This week there was just such an awe-inspiring story which came from deep within a mountain in northern Thailand, from the depths of a cave complex, long been the source of spiritual legends. The story which transfixed the world took place just an hour north of Thailand’s cultural capital, Chiang Mai, made famous for its hand-painted umbrellas and lantern festival.
I never had the chance to explore the mysterious cave complexes that have bewitched generations of Thais, but I did witness the endless “spirit houses” which litter the country roads surrounding Chiang Mai. Not understanding what a spirit house was, I was quickly informed that the structures which look like an array of colourful birdhouses on stilts at the side of the roads were inhabited by spirits, and the houses should in no way be interfered with.
If spirit houses are cloaked in mystery, the outlying cave complexes harbour a netherworld of superstition. Sacred caves in Thailand have long been known as places of both mystical power and danger. The Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 young boys and their soccer coach almost lost their lives over the past fortnight, is one such cave.
It started innocently when Ake (Ekapol Chantawong), the Buddhist monk-turned-soccer-coach had taken his young team between the ages of 11 and 16 into the cave complex to explore, leaving their bicycles at the entrance. After some time and much to their horror, the water levels in the cave started to rise and they found themselves trapped deep along the 3.2km path. With the water rising and blocking their escape, they became trapped on a small rock shelf deep inside the vast network of tunnels.
It is hard to imagine being caught on a rock shelf in the cold dampness in total darkness - darkness that blocked out all sense of time or reality. The minutes turned into hours, and hours turned into days.
The seemingly hopeless situation went on for nine agonising days, without the boys having any information about whether the authorities were aware of their location, or whether a search was even under way.
The oldest boy had turned 17 the day they entered the cave, and it was the packed birthday snacks that ended up saving their lives, along with the dripping water from the cave walls. Coach Ake had refused to eat in order to leave any nourishment for his team, and had taught them meditation to get them through the traumatising ordeal.
More practically, Ake wanted to minimise the oxygen they were using as levels had dipped to 15% in the corner in which they were huddled.
In a remarkable show of resilience, the boys had proactively used rocks to dig 5m deeper into the cave to create a tunnel where they could keep warm.
It was nine solitary days before rescuers were able to locate them, and it became a race against time to pump millions of gallons of water from the cave.
If the boys were to avoid being left in their predicament for months until the end of the monsoon season, there was no other alternative but to learn to dive using scuba masks and oxygen tanks. Once they mastered that, they had to learn to traverse narrow and jagged tunnels. One passage was too narrow to even wear oxygen tanks on their backs and they were forced to push the tanks ahead of them along the narrow waterway.
Three daring rescue operations took place since Sunday, with four boys being extracted that day, four on Monday and five on Tuesday night. By the time the last boys were rescued, they had been trapped for 17 days.
What is interesting is that this ordeal captured the world’s headlines for days on end, while over the same period of time 330 000 desperate Syrians were displaced from the south of the country because of bombing.
Hundreds of thousands have been trapped at the closed borders with Jordan and Israel. They are languishing in the desert without drinkable water or shelter, and many are dying from dehydration and exposure to the elements.
The ordeal of the trapped Syrian refugees has been no less traumatising than being trapped in a dark cave. Are we so desensitised to the Syrian catastrophe that our attention gravitates far more easily to a dramatic cave rescue?
More than 1000 people were involved in the cave rescue with teams from China, Myanmar, Laos, Australia, the US and Britain. Unfortunately, the trapped Syrians hardly made the news, and no rescue efforts have been launched to save them.
Hypocrisy aside, at least we could write about an inspiring human story in Thailand with a happy ending.
* Syria will be the subject for Sunday’s Global Spotlight.