Bangkok’s real-life body snatchers
With sirens blaring and lights flashing, Bangkok’s fearless body snatchers careen through traffic to morbid disaster sites where they seize fresh human corpses to pack in mustard-colored coffins for yet another profitable cremation.
"I see dead people all the time, but I've never seen ghosts," Anyawut Phoamphai, 36, says in Thai, maniacally chuckling and slamming his foot on the accelerator of a new Toyota van.
"Before doing this work, I was afraid of ghosts. But I'm not afraid of ghosts now. And I'm not afraid of getting sick while handling dead people. I'm not afraid to touch their corpses. I wear Buddhist amulets and they protect me."
“This experience will help me, because when I work in a hotel, I will have to deal with all kinds of people."
— Narissara Jarunggit
If you or anyone else you know -- Thai or foreigner -- suddenly drops dead in Bangkok, chances are the body will be grabbed by a team of eager men and women who will carefully wrap it in white cloth, carry it away hammock-style and shove it into the back of a van for a trip to a nearby hospital forensic lab.
In many places across Thailand, body collectors flock to horrific crash sites, major fires and anywhere else people might be bleeding, sprawled, dismembered or burnt after a suicide, illness, crime, accident, drowning or other tragedy.
The fate of the dead in Thailand
Anyawut's van arrives near Ekamai Road at a canal, where three of his group's scuba-equipped body snatchers are bobbing in the water while holding onto a drowned man. Residents peer from the canal's edge, watching Anyawut and his colleagues yank the corpse up with a red rope, and deposit the dead man in a nearby parking lot.
The body collectors gently remove the man's necklace and bracelet, empty his pockets, chat with police and watch as a nurse performs preliminary forensic tests on the corpse's eyes, mouth and torso. The team then carries the body to a waiting van.
"He is from Burma, 25 years old," Police Cadet Nattapong Kulsak says. "He was a thief. Two police chased him, but he jumped into the canal and drowned."
Competition for corpses
In Bangkok, two main organizations hunt among the dead and dying, though other groups have tried to enter the limited field.
Thailand's largest team of body snatchers is Ruam Katanyu. Their much smaller rival is the Por Teck Tung Foundation. Both groups insist they perform "rescue" work, because they also help people who are discovered alive but severely injured. Thailand has rudimentary ambulance services, so the collectors are often first on the scene of trauma.
Years ago, they occasionally fought each other with knives and other weapons, while simultaneously pulling on corpses, despite the presence of weeping loved ones.
"In the past, I also was fighting against Por Teck Tung, but only with fists," says Anyawut, who works for Ruam Katanyu.
Today, the two groups claim their feuds are finished, though other groups have shot at and beaten Ruam Katanyu and Por Teck Tung collectors at crash sites in Bangkok in recent years. Police have since ruled that only the two main groups can collect the dead.
Authorities blame corruption for the hostilities. Some hospitals reportedly pay 1,000-baht rewards to body collectors for still-breathing victims in need of expensive medical care.
"There is now no more fighting between Ruam Katanyu and Por Teck Tung, because we have separated the areas of Bangkok where we work," Por Teck Tung body collector Khaornsak Kongin says. "Now, one group will work in north Bangkok, while the other works in south Bangkok. Then we switch. Every day it changes at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., for 12-hour shifts."
A dignified if anonymous end
Anyawut has worked at Ruam Katanyu for 18 years. Each month he earns 15,000 baht and gets two days off, plus free food and a dormitory bed if need be. Both groups employ staff, but also depend on volunteers.
Because they usually herald a sad and sudden death, many Thais dread the arrival of the collectors.
But their work is quietly cheered by society for providing unclaimed bodies with a dignified funeral. Thai Buddhists support the body snatchers because by helping someone pass through the rigors of death, good karma is believed to be earned.
To share this Buddhist form of spiritual ‘merit-making,’ many Thais donate money, resulting in a lucrative business for the body snatchers. Most of the cash appears to flow into Ruam Katanyu's office at Wat Hua Lampong, a majestic Buddhist temple on Rama IV Road. Donors receive a piece of pink paper on which they can write their own name above a printed message, which translates:
"I would like to donate toward a coffin, and a white cloth, for a dead person who has no relative, and then I hope I will be released from any problems and suffering, and enjoy more and more happiness."
The donor can paste the note onto a bleak stack of coffins, gawk at gruesome photographs of body snatchers in action and visit a Chinese-themed shrine.
Good training -- for any afterlife
To deal with sensitivies about the handling of female corpses, both groups ask women to volunteer.
Narissara Jarunggit, 21, volunteered after her friend persuaded her.
"Collecting bodies at a condominium fire was the worst for me, because the body was scary and ugly and it was so dangerous," she says.
"But I am studying hotel management at university, so this experience will help me, because when I work in a hotel, I will have to deal with all kinds of people."