Last rides

Ruemkatanyu is a Bhuddist charity that is often the only source of medical attention for Bangkok’s poor. Huw J. Williams joined its nocturnal ambulance patrol, which cares for the victims of the city’s horrendous traffic.

In Bangkok, in the absence of an official ambulance service, charities patrol the streets. Carrying the accident victims they find to hospital, or the morgue, teams of drivers spend their nights searching out the living and bringing in the dead.

Tonight the streets are wet, reflecting the bilingual neon. Eastern and roman scripts lacquer the asphalt in a batik blur. The sirens scream, blue and red flashing lights adding their own pattern to the night. Two-way radios shout a monotone chorus of anxious lyrics, a sad song of Bangkok. Amulets, beads and jasmine-blossom garlands swing from the rear view mirror, a little brass Buddha smiles back from the dash. As Yod drives, he stares ahead, occasionally grabbing the radio and talking fast in Thai. A motorbike accident. Not far. The traffic thickens and we start to weave: some cars move aside, others simply stay put, blocking the way, oblivious to the anxious lights and sounds pouring from the roof of our Nissan pick-up.

For 14 years, Yod has worked for Ruemkatanyu, a Buddhist charity that helps people alive or dead. In a country with few ambulances – and most of them belong to private hospitals – Yod and the other drivers are the quickest and often only way to get medical attention. They have basic first-aid training but their main function is to get you to the hospital, or the morgue. For Buddhists it is as important to help the corpses as the injured, because death is a transition, not a finality, and those that need help along this passage often get it from Ruemkatanyu.

We flow slowly with the traffic to where the blue and red lights pulse slowly. A boy sits bleeding, his bike lies broken. Yod jumps out to talk to a colleague, the first at the scene. Their canary yellow uniforms shine like beacons as the crowd washes by. The boy is helped into the back of a Ruemkatanyu truck that then pulls tentatively, hopefully, into the traffic. It will take him to a hospital where Ruemkatanyu’s work will finish. Had he died, it would just be starting.

The crowd begins to thin. With the engine stopped and the air-conditioning off, the cab of our rescue pick-up quickly gets stuffy. There is a close, creeping smell of sweat and human juices. It slips in through the open rear window of the cab from the covered back of the pick-up, where the dead and dying lie night after night. In the back there’s a thin, padded, green mattress laid on to the bare bodywork of the flat-bed. On it lies a well-used aluminium gurney. A scuffed traffic cone is wedged into one corner, a metal toolbox lies next to the wheel arch and a smaller plastic one sits on top. This is the first aid kit: all that is on offer for the people Ruemkatanyu collect who are alive.

Yod is more used to transporting those who are dead. In his glove compartments are small photo albums, kept to help identify those he finds in case their families come looking for them later. They provide testimony to the tragic, pain-wracked, gory and sometimes miraculous events that daily litter the streets of Bangkok.

As in all cities the car is king, but here motorbikes and mopeds challenge its hegemony in numbers not seen in any Western town. Their two-stroke scream, like the buzz of huge tenor mosquitoes, dominates the traffic noise as they squeeze through gaps in the car-blocked arteries of Bangkok. But it’s the bikes that often lie broken when cars move fast enough to kill.

And it’s the bikers that lose in the end. The vast numbers of bikes, the number of cars, the throng of pedestrians – all bring work to Yod and Ruemkatanyu. Open the photo album and pick a page: A red Ferrari has stopped, its left side scraped hard along the Armco barrier. Under the rear wheel lies a body, face down. A neat stream of blood, a more vibrant colour than the sports car’s paint job, slides towards the other rear wheel.

A motorcyclist lying in the gutter, his helmet pushed half up over his head, its bright, lively patterns a sharp contrast to the thick blood that has crept from his mouth.

A driver has been pulled from the wreckage of his car and laid out on a white sheet, the five body parts found by the Ruemkatanyu workers placed in rough approximation to how they would have been before he climbed behind the wheel.

Flick the pages. There are more. Too many.

Bangkok is a magnet, like most cities of the developing world. People find themselves pulled away from small villages and provincial towns, attracted to the city by the prospect of work. Often they are young and come alone, leaving families miles away. Sometimes these new urbanites get crushed in the wheels that drive the city forward. They die and their families do not know. A young man out for the night has had a couple of drinks and loses control of the bike he’s riding; a young woman steps out from the kerb and is knocked down by a car, lorry, tuk-tuk or bike. These two, like many others, aren’t carrying their ID cards. No one knows who they are, so no one knows that they’ve died.

Ghosts feature strongly in Buddhist culture. Maybe it’s anonymous death in the midst of teeming life that creates ghosts. There is no family on hand to become worried when they haven’t been seen for a few days. They are far away and usually only hear from their beloved son or daughter once a month because they don’t own a telephone. But the workers and volunteers from Ruemkatanyu are there.

They take a photograph, a celluloid death-mask; they lift the battered body off the street, place it in their overworked pick-up and take it to the police mortuary.

If no one makes that worst of journeys, a speculative trip to the morgue in search of — but not wanting to find — someone they love, if no one has come after a week, then Ruemkatanyu comes. It collects the body and cares for it. Its workers bury the unclaimed corpse in a special cemetery where it lies for a year, waiting to be found by family or friends.

The only way that bodies can be identified is by those photographs Ruemkatanyu takes at the scene. If during that year someone comes searching for a missing loved one, they have to sit and study hundreds of snapshots of violent death, hoping they won’t find the face they are looking for. These pictures are not easy to look at, less easy to study. Some of the corpses are beyond recognition. These are rarely claimed. Other bodies are just never missed. After a year these lonely corpses are exhumed and taken to a monastery where the monks and Ruemkatanyu workers hold a modest Buddhist funeral and cremation.

