Eleven boys from a football team rescued from a flooded Thai cave in a drama that gripped global audiences were ordained as Buddhist novices on Wednesday in memory of a volunteer diver who died during their rescue.
The Wild Boars football team and their 25-year-old coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, arrived at the Wat Phra That Doi Tung temple in Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district dressed in white robes amid light rain and fog.
The group listened to Buddhist chanting before they were given saffron robes to wear during an emotionally-charged ceremony that was broadcast live on Facebook by local authorities.
The group had their hair shaved a day earlier in preparation to become novice Buddhist monks.
'Their lives will change now. This experience will help them to appreciate their parents and give them a taste of Dhamma,' said Manit Prakobkit, vice chairman of the Mae Sai Cultural Council.
Staying in various monasteries until August 4, the boys and their coach will spend nine days - nine is considered a lucky number in Thailand - praying, meditating and cleaning their temple.
They will adhere to the teachings and precepts of Buddhism, which is Thailand's main religion.
A total of 11 out of 12 of the rescued boys took part, with fourteen-year-old Adul Sam-on not be ordained because he is Christian.
'The eleven boys will be ordained as novices, whereas Coach Ek will be ordained as a monk,' Rachapol Ngamgrabuan, an official at Chiang Rai's provincial press office, told viewers on Facebook.
The coach had spent time in a monastery as a novice before today's ceremony.
An international operation to rescue the 12 boys and their coach ended on July 10 when the last of the group was brought to safety from inside the flooded Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai.
During the rescue operation, the boys' families promised that, in return for their safe rescue and in memory of diver Samarn Kunan, 38, the boys would ordain as novices.
Samarn, a former member of Thailand's elite navy SEALs unit, was the only casualty in the operation to save the boys and their coach after monsoon rains trapped them inside the cave.
At the temple on Wednesday the boys helped each other to put on their new garments in a ceremony attended by their relatives and Samarn's wife, Valeepoan Kunan.
The ceremony ended with attendees and temple visitors scrambling to collect pockets of coins scattered into the air - a custom in Thai ordination ceremony to signify giving up worldly treasures - with most catching the pockets in their umbrellas.
Solemn pictures on Tuesday showed them praying in front of ancient relics and offering drinks and desserts placed in gilded bowls to spirits at a temple in northern Thailand.
'It's something we've been thinking to do since they got out of the cave,' Aisha Wiboonrungrueang, mother of 11-year-old Chanin, told AFP. 'Now it's about time.'
'Ordinations are supposed to give us peace of mind,' said Sangiemjit Wongsukchan, mother of Ekarat Wongsukchan, 14, one of the boys who was trapped in the cave.
'We can only do this for nine days because then he will have to go back to study and prepare for exams. Back to his normal life.'
The ordination is intended to be a 'spiritual cleansing' for the group.
'They should spend time in a monastery. It's for their protection,' Seewad Sompiangjai, grandfather of Night, one of the rescued boys, told the BBC, adding: 'It's like they died but now have been reborn.'
The boys and their coach lit yellow candle sticks and trays of sweets, fruits and sugary drinks were placed in front of Buddha statues wrapped in shiny gold cloth.
Buddhism is followed by more than 90 per cent of the Thai population.
Traditionally, many Thai men are ordained as Buddhist monks once they came of age - a practice thought to bring blessings and honour to Thai Buddhist families.
The 12 boys, aged 11 to 16, were discharged from a hospital last week and have been spending time at home. They spoke of their ordeal last week at a news conference organised by the Thai government.
The boys and their 25-year-old coach Ekapol Chanthawong had gone to explore the caves on June 23, where they became trapped. They survived for nine days on water dripping from rocks before they were discovered on a muddy mound by divers.
The heroic divers involved in the successful rescue of 12 Thai soccer players and their coach from an underwater cave have been awarded Australia's highest honour.
Adelaide anaesthetist Dr Richard Harris and his dive partner Dr Craig Challen received the rare double honour of the Medal of the Order of Australia and the Star of Courage for their roles in the daring rescue.
They were among an international team of experts who freed the trapped boys and their 25-year-old coach from the cave complex in Tham Luang earlier this month.
Seven divers from the Australian Federal Police - Troy Eather, Robert James, Kelly Boers, Benjamin Cox, Matthew Fitzgerald, Justin Bateman and Chris Markcrow - were given a bravery medal.
Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove presented the medals to those involved in the mission, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in attendance at Tuesday's ceremony at Government House in Canberra.
Sir Peter said the divers showed 'Australian values and human qualities we cherish' during their efforts, The Australian reported.
'Our fellow Australians, along with Thai citizens and the men and women of other nations conducted a thrilling rescue of helpless young men, themselves strong and brave, and in doing so captivated the world,' Sir Peter said.
'We think that you were remarkable - skilful, tireless, compassionate and courageous. Your nation is so proud of you. Today, Australia salutes you.'
Secretary to the Governor-General, Mark Fraser, said the rescue required 'character, grit and determination'.
'They brought the faces of 13 young men back into the sunshine and into the arms of their loved ones,' he said.
Speaking to those gathered at the ceremony, Mr Turnbull said the rescuers were 'our heroes', the ABC reported.
'During the World Cup the most inspiring story about football was not in Russia, it was in Thailand. And the most inspiring teams were not Les Bleus but the Wild Boars, and you,' Mr Turnbull said.
'Your first dives were done without a proper guide rope. There was no defined path through those dark waters. You had to feel your way through the twists and turns of the cave system, with the very real threat all the time of being tangled and trapped.
'It's impossible to overstate how dangerous was your task.'
Dr Harris emphasised how crucial teamwork was in the rescue.
'We just went cave diving for a few days and were able to get the kids out … these awards have been completely unexpected and we're just trying to emphasise how big a part so many people played in this,' he said.
It is the first time the rescuers have been reunited since returning to Australia on July 13.
Sydney-based Chief Petty Officer Eather was a key figure in Operation Thailand Assist, having been involved in a number of significant mission since joining the Navy in 1991.
Thailand's ambassador to Australia and Australia's ambassador to Thailand, along with the acting chief of the Defence Force and acting Australian Federal Police commissioner were also in attendance.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.