On the night shift: Bangkok's body collectors

Paid per casualty, private ambulance crews race through the Thai capital on a nightly hunt for the injured and deceased.


Bangkok, Thailand - Every night in the Thai capital, dozens of private ambulance teams roam the streets and alleys of the sprawling mega-city of south-east Asia to collect the injured and the dead.  The city has an average of four violent crimes and three fatal road accidents reported each hour of the night; there is no shortage of work.

Thailand does not have a state-run emergency system, and most hospitals lack rescue vehicles and emergency room resources. For the most part, the ambulance teams are funded by private foundations, based in Bangkok’s Chinatown,  which operate on donations.

The main ambulance squads,  such as the Poh Teck Tung Foundation and Ruam Katanyu Foundation, are in fierce competition. In fact, body-collecting in Bangkok is a brisk and profitable business.

For every corpse the teams deliver to a hospital, they are paid 500baht, or around $16; for the injured, they sometimes receive generous donations from the victim’s relatives.

The body collectors are mostly young men, either volunteers or full-time employees, who consider the hunt for bodies a nightly adventure. They start their shift at around 9pm, waiting in the parking lots of petrol stations and fast-food joints in downtown Bangkok.

They listen intently to police scanners, local traffic reports  and the radio chatter of the city's legions of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. When they hear of pile-ups, altercations - or any of the city’s ever-present accidents - they leap into their vehicles and speed to the scene.

After midnight, when the rowdy Bangkok bars begin to empty, the hunt intensifies.

By the body collectors' reckoning, most of their work is caused by road accidents, murders, suicides and drowning victims fished from Bangkok's many canals.

Their shifts ends at 8am, when the teams return exhausted to their bases. Until the next evening, when the hunt begins anew.