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

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.

ThailandLocal boys play a game of soccer in in Ban Jong, Thailand, a village close to the Tham Luang Cave, on Aug. 18, 2022. (Luke Duggleby/The New York Times)

Written by Richard C. Paddock and Muktita Suhartono

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 soccer 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.

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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 center, tourist facilities and a large replica of the surrounding mountains.

Local farmers harvest corn in Ban Jong, Thailand, a village close to the Tham Luang Cave, on Aug. 18, 2022. (Luke Duggleby/The New York Times)

Long a sleepy and little-visited national park, Tham Luang has been put on the map by the astounding extrication of the Wild Boars soccer 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 neighboring districts didn’t know about the cave.”

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In a first wave of improvements, roads were repaved and new hotels, stores and coffee shops sprang up. In honor 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 1 mile 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.

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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. In August, Lionsgate released “Cave Rescue.” And last week, Netflix released “Thai Cave Rescue,” a six-part series told from the boys’ perspective.

“I am optimistic,” said Pansak Pongvatnanusorn, who built the Teva Valley Resort 3 miles 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.”

The entrance to the Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai province, Thailand, on Aug. 17, 2022. (Luke Duggleby/The New York Times)

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.

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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 meter-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 7 miles in length.

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“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.

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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 Ekkapol, contacted by The New York Times, declined to speak or did not respond to messages.)

Unsworth said that some of the boys and 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 soccer. One, Duangphet Promthep, was recently accepted to Brooke House College Football Academy in Britain, a step toward a possible professional soccer 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 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.

First published on: 27-09-2022 at 04:22:05 pm
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