MAE SAI, Thailand >> Three weeks after they emerged from a flooded cave complex, guided to safety by expert divers while their families and supporters around the world awaited word of their safety, the Thais known as the Wild Boars began a ceremony today to become novice Buddhist monks.
Wearing white, the boys and their coach walked in a line in the northern town of Mae Sai, holding their heads low and their hands together. Hundreds of fans stood behind them with their phones out, occasionally trying to grab a quick photograph as the team passed by.
“It’s enough!” the acting head monk, Prayut Jetiyanukan, said over the loudspeaker system at the temple, Wat Pha That Doi Wao. Trying to keep a somber and respectful mood as the process to ordain the boys began, he added: “Fans! Please get back! They haven’t had a proper sleep in days and need their rest.”
Hundreds came from all over Thailand to get one of the first public glimpses of the Wild Boars, the small-town youth soccer team whose members survived more than two weeks in a flooded cave, riveting the world’s attention. Just a week after their release from the hospital, all but one of the boys began the ritual to serve as novice monks, or “nen.” Their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, will become a monk, rather than a novice, having spent almost 10 years in the monkhood.
Not undergoing the Buddhist ordination is Adul Sam-on, 14, a stateless Christian from Myanmar.
The entrance of the 11 into monkhood represented a new beginning after an ordeal that brought together thousands of volunteers from around the world and that thrust the young Thais into the international spotlight.
The 12 soccer players and their coach became trapped by rising water in the Tham Luang Cave on June 23. Two British divers found them in the complex 10 days later, sitting on a bank where they had survived off condensation from the cave walls. For the next week, a coalition of Thai navy SEAL members, foreign military teams and volunteer cave divers banded together to guide them out. On July 10, the last of those trapped were rescued and after 10 days under observation in a Chiang Rai hospital, they walked out as international celebrities.
“They realize their lives are not the same as before,” said Somsak Kanakham, the district chief of Mae Sai. “We are trying to do our best to guide them.”
Now they aim to show their appreciation through monkhood. In traditional Thai Buddhist culture, such an ordination can signify the repayment of a debt. For the boys, their time in the temple will honor Saman Gunan, a 38-year-old retired Thai navy SEAL member who died while stocking air tanks along the underwater escape route. They will spend nine days praying and performing charity work in a Buddhist monastery.
Traditionally, all Buddhist Thai men are meant to enter monkhood for a time at age 20. If they choose to do so earlier, they are “novice” monks taking time to reflect and pay homage. In the wake of the huge efforts to rescue them, the boys’ ordination is not unusual. Most Thais practice Theravada Buddhism and being ordained as a monk in someone’s honor is considered one of the highest tributes someone can give.
Mattia Salvini, a scholar of Buddhism at Mahidol University, outside Bangkok, said that many religious activities in countries that practice Theravada Buddhism are understood primarily in terms of making merit, or creating good karma.
In addition to making merit, another purpose of temporary ordination can be to better the karma of other people, including the deceased, by transferring merit to them, said Edoardo Siani, an anthropologist at Kyoto University who specializes in Buddhism in contemporary Thailand.
“On one side, ordination for them is a ritual of passage, which purifies them after having spent a long period in an underworld that is populated by dangerous spirits, and after having caused trouble to others,” Siani said by email.
Praphun Khomjoi, director of Chiang Rai’s office of Buddhism, said the objective was for the boys “to cleanse, pay tribute to Lt. Gunan and pay respect to the king.”
Buddhist practices came into play during the team’s ordeal, as well. Drawing from his years in the monkhood, Ekkapol, 25, taught the boys he coached to meditate in the cave to stay calm and pass the time while trapped.
As soon as their brief monkhood ends, the Wild Boars will begin new lives, most likely in the public eye.
“In monkhood they will have a period of peace,” said Somsak, the Mae Sai district chief. “After that, it will be a new life for all of us.”
For now, the Thai government has asked that the boys not be bothered. Officials have warned that anyone conducting unapproved interviews could face prosecution under Thailand’s child protection laws.
Several film companies have expressed interest in producing works based on the team’s experience, and the government has said it intends to vet such efforts.
In Mae Sai, local officials worry about how these offers may affect the town’s residents.
“Fame is dangerous,” Somsak said. “These people aren’t from rich families. It can be tempting when they get approached with money and benefits that they’ve never had before.”