Street Food Cooks, The Everyday Heroes Of The Thailand Cave Rescue

Posted: Jul 22, 2018

Street food cooks turned out to be some of the everyday heroes of the recent Thailand cave rescue, demonstrating altruism, generosity and a selflessness of spirit that touched those who followed the dramatic events. There are lessons to be learnt from them…

Few news stories have gripped people right around the world for weeks like the recent Thailand cave rescue that saved twelve young members of the Wild Boars football team. The boys and their coach had spent nine days trapped on a muddy ledge, four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the entrance to the flooded Tham Luang cave near Mae Sai in northern Thailand when British divers discovered them on the 2nd July.

Despite the bittersweet ending, it was the good news story we all needed in a world that has been very depressing of late. It reminded us that people can come together to do some good without personal gain. In many ways, it restored our faith in humanity.

There were countless heroes involved in the Thai cave rescue. But for some reason I was most touched by the efforts of the Thai street food cooks and other local volunteers whose livelihoods rather than lives were at stake, who would turn out to be the everyday heroes of this story.

Perhaps it was partly due to my fondness for street food. I loved that when the hungry boys, who were recovering from their ordeal in hospital in Chiang Rai, were first asked what they wanted to eat, most requested the Thai street food favourite phad kra pao, holy basil stir fry.

There were many heroes in the real life drama that was the recent Thailand cave rescue. There was the assistant coach of the Wild Boars soccer team, Ekkapol ‘Ek’ Chantawong, of the Shan ethnic minority from Myanmar. Initially blamed for taking the young adventurers into the cave (Thais, like most Southeast Asian Buddhists, are a very forgiving lot), Ek starved, giving the boys all the food the group had to sustain them, and guided the kids through daily meditations to calm them.

There was the retired Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Guran, who volunteered to the Thai cave rescue efforts out of a sense of duty. He died after depositing oxygen tanks for divers along the rescue route, having run out of oxygen himself. A photograph was released yesterday of the solemn-faced boys with his portrait after they were informed of his sacrifice to save them.

There were five Thai divers and an array of 13 international divers who came from other parts of Thailand and beyond to volunteer to the Thai cave rescue, including the British divers who discovered the boys, and Australian divers, such as Richard Harris, an anaesthetist. Harris assessed and monitored the boys’ health and prepared them for the 3-day rescue operation. The last to leave the cave, he emerged to learn his father had passed away.

By the end of what was an incredibly risky and dangerous operation, many of us who had been glued to their televisions and smart phones knew the names of those heroes. Yet there were many hundreds of other everyday heroes – media reports say up to a thousand people were involved in the entire operation – who volunteered their time and more. They made sacrifices yet their stories probably won’t get told and we won’t remember their names.

There was the poor farmer who said he didn’t mind his rice paddies being flooded with water pumped out of the cave if it could help save the Wild Boars’ lives. There were the local blokes who volunteered to pump the water out of the cave who had no choice but to direct it into the farmer’s fields, already flooded from the annual monsoon rains. They said they’d continue to work to pump the water right back out again once the operation was over.

Along with the image of the farmer I first spotted on social media, which had been shared with a collage of others on the Facebook page of Anindya Ghose, it was the image of a street food cook on a motorbike, riding his mobile kitchen up a steep muddy track that choked me up. The reverse shot, which showed half a dozen people, including policemen, soldiers and local volunteers helping to push the bike and cart up the steep slippery slope, brought tears to my eyes.

That food vendor, along with a hundred or so other mobile street food cooks who converged on the mountain to make hearty, comforting hot meals for free for the volunteers, may not have been risking his life as the divers were, but he was risking his livelihood. In the rural areas of Thailand, as well as Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, country people live a markedly different life to the better-off residents of the capitals and other large cities.

Street food cooks like the woman at Battambang’s main market, above, struggle to eke out a living each day. If they earn just a little less than they would on an average day, they might slip close to the poverty line. If disaster strikes, say, a member of the family is injured or their home is destroyed in floods, they might drop beneath the poverty line.

One street food cook in a Battambang village has a creekside corner stall where she makes and sells delicious, deep-fried, sesame-coated banana fritters. When we go to seek her out on my culinary tours we never know if she’ll be there because sometimes she simply can’t afford to go to work – it might cost her more money to purchase ingredients and in motorbike fuel to travel to the location and set up her stall than she might make that day.

Yet when we do find our Battambang banana fritter lady at her stall and place an order, she’ll not only give us a large portion, she’ll fry us her special mashed, double-fried banana fritter, even if it takes her twice as long to prepare as the usual fritters. You’d think that a woman on the poverty line would be more frugal, but if anything she’s incredibly generous, and we show our appreciation with a generous tip.

In my experience in Cambodia and neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, the poorest people are often the most giving and hospitable. Once, on a visit to a family who ran a small cottage industry, I followed the garlicky aromas emanating from the rustic kitchen to find the matriarch of the household wok-frying morning glory. It was the family’s lunch – just morning glory and rice. Yet she presented me with a big bowl of the delicious hot greens.

Another woman we visit regularly, a rice-paper maker, rarely lets me leave without a bag of rice paper or one of her beloved sweet Battambang pineapples. Did you know they take two years to grow? I do now. And I appreciate her gesture. We’ve always discretely tipped her, as our visits take up her working time. But recently she’s tried to refused our gifts, because she says we’re like family now.

Those street food cooks in Northern Thailand who rode hundreds of kilometres to feed complete strangers for free, out of the goodness of their hearts, are of the same mould as the Cambodian villagers who think nothing of giving something despite having so little to give.

There are lessons there for everyone that will make us all richer in spirit.

By Lara Dunston
July 17, 2018

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