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How 25-year-old Former Monk Kept Thai Schoolboys Alive in Flooded Cave for 9 Days

According to rescue officials, Ekapol Chanthawong is among the weakest in the group, partly because he gave the boys his share of the limited food and water.

Updated:July 8, 2018, 8:21 PM IST
How 25-year-old Former Monk Kept Thai Schoolboys Alive in Flooded Cave for 9 Days
Children look at pictures of students and their soccer coach who were trapped inside a flooded cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand. (REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)
At a gilded temple in Thailand's mountainous north, Ekapol Chanthawong honed a skill that has served him well as he sits trapped underground in a dark cave: meditation.

Before the 25-year-old was a coach to the young boys on the Wild Boars soccer team, 12 of whom got trapped alongside him in a flooded cave, he spent a decade as a saffron-robed Buddhist monk.

He still stays at the temple from time to time and will meditate with the monks there each day. "He could meditate up to an hour," said his aunt, Tham Chanthawong. "It has definitely helped him and probably helps the boys to stay calm."

More than two weeks since Ekapol and the boys got trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave by monsoon floodwaters, six boys have been rescued by divers in a mammoth and daring operation. Six more boys are still stuck.

Ekapol would be one of the last to be evacuated.

The group was discovered July 2 after nine days totally cut off from the outside world. For those nine days, Ekapol was the only adult with the children - aged 11 to 16.

Attention has focused on the 25-year-old and the role he has played in both their predicament and their survival.

Many have lauded him after reports he gave his share of food to the kids before they were located and helped them get through nine days in the darkness. Others have criticised him for agreeing to take the young boys into the cave during the monsoon season.

That he finds himself in this predicament was a stroke of bad luck. He had to take out the boys because the head coach of the Thai soccer team had an appointment on the morning of June 23, the fateful day they got trapped.

He was to take the younger boys to a soccer field nestled by the Doi Nang Non mountain range, a formation with numerous waterfalls and caves that straddles the Thai-Myanmar border. He had his instructions on how to take care of the group.

“Make sure you ride your bicycle behind them when you are traveling around, so you can keep a lookout,” the head coach had said in parting advice.

What unfolded next kicked off a chain of events has riveted the world. The boys were found huddled on a small, muddy patch surrounded by floodwaters. The entire world has followed every twist and turn of the rescue that has drawn volunteers from Australia to Finland, support from the US government and offers of help from Elon Musk.

While most people celebrated their survival, others criticised the group’s recklessness in entering the cave, especially that of the coach. But his actions inside have helped make amends.

According to rescue officials, he is among the weakest in the group, partly because he gave the boys his share of the limited food and water they had with them before they were found. He also taught the boys how to meditate and how to conserve as much energy as possible until they were found.

The mother of Pornchai Khamluang, one of the boys stuck in the cave, told a Thai television network that she would never blame Ekapol. “If he didn’t go with them, what would have happened to my child? When he comes out, we have to heal his heart. My dear Ek, I would never blame you,” she said.

Joy Khampai, a longtime friend of Ekapol’s who works at a coffee stand in the Mae Sai monastery, said Ekapol was an orphan who lost his parents at age 10.

He then trained to be a monk but left the monastery to care for his ailing grandmother in Mae Sai in northern Thailand. There, he split his time between working as a temple hand at a monastery and training the newly established Moo Pa team. “He loved them more than himself,” Joy said.

“He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke. He was the kind of person who looked after himself and who taught the kids to do the same.”

On Saturday, the Thai Navy posted photos of letters that the group had written to their family and the outside world. Ekapol scribbled on a yellow-stained piece of paper. His note included a promise and an apology.

“I promise to take the very best care of the kids,” he wrote. “I want to say thanks for all the support, and I want to apologize.”

(With inputs from Associated Press and AFP)
| Edited by: Aakarshuk Sarna
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