Two more people, a soldier and a civilian, have died of injuries from Saturday’s clashes in Bangkok between the army and red-shirt protesters, bringing the death toll to 23. Anyone living here is also aware that Thailand is currently racking up a second and far higher body count.
Road accidents killed 114 people and injured 1,536 others on the first two days of the week-long Songkran or Water Festival holiday. If previous years are anything to go by, that death toll will have tripled by the weekend. Drunk driving is a national pastime here. So is speeding. (“Slow down” was the first Thai phrase I ever learned.) This helps explain why more than 12,000 people die in road accidents in Thailand every year. In Britain, a country with roughly the same population, it’s about 3,000.
Marko Cunningham calls Songkran “seven days of sex, alcohol, drugs, fights, car accidents and general mayhem.” Marko is an English teacher from New Zealand who works for Ruamkatanyu, a private charity which runs one of Bangkok’s volunteer ambulance services. I spent a few nights in his fascinating company while researching an upcoming story for Esquire (UK).
Marko’s path to Thailand is littered with car accidents. He reckons he has now survived more than a dozen. At 16, his friend Ralph was killed by a drunk driver. Later, Marko smashed his car into a taxi and woke up in hospital with a serious head injury. Later, in South Korea, where he taught English, he got drunk, then stole and totalled a BMW. “Grand Theft Auto ceased to be just a computer game for me,” he writes in his new book Sleeping With The Dead.
So perhaps Marko was predestined to end up in a country with one of the world’s poorest road safety records. Talk to him and you realize that a grim fact unites the nation, even in these politically divisive times. “Ask any Thai,” says Marko. “Everyone has a family member who has died or been seriously injured in a traffic accident.”