Mai Sai: Noy Kerdkaew has just started crying.
It’s two days since the 12 members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach were rescued from the Tham Luang cave, in this far flung corner of north-western Thailand that sits squarely within the Golden Triangle, and the 53-year-old rice farmer is talking to Fairfax Media about former Navy SEAL Saman Gunan, who lost his life in the rescue effort.
Behind her are some of the fields that have been flooded by more than 130 million litres of water pumped out of the cave to make the rescue possible.
Kerdkaew and her family have farmed in this region for generations, but she’s never been as far inside the cave as the boys and their coach were for those remarkable 17 days.
And, of course, she’s familiar with the local legend that the Khun Nam Nang Norn mountain, home to the cave, was formed centuries ago when a pregnant local princess stabbed herself in the heart and died after her father had her stablehand lover killed.
“This water that runs through my farm is the blood of the princess,” she says.
“The story has been told from my grandparents to my parents and also passed to me. The story, it's more than 200 years old.”
She, like everyone who lives in the shadow of the lying lady – the mountain does vaguely look like a woman has lain down on the ground – has been deeply affected by the events of recent weeks.
“I [was] so sad, especially when I saw video [of] that mum shouting ‘I’ve come to get you back, please come back’ in front of the cave. I cried out. I imagined that the boys are my sons and I would be like that as well.”
Thai authorities have flooded more farms like Kerdkaew’s, but she doesn’t care that her crops are damaged, nor is she particularly fussed about the compensation offered by the government.
The only thing that mattered was getting the boys out.
“I can always grow again, but life cannot.”
“I'm fine because the boys are safe. I'm still here, I can grow a crop again, I'm just so happy that the boys get out of the cave safely. Compare the loss of rice with Sergeant Saman's family," she starts crying. "I lose the farm but his family lost his life. He's the real hero of Tham Luang cave.”
“He will be in my heart forever and I will pass his story to my grandchild, how he sacrificed his life to save 13 of the boys."
Kerdkaew’s view is unanimous – at least among the people Fairfax Media spoke to – in the small town of Mai Sai, and the nearby villages that live under the shadow of the mountain, on the Thai-Myanmar border.
From the day the boys went missing, to their miraculous discovery by two British divers, to the frantic rescue effort to save them – through flood waters, thick mud, heavy rain, diminishing oxygen levels within the cave, and a sense that the operation was effectively “mission impossible” – locals pulled together and donated thousands of hours of labour to help rescuers.
Conditions at the base camp outside the cave, where the multinational divers, military and the world’s media were set-up were tough – thick mud was everywhere, the squat toilets and general sanitation was very poor, a hot sun, north of 30 degrees, beat down every day and when the rain did come, it was torrential, drenching everything.
But these conditions offered only a hint of how bad it was inside the cave, which was much warmer, flooded, hard to breath in, dark and difficult to navigate and so narrow at some dive points that divers had to take off their air tanks and pass them forward. The fate of the trapped 13 hung heavily over the camp and when it was announced that Saman had died, on July 6, it seemed the rescue may simply be impossible.
The faces of the army of volunteers who were handing out free food and water told the story, as did the pursed lips and focused eyes of the military men and the divers who strode around camp with measured purpose, brushing aside media inquiries and seemingly not noticing the thick mud, super-heated by the hot Thai sun.
In the end, more than 10,000 people participated in the rescue, including 2000 soldiers, 200 divers and representatives from 100 government agencies.
Overhead, 30 teams combed the roof of the mountain to try to find an air shaft that could allow the boys to be winched to freedom. To no avail.
And talk again turned to whether it was practical for the boys to remain in the cave until the wet season ended, months down the track.
When rescue mission chief Narongsak Osottanakorn said that might mean the boys could be waiting until January or February to get out, it became apparent the only option was for divers to help them swim and dive their way to freedom, perilous though the conditions were.
At that point, the pace of the rescue operation kicked up a notch and at 10am on Sunday, the mission to free the boys from their perch, approximately 3.2 kilometres inside the cave, was launched.
