MAE SAI, Thailand: After she saw the news that 12 boys and their coach were trapped in Tham Luang cave in the border town of Mae Sai, 38-year-old Rawinmart Luelert sprang to action.
She bought food and drove 40 minutes from her village in the neighbouring town of Mae Chan to deliver to soldiers and volunteers involved in the rescue mission.
But Ms Rawinmart was dissatisfied, and felt she could do more. That was when she thought, why not do what she does best - washing clothes.
"The soldiers were shocked and they politely turned down my offer. They said ‘Our clothes are dirty and we don't want to trouble you'," she added, saying:
But I said 'It's ok, you're helping our boys, let me help you'.
READ: Rescue from Tham Luang, Channel NewsAsia’s interactive special on the unprecedented operation to save 12 boys and their football coach
The selflessness shown by ordinary Thais — particularly villagers from Mae Sai and nearby places — in coming forward to volunteer their time and efforts has impressed a global audience fixated on the rescue operations. So much so that it threatened to overshadow the mission itself, at times.
Everyone was trying to do their part, be it helping the rescuers to wash their uniforms, preparing food for them, or sacrificing their livelihoods — as some padi farmers did when water drained from the cave flooded their fields — and in the tragic case of former Thai navy SEAL Samarn Kunan, his life.
Even some Thais themselves, such as the soldiers, were surprised by the outpouring of goodwill — and that takes some doing, given how the generosity and warmth of the people in the Land of Smiles are known the world over.
Many, including the international media, were left wondering where such a strong show of solidarity came from.
Ms Sophia Thaianant, 56, a judge who also stepped forward to lend a hand, said she has "never seen such a scene in Thailand or in Chiang Rai, where the Thais rallied for a humanitarian cause". She said:
It's a very beautiful sight, to see people coming together as one.
To jubilation around the world, the boys and their coach were rescued on Jul 10, after being trapped in the cave for 17 days.
While the crisis brought out the best in them in all its full glory, such selflessness is second nature to the villagers. It is the Thai way of life, they say, and it is especially evident in a poor rural area where life can be such a struggle without the kindness of one another.
According to the World Bank, poverty in Thailand declined substantially over the last three decades from 67 per cent in 1986 to 7.2 per cent in 2015. However, poverty and inequality continue to pose significant challenges. As of 2014, more than 80 per cent of the country's 7.1 million poor live in rural areas.
Mr Nattee Wajawhan, 36, who owns an eatery selling Tom Yum noodle soup in Mae Sai explained it thus: From one generation to the next, the close-knit community has been raised to "share and care". He added:
Like how our grandparents do farming in the past. They will come together to help each other and do not expect payment.
Ms Suphaporn Chiangrin, 25, who runs a food cart in Mae Sai market selling roasted chestnuts also offered her own take. Thais try to find solutions instead of mulling over their problems, she said.
An evidence of this was how the country rallied together following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which left parts of Thailand devastated. She said:
We don't just sit by the side of the bed and weep. In the boys' case, they were alive. So we have to do something.
THE UNSUNG HEROES
To help wash the soldiers' uniforms, Ms Rawinmart and three of her employees worked for 21 hours — from 9am to 4am — everyday for 10 straight days.
Her factory has 14 washing machines and 15 dryers, and typically provide laundry services for hotels.
While she suffered a loss of income — she could not take on the usual orders — she stressed that making money was far from her mind during the period:
You feel good about it. I have no regrets.
For Ms Sophia, she has been lauded in the media for cooking halal food for Muslim volunteers involved in the rescue mission.
She said she came forward to do her part, after realising that more than 10,000 people from around the world were involved in the rescue efforts. There must be Muslims among them, she had thought. She ended up preparing food for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
For 12 days, she prepared 400 boxes of food for lunch and dinner each day. Help should never be rendered along racial or religious lines, she stressed.
"The community and society will be so weak and will never bond if somehow there is a gap or separation between ethnicities, nationalities, or religions," she said.
