“Waiting to be rescued, I sang How Great is Our God thousands of times”: Thai cave survivor Adul Sam-on
Silas Low // March 26, 2021, 10:13 am
The dramatic search and rescue of Adul Sam-on, 11 members of his soccer team and their coach trapped in a Thai cave in June 2018 thrust them into the international spotlight and changed their lives. Adul, the only English speaker in the group, communicated with the rescuers when they were found nine days later. All photos courtesy of Adul Sam-on unless otherwise stated.
The darkness was overwhelming. The silence deafening. The air was cold.
This was how Adul Sam-on, then 14, described being trapped in the Tham Luang cave underneath a mountain range in Chiang Rai, Thailand, with no way out.
On June 23, 2018, Adul, his eleven teammates from the Wild Boars football team – between the ages of 11 and 17 – and their assistant coach, 25, went to explore the snaking 10.3km-long cave system. But were forced deeper in and stranded by rising waters.
As the Thai cave boys – as they came to be known – lost count of days in the dark and hoped to be found, the world prayed, watched and waited as the dramatic search and rescue efforts by Thai and international teams unfolded.
But for Adul, now 17, his story of hope began a long time before the cave incident three years ago.
Across the border
Adul was born in the southern region of the self-governing Wa state of Myanmar. It shares the border with Thailand.
When Adul was three years old, his parents gave his auntie, Yex Kap Htane, their blessings to take Adul across the border to Thailand to give him a shot at a better life.
Yex and her husband, Ps Go Shin Maung, raised Adul as their own, becoming his “second set of parents”.
The couple, now in their 40s, received a calling from God to move from Myanmar to Chiang Rai to start Maesai Grace Church for Wa migrants.
Adul’s story of hope began a long time before the cave incident.
They also started a schooling programme to care for and give a brighter future to the children of Wa natives who have either moved to Mae Sai to work or who are stuck in Wa.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, Wa was notorious for inducting children into its military wing.
“These children don’t even have a chance to grow up and straight away they become child soldiers,” Ps Go told Salt&Light. “That is no future for a child.”
Adul grew up enjoying a childhood and getting a basic education that he would not have had in Wa.
Life, according to Adul, was simple and laid back. He attended classes from morning till afternoon before soccer practice. Afterwards, he would return to the church hostel for dinner and quiet time before turning in for the night.
No way out
That simple life would never be the same after June 23, 2018.
The Wild Boars had just finished a training session and decided to explore a favourite haunt – the Tham Luang cave – with their assistant coach. The boys and their coach had often wandered deep into the snaking 10.3km-long cave system.
What was supposed to be an hour-long excursion turned into a 17-day ordeal.
A flash flood forced the 13 deeper into the cave. The rising water level made it impossible for them to retrace their steps out of the cave. They were not able to find an alternative way out.
“What might be surprising is that none of us really panicked,” Adul told Salt&Light. “We just figured that we’d wait until the tide dropped, even if it’s for a night.”
When night fell, their worried parents started scrambling and asking each other: “Where were the Wild Boars?”
When they realised that the boys might have been stuck in the cave, they rushed to its entrance, where they discovered the boys’ bikes and belongings.
Adul’s simple life would never be the same after June 23, 2018.
Over at Maesai Grace Church, Ps Go’s initial reaction to the news was one of shock. All he could think of was to pray for their safety.
Ps Go mobilised prayer groups across the church to fast and intercede for the boys. He and other church members took turns to wait outside the cave for updates from the authorities.
Ps Go and his wife struggled to explain to Adul’s parents what exactly was happening. Communication was slow as Adul’s parents back in Wa had little access to the internet.
Ps Go and his wife also struggled with assuring them that their son would be safe, and the weight of guilt and responsibility if Adul did not make it out alive. Their nights were sleepless while Adul was trapped.
Someone will come
The group in the cave were marooned on an elevated rock 4km from its entrance. On some days, they felt hopeful. On others, not quite so.
He must have prayed The Lord’s Prayer and sung How Great is Our God “thousands of times” in the cave.
Doubt and panic grew the longer they waited, said Adul.
“It’s been so long. Really? Is nobody coming?” they would say.
They knew that they were stuck. Their way into the cave was probably inaccessible.
What they did not know was that a monumental search and rescue effort was mounting outside the cave. It involved 10,000 people. They included the Thai navy, army, airforce and police, engineers, geologists, rescue specialists – from Thailand and overseas – and cave divers from countries that included Singapore, the UK, Belgium and Australia.
