BANGKOK — It was show time Thursday for the 12 boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach who were trapped for almost three weeks in a flooded cave in northern Thailand as they spoke at a public exhibition in one of Bangkok's largest malls.
That was just the start of the day for the small-town kids in the big-city capital. Later they were guests of honor at a gala outdoor reception hosted by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his wife that honored those involved in the dangerous and dramatic rescue of the members of the Wild Boars soccer team.
The exhibition, where the boys spoke to the public and reporters, features a reproduction of the cave with simulated sounds of water dripping. Equipment used by rescuers and other items are on display.
Psychologists had recommended that the boys be given a six-month respite after their rescue in July for the sake of their mental health. But Thailand's military government, eager to share the glory of the good-news story, has trotted them out for public appearances and interviews.
Other efforts to promote their story have included construction of a museum and the anointing as a national hero the former Thai navy SEAL who died while diving in the cave delivering oxygen tanks.
One exception to the feel-good vibe has been an ongoing feud between American tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and a British caving expert, Vernon Unsworth, whose advice and experience were considered crucial to the rescue operation.
Unsworth had criticized as boasting a well-publicized effort by Musk, the CEO of Tesla, Inc., to lend a custom-built mini-submarine to the rescue effort, and Musk responded on Twitter with comments implying that the Briton was a pedophile.
The matter was revived last week, when Musk — asked about the threat of a libel suit — doubled down on his accusations, suggesting in emails to the news website BuzzFeed that Unsworth was a "child rapist" and had moved to northern Thailand to take "a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time." He provided no evidence.
Musk, whose seemingly erratic behavior on other matters has drawn concern from investors, also told BuzzFeed in coarse terms that he hoped Unsworth sues him.
Unsworth, who attended Thursday's gala reception, declined to comment on matters pertaining to Musk.
Deputy government spokesman Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, who has been organizing the boys' appearances, responded with concern to Musk's comments highlighting Thailand as a destination for sex tourists.
"When there is this kind of perception we shouldn't overlook it. This reflects our image, which we have to fix. We won't blame him and say 'Oh, he said all those bad things,'" he said. "We should take this information and use it to make changes."
For the boys, mostly teenagers, the Musk controversy is not even a sideshow. They are carefully guided by a Thai government committee set up to control who has access to them as they draw attention from filmmakers and the media.
At least five of them said in more or less the same words at Thursday's mall forum that "my life is the same, but more people are approaching me."
The boys earlier detailed much of their experience at a news conference after they were released from hospital observation following their rescue, and in interviews with the U.S. television network ABC.
In their talk moderated by Weerachon in the Siam Paragon mall on Thursday, they gave mostly terse replies. Adul Sam-on acknowledged that the area where they were staying in the cave stank of urine — the matter of body excretions had been a subject of much chatter on social media.
The boys appeared to have been unaware of the government's initial advice to not pester them about their ordeal.
Adul said he was surprised when he met officials such as American diplomats who did not ask what happened in the cave. He said it was only later that someone told him there was a ban on asking them questions about it.
His teammate Ekarat Wongsukchan said he also was surprised that he had received no such questions. "I started to doubt whether I was also stuck in the cave," he said.
The government-organized "United as One" event saw the boys change from fashionable yellow polo shirts over long pants to standard Thai school uniforms consisting of button-down white shirts on top of knee-length shorts. They took to the stage stiffly to express their gratitude to King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and all who helped in their rescue.
A university band played popular tunes including "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "We Are the World" to a crowd that included U.S. and Australian service members in uniform who assisted in the rescue mission
On Friday the boys are scheduled to tour Bangkok's Grand Palace, a major destination for Thai and foreign tourists.