Like so many around the world, I have been riveted over the past two weeks by the story of the junior soccer team and their coach, trapped deep in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province for nine days, before being reached by rescue teams. At the time of writing, various plans are being mooted to bring the boys back to the surface, which include teaching them to swim and dive, with and without SCUBA tanks. A challenge in itself, but rescuers are also racing against the clock, with fears that impending monsoonal rains will complicate the rescue efforts and prolong the entrapment.
The story unfolds like an implausible thriller — testament to the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction.
Media reports suggest the boys are in sound mind and good spirits, and I am filled with awe and admiration for them. Their coach, Ekaphol Chanthawong, aka ‘Coach Eak’, has been credited with keeping the boys calm and hopeful by teaching them meditation.
Reflecting a wonderful array of Thai nicknames, the 12 boys in the cave are:
Chanin “Tun” Wiboonrungrueng, aged 11
Sompong “Pong” Jaiwong, 13
Duangpetch “Dom” Promthep, 13
Panumas “Mick” Saengdee, 13
Adul “Dul” Sam-on, 14
Mongkol “Mark” Boonpiam, 14
Nattawut “Tle” Takamsai, 14
Prajak “Note” Sutham, 14
Ekkarat “Bill” Wongsookchan, 14
Phiphat “Nic” Photi, 15
Pornchai “Tee” Kamluang, 16
Peerapat “Night” Sompiangjai, 16
Letters from the boys to their parents mention missing family members and food, together with requests for teachers not to give them homework.
The cave in which the boys are trapped is part of a vast complex of karst mountains (defined by Wikipedia as “a topography formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks…[and] characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves”) formed thirty million years ago when the Indian subcontinent collided with mainland Asia. I try to imagine what it would feel like to be trapped for so long underground in those labyrinthine caves. I first encountered caves like this on a visit to Chiang Rai province in 1992, when locals took a Canadian friend and I to visit a temple cave. I’ve since visited mountain caves throughout Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysian Borneo. In my third novel, The Dying Beach, a mountain cave complex in Krabi province allows the antagonist a temporary reprieve from his pursuers.
He walked several metres into darkening shadows, inching forward, anticipating the bump on his forehead where the gap in the rock narrowed. He was vaguely aware of voice in the cavern behind him as he dropped to the floor, crawling on his hands and knees through cool, damp stone.
…No one would dare follow him this far and a few more metres writhing like a snake would bring him to another cavern, where he could catch his breath and wait them all out in the welcome cover of darkness. (2013, pp. 175-6)
I’m conscious that ‘the welcome cover of darkness’ for my fictional character must, in real life, be disturbing, if not terrifying for the trapped boys.
There are many remarkable aspects to this still unfolding story. This morning I read about a group of birds’ nest collectors from Ko Libong, nearly 2,000 kilometres away, who are lending their rock-climbing efforts to the rescue mission, scaling the mountain where the boys are trapped to look for a hole or ‘chimney’ that might provide an alternative escape route. The birds’ nest hunters apparently organised ‘a whip around’ their village to pay for their flights to Chiang Rai after seeing the boys’ plight on the news.
I have great respect for the resilience of the boys and the coach, their families, the Thai Navy SEALS, and all those in Thailand and from around the world who have turned up to help. I hope for the sake of the boys and their families that they will soon re-emerge into the light. Failing that, I hope their resilience can sustain them for as long as it takes for them to be rescued.