MAE SAI, Thailand — Happiness is a birthday cake, a meal of pork-knuckle rice, a warm bed and a trip to buy a new mobile telephone.
Those were some of the treats enjoyed by Duangpetch Promthep, captain of the Thai boys’ soccer team rescued last week from a flooded cave, during his first hours at home.
“My bed felt warm,” the 13-year-old, also known as Dom, told Reuters.
The 12 boys, aged 11 to 16, and the 25-year-old coach of the “Wild Boars” soccer team returned home on Wednesday after being discharged from hospital and appearing on national television to describe their ordeal inside the Tham Luang cave.
“When I first came back home, there were so many people waiting for me. I was very surprised,” said Dom, who was welcomed by relatives from as far as China.
His first meal was stewed pork knuckle over rice, a dish he had yearned to eat while stranded in the cave, where the boys had no food for days and survived only on water dripping from stalactites.
Dom also blew out candles for a belated celebration of his 13th birthday on July 3, a day after the boys were found by two British divers about 4 km (2.5 miles) inside the cave.
Authorities have asked that the boys be allowed to recover at home, away from the public glare, so that they can return to their normal lives.
Dom, who lives with his aunt, uncle and grandmother, wrote on Facebook that he had to create a new account because of to a surge in requests to befriend him. He also bought a new mobile telephone to replace the one he lost in the cave.
Getting back to normal means homework on weekends and soccer practice after school, said Thanaporn Promthep, Dom’s 41-year-old aunt whom he calls mother.
“He’s a good, very responsible student,” she said, adding that meant no girlfriend for two more years.
The boys embark on a course of study this month to become novice Buddhist monks, in honor of Samarn Kunan, a volunteer diver and former Thai navy SEAL who lost his life during the mission to rescue them.
“It’s a very important thing to do,” Dom said.
Thais view the team as national treasures, but three of the boys, and the coach, are technically stateless.
Mongkol Boonpiam, 13, whose parents are from neighboring Myanmar, could qualify for citizenship because there is evidence he was born in Thailand, an official handling his case said.
“Even though his parents are not Thai they have been in Thailand more than 10 years,” Kittichai Charoenying, a municipal official in the northern province of Chiang Rai, told Reuters.
The cave ordeal highlighted the plight of people from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar living in Thailand who are denied some rights and opportunities because they are not citizens.
More than 486,000 people are registered as stateless with the Thai government, official data show. Of them 146,269 are – like three of the “Wild Boars” soccer team – younger than 18.
Rights activists blame bureaucratic obstacles for the slow pace of Thailand’s verification process, but authorities have promised to shepherd through the newly-famous four.