A huge range of equipment, including plastic cocoons, floating stretchers and a rope guide line were used to free the players from the cave.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha confirmed the team-mates were given anti-anxiety medication before they began the journey out.
Two divers assisted each novice swimmer and many, many more divers stationed all along the route helped them reach chamber three, the main operations base for the dive teams, from where they could be carried out on stretchers.
Australian Federal Police divers, who played a key support role in the rescue mission and also helped move more than 40 tonnes of equipment into the cave's third chamber, told Fairfax Media that once the boys reached that point, there were more than 150 people inside the cave – Thais, Australians, Americans, Chinese and more.
Gauze covered their eyes to protect them from harsh sunlight after more than two weeks in the dark, and diving masks were left on to ensure the boys received extra oxygen.
From chamber three to the exit, a distance of about 1.5 kilometres, people "literally formed a line, passing them hand to hand", one of the divers said.
"We were checking as they passed to make sure their air gauges were still full," another Australian diver said.
The four to five hour initial journey into chamber three had, by the end, been cut down to about 40 minutes as fewer dives were required and because stairs were cut into the mud, while guide ropes were attached to the walls.
South Australian doctor and cave diver Richard Harris and his dive buddy, Perth vet Craig Challen, played a much-celebrated key role in the rescue mission too.
On the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday when the boys came out, four at a time for the first two days and then the final five on Tuesday, Harris and Challen swam and dived all the way to the boys to perform medical checks and give final clearance before each operation began.
In a further, awful twist, Dr Harris' father died on Tuesday evening, soon after his son's heroics in the miracle rescue from Tham Luang. When Fairfax Media met the doctor on Wednesday morning, he politely declined to speak about his role.
By the time the 11 to 16-year-old boys and their 25-year-old coach were discovered, they had survived for eight days on water from the cave walls and were strung out and emaciated, having lost a significant amount of body weight.
But remarkably, despite their travails, just three of the boys were diagnosed with mild pneumonia, once they had reached hospital, and they were generally healthy. Video emerged in the days after of the boys sitting in hospital beds, chatting and waving in surgical gowns and wearing faith masks, skinny but on the road to recovery.
Major General Chalongchai Chaiyakham, deputy commander of the Thai 3rd Army region, said afterwards "the most important piece of the rescue was good luck," and that "so many things could have gone wrong, but somehow we managed to get the boys out".
"I still can't believe it worked," he said.
Approriately enough, it was the Thai Navy SEALs – three of whose number had volunteered to stay in the cave each day after they were discovered, along with a Thai military doctor, who announced the boys had been saved.
"12 Wild Boars and the coach out of the cave. Everyone safe," the unit wrote on its Facebook page, adding a "Hooyah!", the unit's signature chant that had been heard for days on end at base camp, for effect.
And cheers rang out hours later, again, as Narongsak announced during a press conference later that night that the three SEALs and Thai doctor had exited the cave.
“Nobody thought we could do it. It was a world first,” Narongsak said.
“It was mission possible for Team Thailand."
Inside the cave as the final Navy SEAL emerged, a member of the Australian diving team told Fairfax Media that a huge roar began deep in the cave and reverberated down to the entrance as the mission was completed.
"I was right down the bottom but you could hear all the cheers," one of the divers said.
"It was like a Mexican wave when we got the last diver out, that's when the cheers and shouting happened."
But even at the end, as more than 100 rescue workers inside the cave celebrated their moment of triumph, nature delivered a final reminder of just how dangerous their mission was.
At about 10pm on Tuesday, some of the pumps, which had been working 24 hours a day for more than a week to expel water from the cave, failed and the water levels quickly began to rise.
Workers were forced to flee the complex.
A member of the Australian diving team said of that final, perilous moment: "There were 100 guys running down the hill and the water was coming. The water was noticeably rising."
A hasty exit was made, out into the open air.
The rescue was complete.
And as the mother of one of the boys, Mongkol "Mark" Boonpiam, told Fairfax Media on Friday: "All the parents here are very happy now, all of them [the boys] are nearly the same condition."
That happiness is a sentiment that all of Thailand – and millions of people around the world who watched in hope and dread as the rescue unfolded – shared.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent, based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions.