Miracle of 'Wild Boars' rescue transforms Thai cave into tourist draw - GulfToday

Miracle of 'Wild Boars' rescue transforms Thai cave into tourist draw

Thai cave pic

Visitors posing for photos in front of a statue of Saman Gunan. Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

Tourists snap selfies by a bronze statue of the diver who died trying to save the 'Wild Boars' football team from a flooded cave, while momentos from their rescue fly off the shelves — scooped up by the 1.3 million people who have descended on a once serene mountainside in northern Thailand.

"It's amazing what happened here. I followed everything from Australia," tourist John McGowan said after taking photos at the visitor centre around 100 metres from the Tham Luang cave entrance.

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Visitors taking photos in front of a mural, illustrating the rescue of the 12 boys. Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

"I wanted to see it with my own eyes," the 60-year-old said, adding he was a little disappointed the cave is still off limits to visitors.

For a few dollars tourists can get framed photos at the site, pick up posters of the footballers and take home a souvenir t-shirt some printed with the face of Saman Gunan the Thai diver who died in the bid to save the group.

There has been extraordinary global interest in the picturesque rural backwater of Mae Sai since 12 youngsters aged between 11 and 16 and their coach entered the Tham Luang cave on June 23, 2018.

They quickly became trapped by rising water levels and the daring, unprecedented mission to extract them through twisting flooded passageways captivated the world for 18 nail-biting days. 

The cave, which previously received around 5,000 visitors a year, has since been inundated by visitors both Thai and foreign.

"A miracle has happened here with these children," Singaporean tourist Cheong, giving one name, said but adding Tham Luang "must still have a spiritual side" despite the mass popularity.

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Vendors selling flowers for merit making on the road leading to the Tham Luang cave. 
Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

Tragedy and luck

Mae Sai district, where the cave is located, was considered off the beaten track for foreign visitors.

But between October 2018 and April this year alone "1.3 million people visited," site manager Kawee Prasomphol said. 

Vans disgorge streams of tourists who explore a visitor hub where the centrepiece is a mural entitled "The Heroes".

It depicts the young footballers, stars of the rescue, and junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha -- a reminder of the governmental fingerprints in aiding their cause.

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Vendors selling souvenir photos on the road n the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province. Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

At the heart of the mural is the beaming face of Saman Gunan, the Thai Navy SEAL diver who ran out off oxygen attempting to establish an air line to the children and their coach -- the only fatality across the near three-week rescue mission.

Laying white flowers at the foot of his bronze statue, Thai nurse Sumalee, who travelled four hours to the site, described him as "the hero of the whole country" in a sobering reminder of the risks involved in the rescue amid the blizzard of marketing opportunities now attached to the cave story.

Agence France-Presse