Ms Sophia herself hailed from Afghanistan. She and her family left the country in the 1980s to escape the Soviet invasion, and soon settled down in Chiang Rai. She is currently a Thai citizen.
READ: How the boys ended up in the cave
Her non-Thai features and attire — she typically wears headscarf and embroidered shalwar kameez, the Pakistani women's traditional attire — meant she would stand out among others living in Mae Sai, which lies on the northernmost tip of Thailand in the Chiang Rai province.
Even in the aftermath of the successful rescue mission, over 10,000 people turned up at the provincial government office in Mae Sai — located about 10 minutes' drive from the cave — to offer their assistance. There was a "huge inflow of requests to help", said a local government official who declined to be named.
READ: Relive the rescue
Some including 59-year-old housewife Nanapasorn Tatdechanon took a six-hour bus ride, travelling all the way from Chiang Mai province to register as a volunteer.
She was inspired by the stories of people offering assistance in any way they could, especially by Samarn, 38, who lost his life after coming out of retirement to help the other divers.
Samarn ran out of his own oxygen as he was placing oxygen tanks deep inside the cave.
"For Thais, we don't usually think of ourselves first. We care more about others, we want to make sure they have something to eat, their needs are met, and we are able to support them," Ms Nanapasorn said, adding:
We actually, don't want anything in return, because seeing them happy already brings joy to us. This feeling is worth more than money.
Ms Nanapasorn arrived in Mae Sai two Saturdays ago, and did not have any family members or friends living in the area. She had intended to go to a temple and look for a place to stay, after registering as a volunteer.
But in yet another example of Thai solidarity, housewife Alisa Thong-Ina, 27, who had chatted with Ms Nanapasorn while both were queueing to register, asked her stay over at her home.
Ms Alisa said she was concerned about Ms Nanapasorn's safety. "She doesn't know anyone here in Mae Sai. I have space, so why not share that with her? After all, she came here to do a good deed, so I don't see why I can't trust her," she added.
'POOR, BUT RICH IN SPIRIT'
To fully appreciate how Thais constantly look out for others, one needs to look no further than the Mae Sai market, which is a microcosm of Thai society.
There, the stallholders have one another's backs, and everyone is like family. For example, the run-down market gets flooded regularly during the rainy season, and stallholders not only try to ensure their own wares are safe from damage, they also keep an eye out for the other stalls as well.
"We have known each other for years, so it's good to keep a look out for each other. We do not just show solidarity in a major crisis, you know," said Mr Nattee.
He would sometimes hand out free bowls of Tum Yum noodle soup to his fellow vendors, he said. "Making a loss is the least of my concern", he said, adding:
When you show people you're sincere and gracious, they will help you in return if you're in difficulty.
Ms Suphaporn, the roasted chestnut seller, recounted how her neighbour once asked her to keep an eye on her house as she will be in Bangkok for a week.
Apart from agreeing to water her neighbour's plants and feed the cat, Ms Suphaporn also offered to clean her house.
My neighbour just smiled in return. Because she knows she would do the same for me. We have known each other for five years.
It is thanks to such selflessness, and genuine care and concern for others — even for strangers — that Ms Chanta Jaingim, 35, was able to see her son Duangpetch Promthep again.
Duangpetch, 13, was among the boys who were rescued from the cave.
Ms Chanta was overcome with emotion as she expressed her gratitude to the volunteers of the rescue mission.
As grateful as she was, she reiterated that the volunteers' actions should not come as a surprise to anyone. "People will flock to help when there is a smaller incident such as a house burning. So, I knew my fellow Thais would try their best to save the boys," said Ms Chanta who added:
I'm so happy, thank you, thank you everyone for caring for him, caring for the family.
The villagers in Mae Sai and its neighbouring areas may have little to shout about in terms of their standard of living, and material possessions. But Mr Nattee believes what they have in abundance is something that money cannot buy. He said:
We're not rich in terms of money and we're not that developed. But we're rich in spirit and generosity, which I don't think can be found in the richest of countries.
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