Thai­land cave fa­mous for foot­ball team res­cue now tourist hotspot

Gulf Times - - ASIA - By Ro­nan O’Con­nell, GNS

The park and cave com­plex in north­ern Thai­land where mem­bers of a youth foot­ball team were trapped for 17 days over the sum­mer has be­come an un­likely tourist hotspot since it re­opened this month.

Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non for­est park in Chi­ang Rai prov­ince was a sleepy back­wa­ter un­til the suc­cess­ful res­cue mis­sion of the 12 young Thai foot­ballers and their coach made head­lines around the world in June. Since the cave com­plex in the park re­opened, it has re­ceived thou­sands of vis­i­tors, and though peo­ple are still not al­lowed in­side Tham Luang cave it­self, where the boys were trapped by flood waters, more than 100 stalls selling sou­venirs, T-shirts and food have sprung up along the road that leads to it, near the town of Mae Sai.

“This is an amaz­ing thing that has hap­pened for the peo­ple in this area,” said Vipa Ro­ma­neechutima, who sells lottery tick­ets near the en­trance to the cave. “Peo­ple tried to make Tham Luang a tourist at­trac­tion be­fore, many times, but it never be­came pop­u­lar. Now it is fa­mous all over the world be­cause of the boys saved from the cave. We are not just happy be­cause of the money from tourists. We are also very proud peo­ple want to travel here to see our beau­ti­ful park. It is an hon­our for us,” she said.

The park is at the base of densely forested hills in an iso­lated part of Thai­land. Vis­i­tors to it can now see Tham Luang cave from a short dis­tance away, through a chain-link fence, and can ex­plore three of the park’s other caves – Bud­dha, Naga and Chamois. Mean­while, work is un­der way on a mu­seum cel­e­brat­ing the res­cue, as well as com­mem­o­rat­ing diver Sa­man Gu­nan, who died in the res­cue at­tempt. A tented re­sort for tourists is also be­ing built near the en­try road to the park.

Tourists are ar­riv­ing at the cave com­plex to cel­e­brate the res­cue and also com­mem­o­rate the death of diver Sa­man Gu­nan.

Last week, huge crowds lay flow­ers near the en­trance to Tham Luang cave, which has been closed since the res­cue ended on 10 July as Thai au­thor­i­ties con­sider whether it can be safely re­opened for pub­lic ac­cess. Among them were John Deeney and his wife from Scot­land. The cou­ple were on hol­i­day in Thai­land and de­cided to visit Chi­ang Rai and the cave com­plex.

“It was such an amaz­ing thing that took place here and it feels spe­cial to be able to see it our­selves,” he said. “I imag­ine this will be­come a huge tourist at­trac­tion now”.

Be­hind Deeney, peo­ple lined up in a long, or­derly queue to pose for a selfie in front of the sign for Tham Luang cave. For 17 days this name was as­so­ci­ated with fear and anx­i­ety. Now Tham Luang has the op­por­tu­nity to be­come a place of joy and op­por­tu­nity. Mae Sai man Phisek Kema­pusit said the lo­cal com­mu­nity was thrilled at the new projects and the in­crease in vis­i­tor num­bers. “It will cre­ate more jobs for Mae Sai peo­ple, so tourists are very wel­come here.”

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