Published by Esquire (UK)
They’ve been accused of robbing the dead, ransoming corpses back to loved ones, and practicing witchcraft and cannibalism. But what would Bangkok do without its volunteer ambulance crews?
By Andrew Marshall Photos by Jason P. Howe
TIGER is driving way too fast down a dark Bangkok backstreet and the Shih Tzu is going nuts. It’s spinning like a furry top on my lap, wound up by the sirens and the flashing lights and the sheer velocity of Tiger’s ambulance, a death-black Mitsubishi pick-up truck with just enough room in the back for a plastic stretcher, an oxygen tank, some medical supplies and a petite 30-year-old Thai woman called Shrimp—Tiger’s wife. The Shih Tzu is called Sunday. It rides up front.
We hang a right on Rama IV, and suddenly one of Bangkok’s busiest roads is unscrolling before the golden Buddha statue glued to Tiger’s dashboard. Up ahead, more lights and sirens, as ambulances arrive from elsewhere in the city. Their goal: a 19-year-old lying unconscious on the warm tarmac, surrounded by blood and bits of motorbike. Stopped nearby is the truck that flattened him.
Tiger and Shrimp leap out of the Mitsubishi. The teenager’s jaw is clenched shut, a sign that the brain inside his helmet-less skull is dangerously swollen. Tiger and his colleagues scrape him off the road onto a plastic stretcher, then slot him into the back of another pick-up. It screams off to a nearby hospital.
As the presence of a four-month-old novelty dog might suggest, Tiger and Shrimp are no ordinary paramedics. In fact, they’re not paramedics at all. By day, they work at a Thai record company. By night, they are unpaid volunteers for Ruamkatanyu (literally, “united in gratitude”), one of a handful of feuding private charities in Bangkok which collect the dead and ferry the injured to hospital. Their nickname: the bodysnatchers.
“Quiet tonight,” says Tiger, a big, low-browed guy who, like Shrimp, wears a green aviator jumpsuit—Ruamkatanyu’s uniform. We’re parked at the entrance of a mosquito-infested alley on Sukhumwit, one of Bangkok’s best-known streets. Shrimp is showing me the Mitsubishi’s basic medical equipment which, like the vehicle itself, is paid for by volunteers. Tiger is cradling the Shih Tzu like a baby, planting kisses on its head. “Tiger’s a real pussy,” jokes another volunteer. “He cried when his hamster died.”
Bangkok does have government-run ambulances but they are rare—there are fewer than 150 in a city of more than 10 million people—and slow. Your options are: (a) bleed to death waiting for one; or (b) call Ruamkatanyu. It has thousands of volunteers and Bangkok depends on them. Yet the bodysnatchers are often despised as hoodlums and vultures. They’re accused of stripping the dead and the injured of valuables, ransoming corpses back to loved ones, and practicing witchcraft and cannibalism.
For Ruamkatanyu’s members, such popular prejudices only reinforce their passion for the job, their tribal loyalty to each other, their esprit de corpse. Nobody likes the bodysnatchers but they don’t care. They’re like Millwall supporters with first-aid kits.
THEY CONGREGATE in Bangkok’s side-streets and on the forecourts of petrol stations in pimped-up Izuzu and Toyota pick-ups with bucket seats, roll-bars, tinted windows and Ruamkatanyu stickers on the doors. The roofs bristle with radio antennae, the backseats brim with subwoofers. On the dash: Buddhas and nodding dogs. Most volunteers are nicknamed after animals, as is Thai custom, or take English handles.
Frog and Wow are two of Ruamkatanyu’s 24 full-timers, with at least 110 hours training (volunteers usually have only 16) and heaps of experience. Frog is 22 but has been riding with the snatchers since he was 10, when a neighbor took him along. His finest hour was saving a dying motorcyclist with 30 grueling minutes of CPR. His monthly salary is 6,000 baht – around £120.
George, 26, a volunteer, joined after being injured in a motorcycle accident. His cousin, who was driving, broke his leg. George lay there, useless and in agony. “I couldn’t do anything, except wait for Ruamkatanyu to arrive,” he says. His crew—Apple, Ton, Donut, and two fifth-form schoolgirls in jumpsuits called March and Gate—have their own website. It’s mostly photos of babes, cars and corpses—a severed leg extruding from wreckage, a guy with his belly opened up like an anatomy diagram. By day, George works in a coffee shop.
Then there’s Oh and Wanchai, both volunteers. Oh is a soldier. Wanchai drives the Australian ambassador’s armoured car.
For Thai Buddhists, donating time or money to Ruamkatanyu is a way of making merit or accumulating good karma, thereby improving the chances of an auspicious reincarnation in the next life. Many volunteers are movies stars or TV celebrities, such as Bin Bunluerit, known to the world (if known at all) as Poros, King of India, in Oliver Stone’s Alexander. But one of its best-known members isn’t even Thai. He is a six-feet-tall lapsed Scouser called Marko Cunningham.
