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Thai cave turns into tourist destination after soccer team rescue

The dramatic rescue of a youth soccer team and their coach from a cave in northern Thailand caught the world’s attention from late June to early July.

People everywhere sent their support to the team, called «Wild Boars,» while the rescuers consisting of Thai and foreign divers, plus a large number of volunteers worked against the clock to bring them out of the partly flooded cave alive.

The rescue operation was finally successful amid the global acclaim for the tireless efforts of those involved in the operation, especially the diving team that lost a member. Saman Kunan, a former Thai navy seal, died on the way back from his mission inside the cave in Chiang Rai Province.

Shortly after the rescue team moved out and the cave area was temporarily closed for rehabilitation, a number of visitors both from Chiang Rai and another provinces came to see the real scene that they watched from the news footage.

An accountant for a private company, Akarin Siwong, 38, one of the visitors, said he took his family and friends to visit Tham Luang Nang Non cave for the first time to see the scene where the boys and coach were trapped.

«We want to see the scene of this area because we watched and followed the news of the Wild Boars team trapped inside for many days, so, it is good to see how it looks,» he said.

Another group of women from Bangkok said they intended to stop by the cave after merit making in Chiang Rai as they wanted to see the scene of the cave. «I watched television and sent them moral support at the beginning when I heard they were trapped inside,» one of them said.

«The strangers whom I want to meet» was one of popular hashtags in Thai social media before the divers found the boys and their coach. The hashtag was interpreted as a hope to find them alive.

«I’m rejoicing being here to see the cave and pay respects to Nang Non goddess to protect them while being trapped inside,» the woman tourist added.

A local official who checked the visitors told Kyodo News that the number of visitors has dramatically increased following the rescue. He said the figure was ranging from several hundreds to 1,000 on weekdays and reaching 2,000 on weekends.

«Compared with the few visitors in the past, more and more people are coming to Tham Luang Nang Non,» he said, adding most of the tourists were Thais.

Construction of a museum is under way outside the cave vicinity to be a memorial place for the cave incident and certainly the former navy seal, Saman, whose statue will be placed in the museum.

The large number of visitors is also generating income for local people who set up temporary shops and stalls selling drinks and local products.

Krongsin Khambunchoo, 35, was among the vendors who sells drinks and T-shirts in a mobile stall after the authority allowed local entrepreneurs to set up the stalls.

«We started selling around early August until now and the selling value is high due to a big number of tourists,» she said.

The incident was a miracle for Krongsin, who believed that the boys and coach were safe because of a goddess whom local people call «Nang Non.»

The shape of the mountain where the cave is located looks like a woman lying down on the ground. There is an ancient story of a princess who fell in love with a groom inside the palace. Due to a prohibition, the lovers decided to escape and hid inside the cave.

The story said the groom told the princess to wait inside while he went out for food but he never returned and later she found out her lover was killed.

Therefore, the princess, heartbroken, decided to commit suicide with a hairpin, laying down her bloody body in the cave, which came to be called Nang Non, which means «reclining lady» in Thai.

After the rescue, the boys and their coach received medical treatment before going back to their families and school with good spirits.

During the school break in October, the boys decided to accept overseas trips to Argentina, the United States and Britain. They attended the 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, followed by an appearance on a popular television talk show in the United States where they met the soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

On the show, the coach Ekapong Chanthawong recalled the ordeal as a lesson for them not to be careless and to be more careful in living life. However, the key which helped them stay clam in the darkness was doing meditation. A hope of help from outside was also important in his opinion.

«We always had a hope that we will not be left inside the cave, there would be someone coming to help us and it was true,» Ekapong said.

In the latest trip to Britain, the boys went to watch a soccer match at Manchester United’s home stadium in Manchester and later reunited with the British divers who first met them inside the cave before the rescue operation began.

The incident was also narrated into a film by Thai movie makers while foreign film companies are still in the process of discussions.

All — Kyodo News+

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