Thailand's famous rescue cave has become a tourist hotspot

Andrea Smith
Lonely Planet Writer

It can be hard to predict the unlikely attractions that will lure visitors, but a cave in northern Thailand that dominated the news earlier this year has become an unlikely hotspot. The Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai hit the headlines when 12 members of a youth football team and their coach were trapped in it by flood waters for 17 days in June, and now that it has reopened, visitors are flocking to it.

The Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai has become a tourist hotspot. Image: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

Set in Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non forest park at the base of forested hills, the cave complex reopened on 16 November, although visitors are not allowed inside Tham Luang cave itself. Over 100 stalls selling souvenirs, T-shirts and food have set up along the road that leads to it as thousands are thronging to see the cave that was beamed into homes around the world for two weeks. When it reopened, the visitors laid flowers near the entrance to the cave.

Shrines appeared in Tham Luang cave area while the rescue operation was ongoing. Photo by Ye Aung Thu via Getty

People around the word were gripped when the “Wild Boars” soccer team, aged between 11 and 16 and their 25-year-old coach became trapped while exploring the cave complex.  A rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels, and after a perilous rescue operation by Navy Seal divers, they were found on a muddy bank several kilometres inside the cave complex. Sadly, diver Saman Gunan lost his life in the rescue attempt.

The inside of the limestone cave. Photo by Linh Pham/Getty Images

Work is currently underway on a museum commemorating Saman and celebrating the rescue, and a tented resort for visitors is also being built near the entry road to the park. Locals are delighted with the boost to the local economy, as although attempts were made previously to make Tham Luang into a popular tourist attraction, it never captured the imagination the way it has now.

The boys safely recuperating in hospital. Image by Thai government

Visitors can now see Tham Luang cave through a chain-link fence, and can explore three of the park’s other caves, named Buddha, Naga and Chamois.