Marko was 5 when his family emigrated from Liverpool to New Zealand. Now 39, he calls Thailand home (he teaches English here) and Ruamkatanyu family. Marko first went with the group to donate relief supplies to flood victims outside Bangkok. Then, when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed thousands of people at beach resorts on and around Phuket, Ruamkatanyu dispatched hundreds of volunteers to retrieve the dead. Marko joined them.
He spent two gruelling weeks working at a temple-turned-morgue in Khao Lak. The corpses were bloated at first, but later liquefied inside the maggot-ridden body-bags. Marko grew so accustomed to death that, to avoid the tropical heat, he slept alongside the bodies kept inside refridgerated trucks. The title of his new book is Sleeping With The Dead.
“When I started out at Ruamkatanyu I was the token foreigner,” he recalls. “The tsunami sealed the deal. Boom! I was one of the boys.” Leaving Ruamkatanyu now, he says, “would be like walking away from family.”
After the tsunami, he was invited to join a Ruamkatanyu ambulance unit in Bangkok, and soon Marko was not just collecting bodies but saving lives—and delivering babies, diving into burning buildings, cleaning up after shootings, stabbings and suicides, and capturing escaped pet pythons. He learned Thailand’s language, its ways of life and death. He learned to smile and talk to the newly dead, so that their spirits enter the afterlife happy.
The action you see depends on the location, explains Marko. Different places, different shit. On the outskirts of Bangkok, where gridlocked streets give way to fast-moving highways, it’s multiple pile-ups. On Sukhumwit, where his mates Tiger and Shrimp hang, it’s bars, brothels, punch-ups, robberies, knife-fights and suicides.
And foreigners. A week before, a taxi had knocked a farang off a motorbike. “He’d lost a lot of blood,” recalls Shrimp, in Thai. “We don’t speak English, so we couldn’t say, ‘Stay still, we’re here to help.’” So the farang thrashed around like a dying replicant. It took a few Ruamkatanyu volunteers to lash him to a stretcher.
Tiger once stopped an American from topping himself—grabbed the guy as he was jumping off a bridge into traffic. Shrimp says you get a lot of farang suicides around here, usually hangings, nearly always men. Why are farang guys always trying to kill themselves? “They marry Thai women,” she replies, deadpan.
RUAMKATANYU SPRANG from a random act of kindness. About 60 years ago a Thai-Chinese trader called Somkiat offered to pay for the funeral of a penniless villager. Word spread. The trader set up Ruamkatanyu to deal with other requests to collect the destitute dead. Sometimes the dead weren’t dead, just injured, which is why the ambulance service began. It was primitive. Patients weren’t given on-the-spot medical attention, just slung into pick-up trucks for an agonising (and often one-way) trip to the hospital.
Ruamkatanyu is better-equipped these days, at least by Thai standards, thanks entirely to public donations. At its busy office in Wat Hualamphong, not far from Bangkok’s central train station, you are greeted by a wall of cheap wooden coffins. Beneath them, people queue up three deep at donation desks. They will gain good karma by helping to buy such coffins for the destitute dead. Afterwards, to complete the merit-making process, they join the scrum of worshippers to light incense in the adjoining shrine. Golden Buddhas and bearded Chinese gods peer down through thick fragrant smoke.
Ruamkatanyu’s original HQ is in Bangkok’s port area. At its entrance is a shrine of 13 jawless human skulls, their foreheads plastered with gold leaf. They belong to some early nameless victims whose spirits are believed to protect the building. Skull-worshipping: no wonder the bodysnatchers are mistakenly accused of witchcraft. As for cannibalism, blame an outfit called Sawang, based in the freewheeling Thai beach resort of Pattaya.
Last year photos showing Sawang volunteers dismembering and apparently eating a dead body went viral on the internet. A grinning volunteer holding aloft a severed hand; a hook shucking brains from a skull; people cooking something in a large wok; and then Sawang staff eating that something from bowls. Marko says the photos show a rare ceremony in which bones are cleaned before being cremated or entombed; afterwards, the volunteers eat vegetarian food. “Strange and somewhat horrifying,” he admits. But not cannibalism.
Bodysnatching is a growth business. Thais are famously laid back, but put them behind a steering wheel and they morph into brake-for-nothing speed-freaks. They send text messages while piloting motorbikes. There are few discernible rules of the road. Drunk driving is a national pastime. You can buy a driving license for the equivalent of a tenner – often from the police.
All this explains why more than 12,000 people die in road accidents in Thailand every year. (In Britain, it’s about 3,000.) That’s 33 deaths a day. And that’s a lot of work for the bodysnatchers.
