The Bangkok Body Snatchers
Gazing through the car window like some early ’00s pop princess, I snapped back to attention at the sound of my stepfather’s voice.
“Lil! I think you got it! They’re coming up on our right.”
We played this game when we heard the familiar sirens and saw the flashing lights of the body snatchers, a sort of who can guess how long it will take for them to come barrelling past our little Toyota Camry. The answer? Not long.
Lights were flashing urgently as they swiftly wove through the traffic. They scared me. All I knew of them were the haunting myths told in rushed sentences by my stepdad, before mum got in the car to admonish him, “Tony, don’t scare the children!” They were close now; I could sense the urgency and danger just behind my shoulder. My brother and I squeezed against the window closest to the action, just as the van, decorated with the familiar twirling characters of the Thai language, flew past in a noisy blur.
Since this early encounter with the menacingly labelled body snatchers, I have come to a better understanding of what it is they actually do. Just as a child realises that the noises in the fireplace aren’t monsters, I discovered that the body snatchers don’t actually come and steal you from your bed. They come to clean you up off of the road.
Body snatchers are volunteer workers who patrol the highways, roads, sois (streets) and even train tracks of Bangkok, poised to swoop and remove dead bodies before they can grow cold.
Pornsak Trakutngun, 32, is a volunteer for Ruamkratanyu Foundation, one of Bangkok’s premier body snatching organisations.
“It makes me feel great after being able to help people, make them feel safe, or even make them alive again,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are so many cases that I could not help them on time or they are already dead when I arrive, but, at least I can bring the body back to their family.”
Pornsak’s day job is working as a truck driver for a food importing company, but parked out the front of the business is a chilling reminder of the necessary work he does outside of office hours.
Like city janitors, body snatchers housekeep the streets, responding to traumatic scenarios that you would otherwise expect formally-trained ambulance services to attend. As one of Asia’s largest capital cities, bustling with gawking tourists, an infamous party culture and practically no discernable road law, it is almost unbelievable that Bangkok has no state-run emergency system. While their unfortunate label demonises the necessary work they do, the body snatchers are one of Thailand’s many mysterious secrets, and the Thais commend their valuable contribution to the community.
By the age of 20, Pornsak had seen more death than your average youth. “The first day, I felt very scared, but I wanted to help the victims or the dead people. It took me a while to get used to it,” he says.
For the last 12 years, Pornsak has been a guardian and grim reaper of Bangkok, liaising with the police department and collecting bodies. But it’s no 9-to-5 job: Pornsak works in a team of three or four people, and they’re stationed at popular accident hot spots, getting their information from police and citizens. The salary? Not much for a job that wouldn’t pass through the red tape of the western world. Workers are paid roughly 6200 Thai Baht ($250AUD) a month. This is a stark comparison to your average ambo worker in Australia, who according to pay scale is earning just under $60,000 a year.
However, the most valuable currency isn’t money. It’s karma. Most of the snatchers are Buddhist and believe volunteering as a non-profit body snatcher can earn you some major karmic brownie points.
Growing up as a part-time expat in Bangkok, their religion, myths and folklore have become as familiar to me as the story of Ned Kelly. Spirits, ghosts, good and evil – these concepts are often talked about with a flashlight under your chin whilst camping “out bush” in Australia, but in Thailand, they are very real, very tangible and dominate much of day-to-day life.
It is a long-standing and widespread belief in Thailand and its neighbouring countries that ghosts, spirits or phi can interfere with the living. Some are fearful of them, others are comforted, but most Thais will tell you that ghosts are no cheap Halloween decoration – sightings are accepted and commonplace.
Pornsak has his own experiences: those whose bodies he collects visit him, sometimes in dreams, to thank him for his work.
Cover by Charlie Deet