Meet Bangkok’s superstitious, intensely territorial, Buddhist rescue workers, who prowl the streets in search of spiritual bragging rights
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.
Noi boasts with an ear-to-ear grin that “we can get to accidents faster than the ambulances!” Indeed they do, often gunning their converted Toyota pickups to crash sites. But speed is only half the reason for their success. With virtually no public emergency rescue service in Bangkok, a shortage of ambulances at private hospitals, and the city’s notorious gridlock, the scale of Por Tek Tung’s operation is what makes the organization so effective. Since hundreds of volunteers patrol the city day and night, waiting for alerts on their walkie-talkies or eavesdropping on police radios, someone is always close to an emergency.
Volunteers come from all walks of life: accountants, bankers, laborers, electricians. Most of them volunteer in order to earn extra karma for their next incarnation. But some sign up for the social aspect as well. As with any Thai activity, there can be an element of fun—or sanuk—even in tugging mangled corpses from a wreck. At a rescue, you’ll always spot some volunteers standing back, joking with each other.
“If I wasn’t volunteering,” Dai says, “I’d be out shopping with my friends. Por Tek Tung is a good way to meet other people. But it makes me happy to know I’m doing something to help those in need.”
Sometimes the Good Samaritanism goes too far. For years, a turf war between Por Tek Tung and rival body-snatching unit Ruamkatanyoo plagued Bangkok. What was at stake? Bragging rights. Whoever recovers more bodies gains a decisive edge in fundraising efforts; with their afterlife on the line, patrons generally want to get the most out of their donations. As a result, competing squads occasionally can reach a still-steaming wreck and come to blows over the right to the remains.
The two organizations now divide Bangkok between them, but flare-ups still occur. There’s no guarantee multiple groups won’t respond to the same accident. In March 2007 an emergency medical services crew from a hospital was attempting to hook up an injured man to a respirator. Late to the scene, Por Tek Tung volunteers were nonetheless determined that they would escort the victim. A brawl broke out and a hospital employee was severely beaten. The victim eventually was loaded into the ambulance, but it was too late. He died en route to the hospital.
Such incidents feed a growing unease about the do-good brigade. Por Tek Tung performs a vital function for the city, but many accuse it of profiting from misfortune. The group is dogged by persistent charges of theft (bodies often arrive at the morgue stripped of shoes, wallet, watch, and jewelry). There are also reports of corpses held for ransom.
Little is known about how Por Tek Tung actually operates, since it is unregulated and rarely transparent. Sometimes even the volunteers themselves seem to be in the dark. If different crews convene at the same smash-up, confusion can arise over who should take charge and who should carry out the tasks. In a situation where each second counts, muddied decision-making can have fatal consequences.
Watching volunteers return to headquarters after industriously mopping up the gore from a collision between drunken policemen, however, it’s hard to imagine anyone carping about Por Tek Tung’s missteps. Tonight’s crew relaxes, watching a popular soap opera about a ghost. Fear of ghosts is widespread in Thailand, and some in the group—who believe the bodies they ferry leave their trucks haunted—crack nervous jokes about the supernatural encounters they’ve had on the job.
“I believe in ghosts and I’m scared of them,” Noi reveals. “But I haven’t met any ghosts yet. What scares me more is the thought of somebody injured in an accident without anyone there to help.”
Brent Lewin (www.brentlewin.com) is a photographer and writer who wrote about Mumbai’s street kids in our Jan.-Feb. 2008 issue. Reprinted from Maisonneuve (Spring 2009), an unpredictable Canadian quarterly packed with arts coverage, opinions, and ideas. www.maisonneuve.org