BANGKOK, Thailand -- Fearless body snatchers careen through traffic, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, to morbid disaster sites where they seize fresh human corpses to pack in mustard-colored coffins for yet another profitable cremation.

"I see dead people all the time, but I've never seen ghosts," Anyawut Phoamphai, 36, says in Thai, maniacally chuckling and slamming his foot on the accelerator of a new Toyota van.

"Before doing this work, I was afraid of ghosts. But I'm not afraid of ghosts now. And I'm not afraid to get sick while handling dead people. I'm not afraid to touch their corpses. I wear Buddhist amulets and they protect me."

If you or anyone else you know -- Thai or foreigner -- suddenly drops dead in Bangkok, chances are your body will be grabbed by a team of eager men and women who will carefully wrap you in white cloth, carry you away hammock-style, and lay you into the back of a van for a trip to a nearby hospital's forensic lab.

In many places across Thailand, the collectors flock to horrific crash sites, major fires, and anywhere else people might be bleeding, sprawled, dismembered or burnt after a suicide, illness, crime, accident, drowning or other tragedy.

Anyawut's van arrives near Ekamai Road at a canal, where three of his group's scuba-equipped body snatchers are bobbing in the water while holding onto a drowned man. Residents peer from the canal's edge, watching them Anyawut and his colleagues yank the corpse up with a red rope, and lay the dead man in a nearby parking lot.

The body collectors gently remove the man's necklace and bracelet, empty his pockets, chat with police, and watch as a nurse performs preliminary forensic tests on the corpse's eyes, mouth and torso. The team then carries the body to a waiting van.

"He is from Burma, 25 years old," Police Cadet Nattapong Kulsak says. "He was a thief. Two police chased him, but he jumped into the canal and drowned."

Bangkok boasts two main organizations hunting among the dead and dying, though other groups have tried to enter the pack.

Thailand's largest team is Ruam Katanyu. Their much smaller rivals are the Por Teck Tung Foundation. Both groups insist they perform "rescue" work, because they also help people who are discovered alive but severely injured. Thailand has rudimentary ambulance services, so the collectors are usually first on the scene.

Years ago, they occasionally fought each other with knives and other weapons, while simultaneously pulling on corpses of trapped people, despite the presence of weeping loved ones.

"In the past, I also was fighting against Por Teck Tung, but only with fists," says Anyawut, who works for Ruam Katanyu.

Today, the two groups claim their feuds are finished, though other groups shot and beat Ruam Katanyu and Por Teck Tung collectors at crash sites in Bangkok during the past few years. Police then ruled only the two main groups can collect the dead.

Authorities blame corruption for the hostilities, because some hospitals reportedly paid 1,000 baht rewards to body collectors -- if their victim wasn't dead but needed expensive medical care.

"There is now no more fighting between Ruam Katanyu and Por Teck Tung, because we have separated the areas of Bangkok where we work," Por Teck Tung body collector Khaornsak Kongin says. "Now, one group will work in north Bangkok, while the other works in south Bangkok. Then we switch. Every day it changes at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., for 12 hour shifts."

Anyawut has worked at Ruam Katanyu for 18 years. Each month, he earns 15,000 baht and gets two days off, plus free food and a dormitory bed if need be. Both groups employ staff, but also depend on volunteers.

Many Thais dread their arrival, because they usually herald a sad and sudden death.

But their work is quietly cheered by society for providing unclaimed bodies with a dignified funeral. Thai Buddhists especially support them, because by helping someone pass through the rigors of death, good "karma" is earned.

To share this Buddhist form of spiritual "merit-making," many Thais donate money, resulting in a lucrative business for the body snatchers. Most cash appears to flow into Ruam Katanyu's office at Wat Hua Lampong, a majestic Buddhist temple on Rama IV Road. These donors receive a pink paper, on which they can write their own name, above a printed message which translates as:

"I would like to donate toward a coffin, and a white cloth, for a dead person who has no relative, and then I hope I will be released from any problems and suffering, and enjoy more and more happiness." The donor can paste the note onto a bleak stack of coffins, gawk at gruesome photographs of body snatchers in action, and visit a Chinese-themed shrine.

Both groups ask women to volunteer, to avoid gossip about kinky males handling female corpses. Narissara Jarunggit, 21, volunteered after her friend persuaded her. "Collecting bodies at a condominium fire was the worst for me, because the body was scarier, and uglier, and it was so dangerous," she says.

"I am studying hotel management at university, so this experience will help me, because when I work in a hotel, I will have to deal with all kinds of people."


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)