The BANGKOK Body Snatchers

Bangkok, Thailand - June, 1995

Bangkok’s ‘body snatchers’ are not found in a science fiction novel or horror movie. Cruising Bangkok’s streets in their distinctive white pickup trucks, the young volunteers of the Por Tek Teung Foundation are, in fact, the city’s first line of defense against the death and mayhem that terrorize the capital’s streets. In a city notorious for its traffic jams and inadequate infrastructure, the body snatchers provide the only rescue services available. Government rescue and emergency services are virtually non-existent and official indifference has forced the city’s 10 million residents to turn to private charities, such as Por Tek Teung, in times of crisis.

Founded by Chinese immigrants in 1909, Por Tek Teung started out collecting corpses and providing free funeral services for Bangkok’s poor and destitute. While still providing these services, the foundation’s duties have broadened to handle everything from fires, floods and airplane crashes to murders, suicides and man hunts. The body snatchers take a certain amount of pride in their body counts—the outside of Ruamkatanyu’s donation center, a smaller rescue group founded in 1970, boasts lurid photographs of mutilated, burned and dismembered bodies they have collected. The pictures attract a steady stream of onlookers and help pull in donations. This public goodwill has helped the foundations set up offices throughout the country to help in times of need, but it is on the roads of the nation that most of their energy is consumed.

Mechai Kamteenan has worked for Por Tek Teung for nearly 8 years and like any good body snatcher he can sniff out trouble. Driving on one of Bangkok’s motor ways he quickly spots a pickup truck racing down the road weaving dangerously in and out of the lanes. “At this time of night you see a lot of drunks on the roads. The police rarely stop them and when they do people just pay bribes so there’s no real deterrent,” says Mechai as he begins to follow the truck with his lights and siren on to warn other drivers. Mechai tries to keep up with the truck which reaches speeds of over 140 kph, slaloming in and out of other cars.

“Maybe we’ll get a corpse!” Mechai says excitedly. As the pickup reaches a sharp curve, his expectations nearly to come true. The truck bounces into concrete barriers, sending sparks and pieces of the pickup’s trimmings flying. The driver quickly hit the brakes, forcing Mechai to swerve out the way to avoid a collision. As Mechai pulls off the road to avoid an accident, the pickup speeds off. “He was lucky this time,” Mechai says, trying to catch his breath. “But if he does that again he may have to come home in one of our trucks.”

Unlike most of Por Tek Teung’s workers, Mechai is paid for his time. Receiving US$400 a month, he spends 6 nights a week working 12 hour shifts. Besides helping to collect corpses, he also videotapes and photographs the dead as a ‘public service’. Many of his images find their way into Thailand’s sensational newspapers that seem to revel in the blood and gore that spills onto the roads. Many young men volunteer to help in the belief that they will earn merit towards their next lives; many volunteer simply because the work is thrilling.

But while Mechai and his fellow body snatchers are proud of their work, they are not capable of providing professional rescue services. Few of Por Tek Teung’s staff have medical training and what little knowledge they have, cannot help with some of the traumatic injuries they confront. Nearly 20% of survivors from cars accidents in Thailand die on their way to hospitals, most from chronic bleeding or airway obstruction. All that Por Tek Teung can do in such situations is shovel patients into the back of their trucks and hope to get them to a hospital in time. But with Bangkok’s gridlocked traffic even that can be an impossible task especially as few Bangkok drivers are generous enough to make way for rescue vehicles in an emergency. Until recently, many hospitals refused to accept patients from the foundation without proof that medical bills could be paid, forcing Por Tek Teung to establish a medical fund to cover such expenses.

The increasing need for Por Tek Teung’s services has paralleled Thailand’s recent rapid economic growth. Thailand’s economic miracle has flooded the streets with new vehicles but with the prosperity that the automobile represents has come a horrendous human toll. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for Thais aged 15 to 40. On a typical day, the streets will be littered with accidents that take lives at a rate of nearly two per hour. The roads have become so dangerous that the Health Ministry now considers them to be a major health risk. Not counting the human cost, the government calculates economic losses from the destruction at around US$360 million a year. It is the bloody and twisted debris from these losses that Por Tek Teung has to clean up.

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Por Tek Teung’s trucks prowl the city 24 hours a day in search of accidents and corpses. The city is divided into three sections with Por Tek Teung and Ruamkatanyu taking turns every day patrolling the different sections. The two competing rescue foundations have made headlines over the years for fighting over bodies at accidents. For some collecting bodies is a matter of pride and many in Por Tek Teung consider Ruamkatanyu as an unruly upstart in for a cut of the action. While a peace agreement between the foundations has eased tensions, the foundations still relish the limelight that comes with a good night’s body snatching.

To get to an accident first requires patience and a good understanding of Bangkok’s roads. Por Tek Teung’s pickups can be seen hovering like vultures along major highways and roads known for their high death count. Weekend car and motorcycle racing always attract a body snatcher or two waiting for an inevitable death. Always tuned into the police radio, Por Tek Teung’s trucks will swarm to an accident scene in minutes to claim their prize. It is a serious game and one that has claimed the lives of several volunteers. “We know it’s dangerous work,” says Mechai, “but someone has to do this.....the police won’t, the government won’t, so it’s up to us to give assistance to these people.”

The final assistance the foundation has to offer victims lies near Sathorn Road, in the heart of Bangkok’s Silom business district. In a field at the end of narrow lane, Por Tek Teung maintains a cemetery for unidentified and uncollected corpses. The cemetery buries people in traditional Chinese style and every 5 years the tombs are emptied, bodies being cremated in massive ceremony to make way for the never-ending flow of corpses. Surrounded by shiny new office towers that proudly proclaim Thailand’s status as Newly Industrialized Country, the overgrown cemetery, littered with garbage and broken down cars, is a quiet but shocking symbol of the price of prosperity. A large section of the cemetery was ironically sold to the government to make way for a new expressway. High above the cemetery the sounds of cars speeding their way downtown can be heard—a constant reminder to the dead below, of the damage Thailand’s roads are inflicting and the need for Por Tek Teung’s body snatchers.