The Ping River is nothing but a blur. City lights twinkle and reflect off its waters in a flash as the ambulance flies across a bridge and into downtown Chiang Mai. Two drivers sit in the front, throwing the roaring vehicle from left to right, dodging tuk tuks and scooters, while crammed in the back are a traffic director, two medics, an assistant and one white-knuckled journalist.
Reaching hitherto unheard of speeds on Chiang Mai’s congested roads, the Pingnakorn Ambulance races to the scene of an accident in the old quarter. It screeches to a halt and the mass of bodies exits swiftly. With a calm, rehearsed purpose, the medical team sets to work assisting the first ambulance that arrived on the scene; directing traffic, holding back the crowd, gathering information.
In the tight confines of the old city streets, the wagon’s blue and red lights scatter their colours in all directions, splashing bright beams across the faces of the growing late-night crowd. The scene is a mess. Traffic police do their best to cordon off the gawkers, who are soon followed by drunken tourists, stumbling through the newly erected barriers. A visibly upset relative is guided into an ambulance for the drive to the hospital. A pool of blood reflects the emergency lights flashing in the night.
Almost as quickly as it began, we are back in the ambulance and calmly cruising to the assembly station. All this before the clock has struck midnight.
Thailand is notorious for its poor traffic record and growing number of road fatalities. Some (arguably modest) numbers available from 2013 place Thailand sixth in the world for road fatalities, with up to 26,000 deaths per year – 70% to 80% of those being motorcyclists and/or their passengers. According to vice interior minister Silapachai Jarukasemratana, who released these statistics, the primary causes of death were speeding, drunk driving and failure to wear safety belts or crash helmets.
Local and national ambulance and paramedic services confront this onslaught of accidents, injuries and deaths firsthand every Friday and Saturday night when drunk drivers, street racers and partying tourists hit the streets with abandon.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, groups such as the Pingnakorn Emergency Rescue – a volunteer paramedic and emergency response organisation that has teams stationed throughout the city – deal with the carnage. Established in 1988 with support from the Thai government and international backing and training, Pingnakorn has gone some way toward meeting the city’s overwhelming need for first responders and trained medical staff. It and other groups in the city had historically worked separately. Today, however, they work in conjunction with one another and fall under the umbrella of ‘Chiang Mai Rescue’.
All of Pingnakorn’s drivers, paramedics and assistants are volunteers, trained by hospital staff in a range of specialised first aid and emergency situations, as well as in fire and flood response, as they are regularly called upon to assist in regional disasters and emergencies. Some join up for religious reasons, as making and gaining merit is a cornerstone of Thailand’s Theravada Buddhism. Others, such as Khun Wichet, a Pingnakorn rescue driver for the past seven years, join for much simpler reasons. “We want to help. It makes us happy seeing the work we do, and we also do it for the excitement,” he says. Funding for the setup comes in the form of monthly donations.
The team we ride with tonight is stationed on Charoen Muang Road, a major artery into the downtown area, so it is responsible for one of the busiest sections of the city. At any given time, the team numbers between eight and 15 medics, drivers and first responders.
Team leader Utit Lek and his wife Khun Aof, both from Chiang Mai, have been emergency workers for close to 15 years. Now in their mid-40s, the pair has created a tight-knit and well prepared – albiet ragtag – response team. “We try to foster as family-oriented a team and feeling as possible,” Khun Aof says. Having to spend hours in each other’s company, often with long stretches in between calls, it is crucial that the team members be cohesive and comfortable with one another.
As the clock edges toward midnight, the team packs and repacks the ambulance, the driver sitting half asleep in the front. The call comes in for them to move north to one of Chiang Mai’s direct motorway links to the highway, where they will lay in wait for the throngs of revellers who will soon begin filtering out of the entertainment district.
The small quick-response team gathers around a roadside noodle shop and, between bowls of steaming broth and a steady stream of Coca-Cola, an uneasy calm sets in; the inevitable lingers. Every crackle of the dispatch radio causes the group to fall silent, as ears prick up to listen for the dispatcher’s voice.
I mention to one team member that I live on Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road, which is known for the hundreds of giant trees that line it. He looks up, shaking his head. “Very dangerous that street. Those trees kill many people,” he says solemnly. A few hours with these people reveals a morbid city map each one of them can recount by heart.
Soon, confirmation of an accident within our zone comes in, sending plastic chairs clattering to the ground as the team sprints across the empty street towards the ambulance. The revving engine drowns out the squeal of the siren as the vehicle tears towards the highway. Unconstrained by the small streets of the city, the driver pushes the small, top-heavy ambulance to its limits. The outside world turns into a haze as we learn we’re approaching the scene of a multiple motorcycle and scooter crash.
At the scene, scooters lie crumpled on their sides. Deep ruts scar the side of the road and smashed mirror and taillights litter the wonky paths the bikes took as they slid off the tarmac. Their drivers sit atop overturned pipes in a daze as the medics get to work bandaging and disinfecting. The injuries tonight are minimal – bumps, bruises, a bit of road rash. It is a relatively happy ending to what is far too often a trip to the emergency room, or worse.
Por Waret, the ambulance driver, recounts an accident from a few weeks earlier. “[It involved] a car [with two people inside] and a transport truck [carrying one driver]. Some time around 4am the car went under the truck out on the highway. Two people were injured very bad,” he remembers. And the third? “Dead.” He says this with the quiet air of someone who has known tragedy only too well.
Yet dealing with death and destruction is what these volunteers must do on a day-to-day basis, all the while continuing to volunteer their time, their weekends and many sleepless nights attempting to save lives and stem the deluge of accidents and trauma occurring on Thailand’s roads.