Could be months before Thai kids are out of dark cave

These are the boys who have been trapped inside a flooded cave in Thailand. Navy Seals photo.


By David Simmons

David Simmons

PAK CHONG, Thailand – Try to imagine it: 12 boys huddled in a dark cave in northern Thailand nearly a kilometre underground, their only exit blocked by floodwaters that could rise and inundate their place of refuge at any time. Then, suddenly, a light appears, and a voice.

A voice speaking English, not Thai.

This ongoing story of the lost boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach has gripped the nation – and the world. The rescue operation has been run by the Thai Navy SEALs, but assistance from foreign dive experts, especially British and American, was gratefully accepted early on. The underground labyrinth where the boys are trapped is one of the most extensive cave complexes in Thailand, and it was luck of the draw that a British team was the first to find them.

Since the boys and their coach went missing on June 23, the massive effort has been led by the Thai Navy SEALs. That is actually a colloquial term for a special unit of the Royal Thai Navy whose official name is Underwater Demolition Assault Unit. The name SEAL derives from the popular acronym for the US Navy’s Sea, Air and Land Teams.

Normally, the Thai military comes under a lot of criticism both at home and abroad, much of it deserved, especially for its constant interference in politics. But all that has been forgotten for now, even in highly politicized Chiang Rai province, where this drama is playing out. The SEALs’ efficient handling of the rescue operation has put the navy in a good light.

General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the army chief who seized power from a democratically elected government four years ago and now serves as head of the ruling military junta, briefly visited the scene of the rescue operation but wisely stayed out of the way. The political party he booted out of office in 2014 had then and still has strong support in Chiang Rai, the country’s northernmost province. And this is not a time for politics.

Thais are known for their patience and resilience amid adversity, but this drama has been an unusual challenge for this nation of about 70 million. And it’s not over yet.

The Tham Luang (“Great Cave”) complex is in Mae Sai district at the northern tip of the province, on the Myanmar border. Chiang Rai is popular with tourists for its scenic and challenging trekking routes, and Tham Luang itself is renowned by cave enthusiasts.

The lost boys, ranging from 11 to 16 in age, belong to a junior soccer team known as the Wild Boars. They had apparently been practising their sport before venturing into the cave with their coach. It may have been just for fun, or to take shelter from a rainstorm, but Tham Luang is not a place you want to be during such a storm – which are frequent at this time of year in Chiang Rai and can be ferocious. The cave entrance was quickly inundated, and they had to seek higher ground inside.

The phrase “thoughts and prayers” is easily bandied about after traumas in North America, be it a terrorist attack or a school shooting. In Buddhist Thailand, prayer is deeply meaningful, and over the past week or so, the fervent hopes for these youngsters was tangible.

So was the nationwide relief when the Brits first found them. This writer had to suppress a laugh when videos of the discovery were aired on television. Not only had these poor kids just undergone the ordeal of a lifetime, the fellow bringing light – literally, as he shone his lamp on them – back into their lives could not speak their language.

Speaking as simply as he could, this farang (foreign) angel of mercy called out words of hope, many of which probably were not comprehended. In the end, one of the boys scraped up a phrase he remembered from his school English lessons: “We’re hungry!”

Food and other supplies have now been brought in, but this is far from the end of the story. The passageway separating the boys from freedom is completely flooded – and few of them can swim. Even if they could, an escape at this point would have to be largely underwater, possibly with scuba equipment, often through sections too narrow for more than one person. The chance of a lad panicking as he leaves the side of his SEAL guide, groping his way alone through a dark hole hundreds of metres below ground, is very real.

Also very real is the chance of another rainstorm roaring in, again overwhelming the pumps the authorities have set up in an effort to lower the water levels in the cave.

Thais today are much happier than they were a few days ago, but reality is surely setting in. It will be some time yet – maybe weeks, even months – before their prayers are allowed to fall silent, as the lost boys once again feel the warm embrace of their loved ones.

David Simmons was formerly an assistant city editor at The Province newspaper in Vancouver before moving to Asia in 2000. He now lives in northeastern Thailand with his wife and daughter.


หลังได้ทานอาหารเพิ่มพลังงานที่หน่วยซีลดำน้ำนำเข้าไป และแพทย์ทหารที่ผ่านการฝึกในหลักสูตรนักทำลายใต้น้ำจู่โจมตรวจร่างกายทีมหมูป่าทุกคนแล้ว น้องๆส่งเสียงทักทายผู้คนที่รอคอยอยู่นอกถ้ำฝากมาครับ(บันทึกภาพ 03/07/18)#ทีมหมูป่าทีมSEAL#ThainavySEAL

Posted by Thai NavySEAL on Tuesday, July 3, 2018