Monk turned football coach Ekkapol is a man without a country
Schooled as a monk and now hailed a hero, football coach Ekkapol Chantawong is one of several stateless members of the "Wild Boars", a team whose survival after days trapped in flooded Tham Luang cave, fixated a country that does not recognise them as citizens.
Coach Ek, the 25-year-old who was among the last to emerge from the cave on Tuesday, has been lauded for keeping the young footballers calm as starvation loomed in the dark.
He was the only adult with the boys when they entered the cave on June 23 until they were found nine days later by British divers on a muddy bank deep inside the cave complex.
As he waited his turn to undertake the dangerous exit from the Tham Luang complex, Thai people outside celebrated him as a modest, devout, and duty-bound member of the Mae Sai community.
In a letter addressed to parents of the boys, Ekkapol wrote: “To all the parents, all the kids are still fine. I promise to take the very best care of the kids.”
"From all the parents, please take care of all the children. Don't blame yourself," said a letter to him from the boys' relatives released on July 7.
In reply he scrawled a note apologising to the parents, and vowing to take "the very best care of the kids".
Parents of the trapped younger boys have refused to blame Ekkapol,
The touching note won the hearts of the Thai public - a group to which he is yet to officially belong.
Coach Ek, who is ethnic Tai Lue, is yet to give his version of the remarkable events of the last few weeks.
Forged in hardship
Affectionately called “Ake”, the assistant coach was orphaned and had a rough upbringing.
Ekkapol was just 10 years old when he lost his entire family.
His seven-year-old brother died, followed by his mother, then his father a year later, due to an illness that swept through their home.
Sad and lonely, as his aunt describes him, the little boy was then sent two years later to a Buddhist monastery, as Thai tradition dictates.
He left the Buddhist clergy before becoming a full monk in order to look after his grandmother in Mae Sai. He is fond of meditation, trekking and the outdoors life, according to monk Ekkapol Chutinaro who roomed with his namesake as a novice.
"We would trek to the jungle, he would always bring a thumb-sized parcel of chilli paste and sticky rice and we would stay there for a couple of days," he recalled of his friend.
Wild Boar diaries
Afterwards, Ekkapol later became a coach with the Wild Boars.
Ekkapol treated the boys well. Many of them had grown up poor or were stateless ethnic minorities, common in this border area between Myanmar and Thailand.
“He loved them more than himself,” a longtime friend of Ekapol’s said.
“He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke. He was the kind of person who looked after himself and who taught the kids to do the same.”
“I know him, and I know he will blame himself,” said another of Ekkapol’s friend at the monastery.
As a football coach he is regarded as a generous and patient teacher willing to help even the least skilled kids.
But as a citizen of nowhere he cannot yet gain his full coaching qualifications.
"He is stateless. No nationality. No country," added Wild Boars' founder Nopparat.
The UNHCR says Thailand is home to around 480,000 stateless people.
The Bangkok Post and the Mothership contributed to this report