The Body Snatchers

Meet Bangkok’s superstitious, intensely territorial, Buddhist rescue workers, who prowl the streets in search of spiritual bragging rights

| September-October, 2009

  • Bangkok Body Snatchers

    image by Brent Lewin /

  • Bangkok Body Snatchers

TGIF, thinks Dai. After a full day working for an inter­national bank, the petite and soft-spoken 32-year-old races to the Lumpini Park gates where friends whisk her away for a night on the town. She will limp home at 5 a.m., having seen four gruesome car wrecks and one suicide.

Dai is a volunteer for the Por Tek Tung Foundation, Bangkok’s largest provider of emergency medical services. Created by Chinese immigrants in Thailand’s capital more than 100 years ago, Por Tek Tung began by offering free funeral services for the city’s poor, and now specializes in quick-response rescues. You can spot its staff—over a thousand, nearly all unpaid—by their distinctive blue jumpsuits as they drive around in packs, on the lookout for road accidents.

If this sounds a touch morbid, consider that last year alone a motorist was killed in Bangkok every 36 minutes. The city has five and a half million registered vehicles; drivers scorn speed limits and traffic rules, and unhelmeted motorcyclists carelessly zip in and out of congested lanes. The result is regularly lethal.

Por Tek Tung also handles murders, airplane crashes, collapsed buildings, and boating mishaps. But whatever the tragedy, the foundation’s main duty is “body-snatching”—rushing the still-living to hospitals and ferrying the dead to morgues.

Back at headquarters, tucked behind the Por Tek Tung Temple in Chinatown, veteran employee Noi—one of 32 on full-time payroll—explains that the foundation provides its services free of charge, relying entirely on donations from the community. “We are Buddhists,” he says, “and we believe that if we donate money or time to help the sick or dead we will earn spiritual merit.”

Employees are given 110 hours of government training in basic first aid. There are no doctors, no paramedics, and no medically trained professionals of any kind—and no life-saving equipment in Por Tek Tung vehicles.