord in Thailand, and even the global crowd abroad? Within recent years, Thailand has undergone a significant period of instability, switching from political regime to regime. Compounded with the passing of revered and beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thais have stood in an unsettled time within a divided nation. It hasn’t been since the 2004 tsunami, which swept thousands of lives across Thailand and its surrounding neighbours, that the country has seen such a story bring the nation together. While the situation is by no means comparable to massive tragedies where hundreds of lives are lost, the difference is that this event has a unifying thread of hope. Thailand’s relatively peace-loving reputation, and the warmth of the Thai people paved the way for a story of international teamwork, in a global landscape where dire news bombards us on a daily basis without a silver lining. While the event was by no means something to be celebrated, the boys’ rescue is sure to be a shared event of happiness for the country, and perhaps will remind Thais of the power we hold if only we recognise the strength we have when united.

Pier Nirandara is a Thai author and writer. She blogs at Pier's Great Perhaps and Instagrams @piersgreatperhaps.