Another call. While we have been sitting it has been raining again. The streets glisten. The route this time is clear and we drive fast. The wheels squirm. There are no seatbelts in the vehicle and I brace myself into the corner, aware that at this speed it is a futile gesture.

We pull up in front of a car that has stopped at an odd angle; impossible to tell which way it had been travelling. Pushed under the front wheel lies a moped, only its seat and rear wheel visible in the beam of our headlights. On the kerb sits a young man, hunched and awkward. He holds his body like a man three times his age, riddled with arthritis. He is bleeding gently. He looks at us as we approach and his eyes do not move as he is helped to his feet. He has the stare of a man transfixed by the vision of his own death, one that he narrowly avoided this time. We take him to the nearest hospital where the nurses wheel him into the sterile glare of institutional strip-lights. We leave the lights behind and head out again into the night.

In downtown Bangkok, Ruemkatanyu has a collection office, which raises the funds that allow it to provide the ambulance and burial service. Money comes from the people they help and those who hope they will never need that help. The office is a long room, lit harshly. It is a busy place. A table runs along one side, with volunteers sat behind. They collect donations from the steady stream of people who come in, night and day. Young couples on the way out to a date, old men with paunches, young men with prospects.

Police officers, taxi drivers, children, housewives, the glamorous and the ordinary – each sits down at the desk and hands over their money; some large amounts, others small. Thailand is a third world country – few of these people have cash to spare, so even the smallest gifts are generous. For their donation they are given a small pink ticket. They take the ticket and head towards a small Buddhist temple at the end of the long room. The gift givers take off their shoes and enter. Incense burns, bells toll, heads bend in prayer. When they emerge, they walk with reverence towards a corner where simple wooden boxes are stacked to the ceiling.

These are coffins for the dead whose family are too poor to afford them and for the dead whose families never come to claim them. The people paste their pink tickets on to one of the coffins. They place their hands together in prayer, bow their heads and pause for a moment. When a coffin has collected enough pink stickers, it has been paid for. It is taken out of the collection hall, placed in the back of a pick-up and taken to where its body lies, waiting.

Two foundations in Thailand do work like this, Ruemkatanyu and Poh Teck Tung. Both are charities, although Ruemkatanyu is the less well off. Despite the generosity of the Thai people, doing this work is expensive. Many of the vehicles involved are prematurely old after 10 to 12 years of racing around the streets of Bangkok. There was a time when there was fierce competition between the charities to claim the corpses, both eager to be the ones doing good. They would argue over who would take the bodies, sometimes they would even fight for the right to honour the dead.

Now the city is split into north and south. The charities alternate between each area. In the south the rescue trucks patrol alone, but tonight we have the north; up here it’s better to stick together. Ten vehicles have gathered on rough land under a web of gracefully curving elevated freeways. This intersection is a good place to wait.

From here we can cover most of the north quickly. At night the sweeping aerial arteries are race tracks: people drive too fast, young men race bikes and cars. We sit and await the inevitable as crisps, cigarettes and Coke punctuate chirpy chatter. Some of the workers are paid; they receive training in basic first aid and rescue techniques.

Some of them have special skills, like operating the antiquated hydraulic cutting tools that shear open the twisted metal of crashed cars. Tonight there are three full-timers sitting on the raffia mats, chatting and waiting; the rest are volunteers. Most are young, mid-20s and early 30s, men and women. Many of the volunteers have full-time jobs during the day — they have to provide their own vehicles and cover their own expenses. Their only reward is the knowledge that they are doing good, helping others who cannot help themselves.

Sharp, cool light from the tall roadside towers surrounds us as we chat and laugh in tandem conversations, translated back and forth between Thai and English. A radio cackles, the smiles snap into professional frowns. No need to understand the language, we are on our feet, running to the trucks and then racing through the night.

He lies face down, head turned to one side, arms outstretched, legs crossed casually at the ankles. The police put the motorbike on the back of a pick-up. Its handlebars are bent, its forks pushed back and its paintwork scuffed. Nothing that can’t be repaired. One of the young man’s eyes is closed, the other stares ahead without seeing, like a camera without film. A pool of blood spreads slowly from the side of his head.

Several Ruemkatanyu workers are preparing to move the body. As they place him on a sheet, he sits, legs out straight, torso bent at the waist, head upright, single eye staring ahead. For a moment, he looks like a man who has drunk too much being helped to his feet. In the half dark of headlights and blue-red-blue flashes, he looks alive. Then the glare shines on the right side of his skull and it is clear he will never move on his own again. A crowd has gathered at the side of the road, but he died alone. Going too fast on his bike, he hit a bump, lost control. His head hit the floor first. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

When the back of the truck is empty again, we pull on to a petrol station forecourt to await the next call. Yod talks of his job. He likes it, is good at it and it’s not always horrific. One night, cruising around waiting for the radio to send him screaming through the city, he spotted a tight knot of people on the street. A heavily pregnant woman had fallen to the ground and was writhing in pain. Yod got her into the back of the Nissan. He delivered her baby as Bangkok bustled by. A baby boy, born where so many others had lain dead or dying, a boy who would also have died, the doctors told him, had Ruemkatanyu not been patrolling the streets handing out Buddhist gifts of unquestioning help to the poor of Bangkok.

The Sunday Telegraph, 26 May 2003 [read it here]

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