RUAMKATANYU IS NOT the only show in town. Its main rival is an older charity called Poh Tek Tung. Their members clashed regularly in the past, sometimes even fighting over corpses at accident scenes—thus the nickname “bodysnatchers.” To keep the peace, Bangkok was carved in two: Ruamkatanyu patrol the north, Poh Tek Tung the south, and every 24 hours they swap.
But this fragile equilibrium has been disturbed by the recent arrival of ambitious new bodysnatching groups. Some private hospitals give cash to crews who bring them patients. These transactions are illegal and Ruamkatanyu forbids it. But for its upstart rivals, hospital kickbacks are a powerful incentive to invade Ruamkatanyu’s turf. “These smaller groups shouldn’t even be here,” says Marko angrily. “They are fighting for territory and money.”
He recalls one of the first big fights, a year or so ago. It was around 4AM and members of Siam Ruamjai (ironic translation: “Thailand United”) attacked his colleagues at a Bangkok petrol station with bats and knives. Ruamkatanyu fought back, and a wave of shootings, fire-bomb attacks and fist fights followed. “They shot at us,” explains Bomb, 25, who drives a hearse-like Mitsubishi. “We shot at them.”
Then came last year’s Songkran, or Thai new year—better known to the rest of us as the Water Festival. It’s a busy time for the bodysnatchers. Marko calls Songkran “seven days of sex, alcohol, drugs, fights, car accidents and general mayhem.” He and Wow went to pick up an injured man who had been knocked off his motorbike by a bucket of water thrown by a reveler. As they were driving away, there was a gunshot, and a bullet passed through the ambulance’s right flank. It missed Marko and the patient’s head by inches.
Marko looked outside and saw an ambulance speed away. It belonged to Pi Roon, a second rival group. Last December, Pi Roon swarmed another Ruamkatanyu hang-out. Oh, the soldier, raced there to help, but was set upon by Pi Roon volunteers with clubs and samurai swords. Luckily, Oh carries a Glock pistol. He fired it into the air, which dispersed the mob long enough for him to escape.
Recalling the incident, Oh seems shaken. “If I hadn’t defended myself that night, I’d be dead,” he says. He still has a two-inch scar on his buzz-cut head.
For a while, some volunteers stopped wearing their Ruamkatanyu uniforms, for fear of being targeted by rivals. They now carry guns. One volunteer has a machete. Tiger keeps a Louisville Slugger baseball bat on his backseat. “There will be more violence,” predicts Marko.
RIVAL GANGS ARE ONE occupational hazard. Sleep deprivation is another. It is not uncommon for Ruamkatanyu staff to go 48 hours without sleep; a volunteer might put in 80 hours a week and still hold down a day job. How do they do it?
Ruamkatanyu forbids alcohol and drugs, but the use of methamphetamine—known in Thai as ya ba or “crazy medicine”—is pretty rife, according to Marko. The pills are usually dissolved in energy drinks. Marko once inadvertently drank a bottle of Red Buffalo which a colleague had spiked with three ya ba. He spent the night pacing Bangkok’s streets, trying to get his blood-pressure down.
Other hazards include being shaken down for money by police, getting hit by reckless motorists at accident scenes. Broken relationships and depression abound. One of Marko’s colleagues killed herself, another was gunned down in a car-park, possibly by a rival group. A third, called One, was hit by a police car. “Fucking sad,” says Marko. “At his funeral even the toughest Ruamkatanyu guys were crying.”
Marko struggles to explain why he does what he does. But strip away the death fetishism and waft away the incense smoke, and Ruamkatanyu’s appeal isn’t much of a mystery. Driving fast. Saving lives. Girls in jumpsuits.
1:50 a.m. The radios crackle again. There’s been an explosion in a market in Klong Toey, Bangkok’s biggest slum. Marko, Tiger and Shrimp race there, along with what seems like every Ruamkatanyu ambulance in the city. There has been a lot of violence at Klong Toey market lately. It had been slated for redevelopment, but the vendors refused to budge so someone has hired thugs to frighten them off. Last year two market guards were shot and killed.
The market is busiest in these pre-dawn hours. We arrive to find that somebody has lobbed a grenade into the crowd, injuring six people. Two are being ferried out in Ruamkatanyu pick-ups. This part of the market is hung with chunks of brightly lit, freshly butchered meat. There is a crowd around a noodle stall, staring at grenade fragments.
Marko looms above the crowd. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he says, worried. “There might be a second bomb.” Marko, who once narrowly avoided being trapped in a burning hotel, has learned to distrust his bravado. “The longer you’re in Ruamkatanyu, the more invulnerable you feel,” he says. “It’s not very healthy.”