The Irrawaddy

Wild Boars Coach ‘Ake’ and Resourceful Young Team Member Emerge as Heroes of Thai Cave Saga

YANGON — When they were located 10 days after going missing inside a flooded cave in northern Thailand, the young Thai soccer team had one question: What was happening at the World Cup?

The young footballers asked one Thai Navy SEAL, who had swam through the cave’s flooded chambers to reach them, for an update on the tournament in Russia, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“I told them that the high-profile teams had gone home,” the SEAL was quoted as saying by The Wall Street Journal. The boys laughed when he told them, “It’s only you who are still standing.”

The 12 boys and their soccer coach went missing on June 23 when they set out to explore the Tham Luang cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province after soccer practice. After they entered, rains flooded the cave, trapping them for two weeks. The last of the 13 were rescued from the cave on Tuesday.

Despite being lost on a small, muddy bank surrounded by floodwaters in darkness deep underground for 10 days, the boys, aged 11 to 16, remained in high spirits and mentally strong enough to still be curious about the World Cup.

The only adult in the group of boys, 25-year-old assistant coach Ekkapol Chanthawong, known to his friends as “Ake”, has been credited with keeping the boys alive while the cave ordeal riveted the world.

According to local media, the boys told their rescuers that Ake had told them not to move around too much to conserve energy, and taught them meditation techniques to stay calm.

Ake, a student from Myanmar who had moved to Thailand, spent most of the past decade as a novice in a Buddhist monastery. Orphaned at the age of 10, The Washington Post reported that he left the monastery to care for his ailing grandmother in Mae Sai, northern Thailand, and was later hired by the Wild Boars football team’s head coach to train the boys in daily practice sessions.

“He loved them more than himself,” longtime friend Joy Khampai was quoted as saying in The Washington Post.

When the rescue divers found the group, Ake was among the weakest, in part because he gave the boys his share of the limited food and water they had with them in the early days.

When they ran out of water, he warned the boys not to drink the muddy floodwaters and instead to sip water dripping from the cave. Each had a flashlight, which Ake had reminded them to bring before they met on July 23 for their trip to the cave.

He told the boys not to use their flashlights at the same time, to conserve batteries.

“I know him, and I know he will blame himself,” Joy said.

“To all the parents, all the kids are still fine. I promise to take the very best care of the kids,” Ake said in a note given to a diver on Friday, and published on the Thai Navy SEALs’ Facebook page on Saturday.

“Thank you for all the moral support and I apologize to the parents,” he wrote.

The younger boys also sent a letter to their families, telling them, “We are strong. We want to go home.”

While Ake has been praised for helping the boys stay strong and survive in the darkness, others have blamed him for taking the boys on an outing to the caves during the monsoon season, a decision that eventually saw them get trapped inside. But parents of the trapped younger boys refused to criticize him.

They urged Ake not to blame himself and thanked him for looking after their boys.

Aik Lu, 14, is seen at his church in Mae Sai, Thailand. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Along with the coach, another member of the group the public has learned something about is 14-year-old Adun Sam-on, a.k.a Aik Lu. He was the one who communicated with the British divers who first discovered the group on July 2.

In footage broadcast after the boys were found, he asks the divers, “What day is it?” and tells them they are hungry.

U Go Shin Maung of Mae Sai Grace Church, which Aik Lu has called home for most of his life, told The Irrawaddy that he was born in Thailand to ethnic Wa parents from Myanmar’s Wa self-administered region. Aik Lu’s parents left him in northern Thailand so that he could get a better education.

U Go Shin Maung described him as an “ambitious boy” and an all-around athlete who also plays violin, piano and guitar.

He said Aik Lu speaks English, Thai, Burmese and Chinese — which he learned at the church. The young Aik Lu helped do chores at the church when he returned from school and would always ask for permission before going out for football training.

He said Aik Lu was the boy whose behavior he always held up as a model for the other children at the church.

“He is a talented boy. He never wastes his time and is always doing something that’s good for him,” he said.

As of Tuesday evening, all 12 boys and the coach had been safely led out of the cave. Thai authorities confirmed that all 13 were safe.