Journeys venturing inside the cave were a regular part of training for the "Wild Boars" youth football team, building camaraderie among a group expected to go on to big things in the world's most lucrative sport.
Nine members of the team have now been stuck inside the cave for 17 days, after four boys were rescued on Sunday. And as the world hangs on the fate of the boys and their coach still trapped on a 10-square-metre ledge more than a mile inside the cave network, classmates of some of those missing are already declaring them heroes.
“They will be stronger when they come out,” said Nanthawat Prangsangwilia, a gangly 16-year-old who goes by the nickname Gan.
“When they come home, those kids will be able to teach us something – about how to survive, about how to stay safe in the caves.”
Gan declared that, armed with the wisdom of the survivors, he would still be willing now to head into the caves that have threatened to claim the lives of his fellow students.
Around Mae Sai, people talk about Ekapol Chanthawong as a father figure. The former monk is an assistant coach of the elite team, and teaches the children mindfulness and meditation, on top of the regular skill set required for aspiring footballers.
Locals say that the ill-fated trip inside Tham Luang was one in a series of excursions, where the boys would push further and further inside the underground labyrinth, hardening them for the rigours of both the pitch and regular life.
On 22 June, the night before they went missing, he told the boys to pack lights, ropes and food, according to an elder of the local indigenous minority, the Akka, from which a number of the boys hail.
Letters from the boy’s parents suggest that they hold no hard feelings towards the assistant coach. Locals note that he has been hiding his face in shame when cameras have been flashed around the cavity where he stays with his boys.
Gan, the classmate keen to follow the Wild Boars’ path into the cave, said that he had no doubt the coach would be the last to leave the cave, such was the nature of his relationship with the boys, who are aged between 11 and 16.
Not everyone is as keen as Gan, though. Another classmate, Wichai Saechao, a burly 17-year-old who had also come to join the team of volunteers supporting the rescue operation, said his outlook had been changedby the events of the past fortnight.
“I always wondered what it would be like to go into the cave - I always thought it would be exciting,” he said. “Now I don’t even want to think about it. I don’t want to meet the same fate as my classmates.”
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