If you weren’t on a social media break the whole of 2018, you most likely read about the 12 young footballers and their assistant coach rescued from being trapped in an underground cave in northern Thailand. The incident gained international attention and was recently the subject of a Netflix film.
The rescue mission involved several divers, cave experts, and paramedics. And unknown to many, there was a Filipino involved in the rescue effort, a teacher and rock climber by the name of Christoffer John “Cedjie” Aquino who at that time has been based in Thailand for 17 years.
Cedjie received a call from the Chiang Rai Governor’s office then. “They were asking for volunteers who were skilled in rock climbing, with complete gear, and ready to climb 600 to 800 meters,” the Davaoeño recalled to Metro.Style in an interview a month after the rescue. The challenge: to look for holes up on the mountain, that could serve as possible entry and exit points for those stranded.
Cedjie learned rock climbing during his high school and college years, so with fellow climbers Sorn Yodkhamman and Challermchai Phoungphai, he decided to respond to the call. With their climbing gears, the three men took a nine-hour long drive from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, and trekked through the thick jungle that led to the site.
“The entrance to the hole was about 36 cm wide—barely enough for a grown man to squeeze through,” Cedjie recalled. But he and Chai faced the task head on. They crawled into the narrow space while their bodies were attached to a rope, and with only their headlights to guide them.
“We crawled for hours, unsure where it would lead us and if we would even be able to get back,” Cedjie recalled in the same interview. “Thirty meters or so deep, there was a time we were considering that it would be a one-way trip. In my mind, I already started thinking if that was what it was like to die a slow death. I had started thinking of questions to ask when I met God.”
Almost two days down the hole, they got news that the kids had been found, alive and safe, by British divers, who had also volunteered to help.
ANCX had the chance to meet Cedjie in Bangkok last December during a flight organized and sponsored by AirAsia and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Over dinner, the former Atenista told us about his life in Thailand over the last two decades, how living there changed his outlook, and why he decided to stay in the Land of Smiles for good.
It wasn’t teaching or rock climbing that brought Cedjie to Thailand, but skateboarding. After graduating with a degree in BSBA Management and Marketing at Ateneo de Davao in 2001, one of his friends, who’s done skateboarding in Bangkok, told him about the skateboarding scene there.
His friend didn’t need to do much convincing. “I wanted to become a professional skateboarder,” Cedjie tells us. “Yan ang dream ko dati.”
He realized that compared to doing it in the Philippines, skating in Bangkok was such a delight. “In the Philippines, you skate at a certain area, like around Makati, yung security guards ipagtatabuyan ka. Dito [sa Thailand] hindi,” says Cedjie, who also spent his growing up years in Manila. “[After you do your stunts] the guards here would even say, ‘One more time.’ The support that you get is very encouraging.”
The Davaoeño only intended to stay for a weekend, but it stretched to a couple of weeks, then to a month, three months, 20 years.
Since Cedjie had been a teaching assistant back in the Philippines, one of his friends encouraged him to apply for a teaching job. While it was challenging at first due to the language barrier, he ended up loving it and the many new learnings the job brought. “Wala pang Google translate noon. Everybody had dictionaries,” he recalls, smiling. “Yung drawing skills ko drastically improved.”
He first taught at Ruamrudee International School then moved to a bilingual school to teach math. He worked in other institutions before landing his current job at the American School of Bangkok (ASB) International School where he teaches math and science. He’s also one of the coordinators of the school’s Deep Environmental Education Program (DEEP), which aims to unlock students’ natural curiosity and passion for the ocean thru scuba diving. Cedjie earned his post graduate diploma in education from Asian College of Teachers and his PhD in Education at the Chulalongkorn University.
Currently, he also maintains a shop called Gecko Climbing Shop which sells items related to the sports close to his heart—rock climbing, diving, trail running, skateboarding, and wakeboarding.
Life No. 4
While teaching, Cedjie continued to pursue his skateboarding dream. However, in 2003, he met an accident while trying to make a video for potential sponsors. “[Riding my skateboard], I tried to jump one of the bridges, I landed sa hood ng taxi,” he recalls.
“It was like everything was on slow-mo. I remembered seeing the face of the taxi driver. Next thing I know, I was in the middle of the road and I thought, ‘Bali ba ang neck ko?’”
But he can move his fingers, legs, and ankles. Everything seemed fine. There was no pain. So he continued to skate for another hour.
When he woke up the following morning, he was extremely thirsty and lightheaded. “When I turned on the lights, I saw na red ang bed sheets ko. I was bleeding pala,” he recalls. He didn’t realize his arm had been fractured. A neighbor brought him to the hospital. Cedjie tried getting back on the board after his recovery but the accident proved very traumatic for him.
To satisfy his constant need for thrill and adventure, he returned to rock climbing the following year. Unfortunately, he met another accident. “I fell at 30 meters and was in a coma for two days. I fractured my skull, cracked my ribs,” he says. It was a miracle he survived it.
After his recovery, Cedjie wanted to do something else to keep active. “I needed an activity that won’t stress my limbs and my mental state,” he says. For some reason, he got into car racing. But while going into a corner at a track, his right front wheel hit a curb which sent his car spinning. Fortunately, he got out of it with no injuries.
“This is actually Life No. 4,” Cedjie tells us, smiling. In December 2004, he was actually declared as one of the casualties in the Boxing Day tsunami. He was supposed to celebrate Christmas with friends in Patong, but he fortunately missed his flight.
“Ninety-five percent of the names in the flight manifest were all in Patong, so [the Philippine embassy] just assumed that everyone [in that flight] died during the tsunami,” he says. “The Embassy rang my mom and informed her that I was one of the casualties.” So his family was both shocked and overjoyed when they got a call from him on New Year’s Day.
Thai at heart
Thailand has become a big part of Cedjie’s life. It was where most of his life’s biggest adventures happened. The Davaoeño says he decided to live in Thailand because of the quality of life.
“Yung 100 baht mo here goes a long way—you can have three meals a day. Sa Pilipinas, ang P100 would be equivalent to one meal. They have free buses here for the locals. The rent is not that high. So even if you’re earning minimum, you never have to worry kung may kakainin ka bukas,” he says. “Food is cheap. Travel is cheap.”
He can also do whatever he pleases without worrying about too many people casting a judging eye. “Sa Pilipinas kasi, they notice everything, para lang may masabi. Here, people are very welcoming and accepting.”
While he remains a Catholic, Buddhism has changed Cedjie’s views about life—“how I treat people, how I see myself. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are. You will meet rich people here na walang ere. That is why I never left.”
He remembers having to do some soul-searching in his early years in Thailand. “I went to the bus station and ended up in Chiang Rai. I lived in a small village with mountain folks for two months,” he remembers. That experience taught him to appreciate the joys of simple living.
Photos courtesy of Cedjie Aquino