The search was complicated by heavy rainfall flooding the cave, cutting off rescuers from parts of it.
Adul, the only Christian in the group, turned to prayer and worship. He looked for a small space away from the others where he could do this.
“When the panic first set in, I just felt like I had to talk to God,” he said. “He gave me a very strong belief that someone would come for us.
Ps Go mobilised prayer groups across the church to fast and intercede for the boys.
“Even though the doubts and fears were there, this strange belief, something I never felt before the cave, was the strongest thing I felt.”
Adul also relied on The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) and one of his favourite songs, How Great is Our God, for strength. He said that he must have prayed and sung them “thousands of times” in the cave.
In one of those quiet moments in the dark, he received a revelation about God’s plan.
“I couldn’t see much in the cave, and I realised that’s quite similar to how I can’t see God in real life. But I have to trust that He’s going to show His power and goodness at the end.”
Trapped without food
The group were trapped without food. They drank water dripping from the cave ceiling.
“I like how Jesus overcame his hunger and thirst just by praying and talking to God.”
As the days passed, the group found their hunger increasingly difficult to bear. Adul was encouraged by the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert. (Matthew 4:1-11).
“I like how Jesus overcame his hunger and thirst just by praying and talking to God.”
Looking back, Adul said: “Jesus had no food and drink for 40 days. I was only in there for a few days; I probably could have stayed for a while longer.”
Happy to see someone else
Thankfully, Adul and friends did not have to stay longer than 17 days. On July 2, 2018 – nine days after being trapped – a pair of British divers found the group.
Adul immediately bounced up when he saw the heads of two divers break the surface of the water.
“I was just so happy to see someone else.”
Adul was the only English-speaker in the group. Through him, the others told the divers they wanted food, and learnt how long they had been in the cave.
Camera footage of the divers’ exchange with Adul and the group went viral when it was first released, bringing jubilation to millions around the world who were anxiously following the massive search effort. Adul captured hearts with his politeness and ability to speak English. He had picked up conversational English while interacting with missionaries who had visited Maesai Grace. He also speaks Thai, Burmese, Mandarin and Wa.
The divers spent some time with them before leaving their lights behind, along with promises to return with food and help.
When Ps Go heard the news that the boys were alive, he was able to assure Adul’s parents that their son was safe.
“God showed that He’s faithful, He answered our prayers,” said Ps Go.
“Sometimes I forget that I really didn’t do anything to deserve this. All I did was get stuck in a cave!”
Rescuers then strategised how to bring the 13 – who had no experience diving – out of the flooded, rocky and winding labyrinth that would more than challenge even experienced cave divers. It was was deemed mission impossible by many.
The death of a former Thai Navy Seal diver – who lost consciousness after placing oxygen tanks along the rescue route – highlighted the danger and risk of the extraction. Later in the year, a Thai Navy Seal would die from a blood infection he contracted during the operation.
Rescuers had to move quickly with more rain expected to totally flood the cave. In a complex, elaborate operation that involved a chain of nearly 100 divers, the group were extracted from the labyrinth in stages over three days.
Each Wild Boar was given a full-face mask to ensure that they could breathe, was secured to a stretcher and sedated to prevent them from panicking.
The last boy and the coach were released from the cave on July 10, 2018. Their ordeal had lasted 17 days.
A new life, a new continent
Adul’s life now is a far cry from what it was before the cave incident. He attributes it solely to God.
“Sometimes I forget that I really didn’t do anything to deserve this. All I did was get stuck in a cave!” he said half in jest.
“But then I remember that this is God blessing me and I am just so grateful.”
“God showed that He’s faithful, He answered our prayers.”
Adul, who was previously considered stateless in Thailand, was granted Thai citizenship, along with two of the Wild Boars and their coach.
He has also been blessed by a family in the United States who were moved to sponsor his college education and boarding. He moved to New York state last year, and will soon be entering his sophomore year.
As part of his gratitude to God, Adul sees it as his duty to share his story.
Already, it has borne fruit. Adul’s English tutor came to accept Christ and was baptised at Maesai Grace, said Ps Go.
Adul hopes that his story will inspire many more.
“We can’t believe in God only after He does something amazing. We have to believe in Him even though we can’t see or know what He’s doing,” he said.
For Adul, that was especially when the darkness was overwhelming, the silence deafening and the air was cold.