By Cheryl Rutherford
“For the body snatchers of Bangkok, the road to Nirvana is paved with deadly collisions.”
— Peter Lloyd, Journeyman Pictures, 2006
They rush through the dark, gridlocked streets of Bangkok as fast as they can, night after night, in order to arrive first at scenes that would give most people nightmares for days: sites strewn with bodies that are bloodied, mangled, crushed, shot, drowned, burned or torn apart; car crashes, suicides; the murdered, the unlucky. All victims of trauma, all lying dead on streets or in rooms, all waiting for someone to find them and give them peace at last. Careening towards these accident scenes are not highly-trained, paid professionals in ambulances, however. Instead, these are untrained, unpaid volunteers known as the “Body Snatchers” – or less graphically, the “Guardian Angels” – of Bangkok. These average citizens rush to the aid of trauma victims, either to provide basic first aid to the wounded or to take the dead to hospitals for cremation. In a city of eight million people, no formal emergency services and two million car accidents a year, the body snatchers are indeed guardian angels for the dead, performing a much-needed form of philanthropy.
Bangkok body snatchers are officially recognized volunteers for one of two Thai foundations and many have been doing this work for years (even decades). Sometimes entire families volunteer together. Because there are so few ambulances in Bangkok, many drive battered pickup trucks customized for the task at hand. Often, these everyday citizens will go out at night after a day’s work. Even popular actors or models volunteer to collect bodies, and late-night corpse runs featuring these celebrities are filmed for reality TV shows. Rushing to be first at the grisly scenes, they don’t do this for fame or financial gain – the few paid collectors make about $135–500 a month – but instead they do this for a much more personal reason: to bring “merit” or good fortune unto themselves and their families; to build karma in order to protect themselves in this life and improve the next. The Bangkok body snatchers are Buddhists, and they believe that “by helping someone pass through the rigors of death, good karma is…earned.” [Ehrlich, 2010]
Earning this good karma is not without risk. Rather ironically, in addition to karma, Buddhists also believe in ghosts and touching a dead body risks having the spirit enter one’s own body. Furthermore, the more violent a death, the more powerful the ghost of the victim. Thus, collecting a body from the scene of a car accident, for example, is fraught with spiritual danger. To arm themselves against the powerful spirits, body snatchers don protective amulets. Should an amulet be lost, no fear: the insignias embroidered on the volunteers’ uniforms are infused with protective powers, as well. Along with believing in ghosts, Buddhists believe in reincarnation. So to the body snatchers, the inherent risk of touching the dead is worth it: once collected, the corpse is handed over to the hospital, the body is cremated and its spirit is released and free to move onto its next life, further earning the rescuer much good karma for his good deed.
While many groups have tried to gain a foothold in philanthropic body collection (resulting in much fierce competition), since 1991 only two foundations have been officially recognised by the police and allowed to operate in Bangkok, each with its own territory of collection: the Poh Teck Tung Foundation and the Ruamkatanyu Foundation.
The Poh Teck Tung Foundation was founded in 1910 to provide care to the sick and wounded, as well as collect the dead after accidents. Since it began, it has founded several hospitals, the most recent in 1997 (Hua Chiao Hospital). On viewing its website, the foundation also appears to provide disaster relief and to award scholarships and grants for continuing education.
The Ruamkatanyu Foundation was founded in 1970 with the purpose of collecting the unclaimed bodies of accident and murder victims and to provide them with a proper burial. Today, the foundation has a number of ambulances and volunteers who bring the dead, injured or sick to the hospital free of charge. It is also able to handle large-scale rescues in the event of disaster.
As volunteers with either of these foundations, the body snatchers of Bangkok provide multiple necessary services: streets are cleared of accident victims, the wounded are helped, the dead are collected, cremated and sent onto their next incarnation. All this good work results in the accumulation of good karma for the body snatcher and his family. As a form of philanthropy, some Westerners may find the practice of corpse collecting a gruesome one. However, as Akapan Banloerit – one of Thailand’s most popular actors and a volunteer body snatcher for over 20 years – explains: “Acting is our job. We have to do that to earn money – but for this, we volunteer. We give our time, our heart, and everything to help society.” Certainly Western philanthropists can relate to that heartfelt sentiment.
Interestingly, one of the founding members was Anuwat Rachaniyom (or Yi KoHong), who was a leader in a Chinese secret society, the Hong Moen Thian Ti Hu, which ran gambling dens in Bangkok. Chinese secret societies provided mutual aid between the members, including caring for a fellow member’s corpse after he had died and ensuring a proper burial. One might wonder, with his background in crime and experience with caring for his fellow members’ bodies combined with the Buddhist belief of karma, did Rachaniyom help establish the more upstanding Poh Teck Tung Foundation as a way to bank good karma and make amends for his own past bad deeds?
Carter, Jeff C., Ghost Tower, February 21, 2013
Crampton, Thomas, The Body Snatchers / Fighting for a Gory Prize : A Race to the Death in Bangkok, January 29, 2002
Ehrlich, Richard S., Bangkok’s real-life body snatchers, April 1, 2010
Leveau, Arnaud, editor, Investigating the Grey Areas of the Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia, March 14, 2007
Poh Teck Tung Foundation website: http://www.pohtecktung.org/
scheng1, Ruamkatanyu Foundation in Bangkok, March 21, 2013
Viceland, Thailand – Body Snatchers, 2006
Journeyman Pictures, produced by ABC Australia, Body Snatchers – Thailand, April 28, 2006 (uploaded August 8, 2007)
● Transcript: http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2006/s1584927.htm
Payen, Cyril, France 24, Thailand: the war of the “Body Snatchers”, March 3, 2011
Ponlapat Nanthamanop, Ruamkatanyu Foundation final, uploaded November 28, 2012
tofu-magazine, featuring Philip Blenkinsop’s “Carmageddon: The Cars That Ate Bangkok”
Howe, Jason P., Thailand, Bangkok Body Snatchers