If you are involved in a serious road accident in Thailand, there is a 95% chance that a rescue organisation called Ruamkatanyu (RKU) will be the guys who come to your aid. This magnificent organisation employs one foreigner, Marko Cunningham. The ajarn hotseat welcomes a part-time teacher and a full-time Thailand superhero.
Marko. You're originally a scouser (a person born in Liverpool, England) but moved to New Zealand when you were five. So you left what is in my opinion the most beautiful country on the planet to immerse yourself in the world of Thailand road accidents and other extremely nasty situations. Don't take this the wrong way, but I've got you marked down as 'slightly mad' already.
Strangely enough Phil its not the first time I've been labeled as such, but in actual fact the roots of my passion for rescue work in Bangkok lie in all the extreme sports I used to do in NZ. There's not much in the way of outdoors activities in Bangkok and so I get my excitement and satisfaction from rescue work, I've been shot at three times, been attacked by crazed people, dogs and bitten by a snake. I've delivered 3 babies, been in the colored shirt riots and shootings, helped thousands of accident victims and handled over 2,500 dead bodies during the Tsunami. Just simply driving around Bangkok going to accidents is a rush in itself, uncaring and aggressive motorists make our job all the more difficult and dangerous but finally the rewards of my work are immense, saving someones life or simply easing someones pain and suffering is an enormous incentive that overrides the dangers involved in doing it. All this and I get to go home once a year to Gods Zone.
Give us a brief overview of the wonderful work that the RKU does and what kind of situations it gets called to?
Ruamkatanyu does just about everything. We have 21 schools in the provinces as of January this year. We have 12 full time ambulances with EMT officers and over 5000 volunteers with vehicles to assist them. We regularly take truckloads of food and clothing to very poor provinces, we are actually going to a village near Chiang Mai this weekend for 4 days. We have temples for donations to provide spiritual betterment for Thai people with an opportunity for them to gain merit from donating money for coffins(funerals). Body collection, identification and transportation (we are the FEDEX of the cadaver world). We also catch wild animals, do duties that the police should be doing like stopping fights etc. and anything else we can do to assist the public. Right now I am also a volunteer for the Tourist Police in my area because they can't speak English, hmm. But the bulk of our work is Rescue work, we attend over 95% of all incidents in our given area, 80% of those being motorcycles, and 80% of those, alcohol related. The government ambulance service (Narenthorn and Erawan) attend to the other 5 to 10% of normally more serious accidents, heart attacks etc.
Now you are the only foreigner working for the RKU. Why only you? Why aren't there more?
Good question Phil! I'm really not 100% sure but I believe its for a number of complex reasons. Firstly you must speak Thai and get to know some volunteers who will accept you as a friend and colleague, you can't just apply to be a volunteer. If the group accept you then you will be allowed to apply as a volunteer and undergo a 2 day training course of 24 hours and apply for a police certificate. After that you will work with the small group that has "sponsored" you.
To be accepted into a group is a very difficult thing because most Thais are weary of foreigners, which is a general part of Thai culture, sure they love to interact with foreigners but bringing them into your family is a different matter, especially for Thai males. Most foreigners will have a Thai female friend, or many in most cases, but how many have real solid friendships with Thai males, not many I think. So its a combination of you becoming Thai and accepting all the good and bad points as well as trying to retain your own character.
It was really hard for me in the beginning as I tried to show off my skills and knowledge and that back-fired big time, so finally I just did what I had to do and let them watch me and passively learn from that. I too learnt a lot from them the same way, one incident always comes to mind and that is one day we arrived at a scene were a mans heart had stopped beating for quite some time but my friend started CPR anyway, I was a little phased by it but began to assist him and at the same time quietly said to him "what are you doing?" he said the parents are watching and so we should make them feel like we tried to resuscitate him and they will feel better, even if he dies. It really struck me as such a compassionate thing to do but something that would never happen back home. I was impressed by it anyway.
There are many other things which I do not accept as much but I normally keep these things to myself or use other channels to express my disapproval. As a foreigner interacting with Thais in this rescue service is very complex, even for Thais they have their own problems, but for foreigners is just that much more complex. Lastly I think foreigners don't want to stay awake for 24 hours in a mosquito infested gas station talking about accidents, girls and cars with a bunch of Thai blokes, and work in what is actually a very dangerous environment with the real risk of dying on the job. I have heard of other farang in Thailand working for rescue services but I have never met them and am unsure about their exact roles, wether they are registered volunteers or just helping out.
Give us some typical examples of how you help the organization from an English-speaking angle.
I am the PR for all media and guests to our group, I assist in body collection and accidents involving foreigners and assist their families through the process of body collection to burial, I can speak Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai which also helps. I teach fundamental English to the EMT's and volunteers. During the Tsunami I was extremely busy with families, media, NGO's, government officials etc, I think that was my most useful time in all my life! As I said before I also assist the police in their duties, whatever they may be
Is the RKU funded entirely by voluntary donations?
Yes but the volunteers pay for and operate their own vehicles, they don't receive anything from the foundation! When I had my ambulance I spent around 15,000 baht a month running it. Its why I'm broke now and looking for a sponsor to start up again(hint hint).
Your family must be very proud of what you are doing? I presume they're also worried sick?
