By Patpicha Tanakasempipat
CHIANG RAI (Reuters) - Memorabilia featuring a young Thai football team and their coach rescued from a flooded cave is flying off the shelves, said Suwit Jaipom, who heads an art gallery in the northern province of Chiang Rai, where the boys live.
The 12 boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, who went missing on June 23 while exploring a cave complex, were rescued last week during a perilous three-day mission by foreign and Thai divers that gripped viewers around the world.
"There is quite some demand for memorabilia," Suwit, the president of Art Bridge Chiang Rai, which began taking orders last week for T-shirts featuring the team, told Reuters. "The fastest product we could make is the T-shirts."
The gallery has produced 2,000 T-shirts that also carry the word "HERO" emblazoned in red, in memory of Samarn Kunan, a volunteer diver who died on July 6, after losing consciousness during a mission to place oxygen tanks deep inside the cave.
With each T-shirt sold for 200 baht (£4.5), net profit from the sales will come to 200,000 baht, and is destined for charitable activities, added Suwit, who is also an artist.
But there are no plans to sell more T-shirts or ask the boys to model the garment, he said.
"If we push further, it will be commercial, which I don't want to happen," said Suwit. "People who buy it just want to show support for the heroes," he said.
The group, whom Thais view as national treasures, were discharged from hospital on Wednesday and are recovering at home, where they are expected to remain for around a month.
No copyright issues have arisen so far, said Suwit, adding that he did not seek permission from the boys or their families.
Reuters could not reach the provincial governor, who is helping to represent the boys' interests, to seek comment.
A canvas on display outside the gallery commemorates the dramatic rescue mission that drew in hundreds of participants, including divers from around the world.
Suwit hopes the 13-meter (43-ft) -long painting, which features the rescuers, including the British divers who first found the boys, will be a "chronicle of history."
"This is so everyone can know and appreciate what happened here and not forget it so easily."
There are few signs of cave memorabilia fever in Bangkok, the capital, but people hope the boys' good fortune will rub off on them, with some buying national lottery tickets featuring numbers associated with the rescue, such as the "lucky" 13.
(Additional reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng and Panu Wongcha-um in BANGKOK; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Clarence Fernandez)