Yes, they are quite proud of me, particularly when I got a medal from the Thai government and more recently the NZ government. Those medals have pride of place on my folks mantelpiece back home in NZ. My family are all like me though, they are always out to help others, it's why I am the way I am. I don't really tell my folks all the bad things that happen but then it was a bit of a shock for them when they finally read my book which reveals pretty much everything. I guess I am responsible for a fair number of Mums new grey hairs.
Do you work mainly in Bangkok or is your time divided between other provinces?
Now I am out in Chon Buri working at a University here and am a member of the Dragon Foundation in Chon Buri. I wanted to learn more about rescue work in the provinces and so I planned to stay here for a year but I am itching to get back to Bangkok. Things in Chon Buri are quieter and its like starting all over again with making relationships, Im lucky that most people know me already from TV but still, 10 years with one group and a Tsunami has solidified some great friendships in Ruamkatanyu and I really miss them alot. I still get to go to Bangkok weekends and work with them though. In the future I still want to help out in the provinces because there are some really poorly equiped and educated rescue workers there with big hearts but my main workload and heart will always be in Bangkok with Ruamkatanyu.
What's been the scariest or most hair-raising moment in all your years of service?
Surprisingly getting shot at is not the one. The scariest thing that I experienced was when I climbed up a crane to rescue a man who had fallen from a collapsed crane but landed on the remaining part of the crane which was at a 70 degree angle and about 30 meters up and could have toppled at any time. In the heat of the moment I climbed it without much thought until I got to the top and it started to rain and I had to climb back down a slippery crane. I couldn't move much the next day because I was gripping the bars so tightly! I was lucky enough to find someone who had videoed the whole thing too and so I still get a kick out of watching that.
When you are at the scene of a road accident and trying to do a professional job fast - what can get in the way and delay getting the victim to hospital? Please don't say paperwork.
o many things! A policeman once refused to let my ambulance go through a red light to take a stabbing victim to hospital, he even looked in the back at the victim and was just being an asshole plain and simple. Other things at the scene are bystanders and media who get in the way. The police can sometimes be telling you to get the person off the road because of traffic which can be dangerous for the victim. Other vehicles are the biggest hazard by far and on average 5 volunteers die every year being hit by passing motorists who do not slow down passing accident scenes at break neck speed. Last year I lost one of my best friends, Neung in such an accident. Surprisingly, normally nice, easy going Thais are aggressive uneducated drivers at best.
Answer me this one. Whenever we see a photograph of a road accident on the front page of a Thai newspaper, there's always some copper pointing with his finger as though it hadn't crossed our minds that the shapeless lump lying in a pool of blood might be the victim. What the f*** is all that about?
Oh right, well the police in Thailand are masters of stating the bleed'in obvious, it beats investigative work. Pointing at a mangled corpse just means 'I got my photo in the paper because of THAT guy' (pointing at the victim).
You don't have much time for the wonderful boys in brown I gather?
Where did you get that impression from Phil?
You've written a book called 'Sleeping With The Dead' How did the title come about and what's in the book?
Sorry to disappoint you necrophiliacs out there but the book is just about the time I slept with the dead in the Tsunami. I used to take naps at lunchtime in the refrigerated containers with 40 or so bodies just to keep cool and get some valuable shut eye, until my boss found me one day and asked if I'd like to go back to Bangkok for some R & R. Since then, the supposed ghosts that follow me around are the dead who I still sleep with everyday of my life. My Thai friends have seen them and felt them around me and in my room. I on the other hand have never seen a ghost in my life but would dearly love to meet one... so many questions! Alas, I only have dreams of ghosts.
It sounds like a great read. Where can people get it?
I'd like to say "at your local book store" but my publisher is a bit slack and so I am making a second edition by myself for the Thai market later this year. Otherwise you can order it from my website: www.bkkfreeambulance.com, there's also lots of pictures and updates on the site that can be a read along with the book and I guess follow my future exploits. My Journalist friend is pushing me to start "Tweeting" my adventures but I don't really understand the concept and it all sounds very annoying, enough people hate me already. Surprisingly I like to be left alone to do my work but my PR role doesn't allow me to do that. Don't take this the wrong way Phil but dealing with Media is more tiring than a picking up thousands of dead bodies. The same Journalist friend said to me, after reading my book, do you think any media person is going to write anything nice about you after you bad mouthed them all? But in my defence, the book started out as therapy for me after the Tsunami, its very honest and blunt about many things, including stupid things I myself have done.
How can people find out more about RKU?
Right now my book probably has the best information about Ruamkatanyu in English. I was supposed to do the RKU website in English but haven't had time. Otherwise learn Thai and there's a plethora of information, unfortunately mostly gossip and rumors. "Google" it?
You really do sound like a man who can't imagine himself doing another job.
Well funny enough Phil, as I wrote in my book, I always wanted to be a fashion designer! But my dad talked me out of it when I was 16, worried that I would turn out to be gay or something, and pushed me into an electrical apprenticeship. But both of these things seem so far removed from what I'm doing now: I don't believe in much, but I believe in fate, and I guess thats why I have ended up here doing this. In short, I absolutably love my work now at Ruamkatanyu and if I died tomorrow, I'd be content with my life as its been. Great family, great friends great job and a really great life so far.
The fashion world's loss was definitely Thailand's gain. Top work big fella! Let's hope that someone reading this can help get that ambulance back on the road.
Thanks for the interview Phil