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My life as a 'body snatcher' in Thailand

By Marko Cunningham for CNN
  • Marko Cunningham works as a volunteer paramedic in Bangkok 40-60 hours a week
  • During the recent protests he and colleagues were shot at with gunfire and grenades
  • He is hoping to launch the Bangkok Free Ambulance by the end of this year

Editor's note: New Zealander Mark "Marko" Cunningham, 39, moved to Thailand 10 years ago to teach English and began working as a volunteer paramedic soon after. Here he tells his story.

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) -- When I turn up to an accident most Thais don't treat me differently just because I'm a foreigner. They're just glad someone has turned up to help them.

I'd never thought about being a paramedic until I moved to Thailand from my native New Zealand. I came 10 years ago on holiday and never left.

I'm pretty sure I'm the only foreign ambulance driver in the country. I am currently based about an hour and a half outside Bangkok.

I first started volunteering with the Ruamkatanyu Foundation, at first donating food and clothing to poor villages and disaster victims.

The foundation is one of several private groups that help Bangkok's rudimentary ambulance services by either ferrying injured people to hospital or taking the dead for autopsy.

We're called the "body snatchers" by locals. After a year or so I began working in the rescue vehicles collecting the dead from all over Bangkok and Thailand. I've being doing it ever since.

During the protests I was shot at and on the last day grenades were fired at us. Luckily I have a good bunch of workmates and so we can talk about the day's work and unwind and support each other.

I love New Zealand, but I don't think I'll ever leave Thailand. I've done this adrenaline-pumping job for 10 years.
--Marko Cunningham, volunteer paramedic.

It's hard to make sense of the recent violence, but then again I see violence everyday in Bangkok, this was just on a larger scale. I am here to do a job not to analyze or try to understand the political situation.

The recent violence in Bangkok lasted 10 weeks, whereas the tsunami only lasted two weeks. I'm taking another short break right now.

I still teach full-time, about 40 hours a week, which is paid. The ambulance work is voluntary which is another 40 to 60 hours a week. I have little time for anything else, but when you're doing something you love 100 hours is nothing.

The Boxing Day tsunami in 2006 was very intense. Afterwards, I took a break from the foundation and eventually bought my own ambulance. It cost me around $1,000 US to run per month, which is why I had to sell it. I am hoping to get sponsorship to buy another one.

I've been on TV a few times so some people recognize me. One of the many bizarre situations of working in Bangkok was being at a crash scene and an onlooker asking if they could have their photo taken with me.

I speak Thai, which is essential for communicating with fellow workers, police, the injured and the radios. I also speak Chinese, Japanese and Korean, which helps out when dealing with foreigners. I am still called to deaths or incidents with foreigners because not many rescue workers can speak English.

Most of my training has been in Thailand, although I study some western books. My practical work's been pretty much all in Thailand with some stints back home in New Zealand with the Wellington Free Ambulance. Paramedics there have acted as my mentors and two doctors in Thailand have helped me with my study.

I was an electrician when I left school and then got university degrees in linguistics and management. I also worked for what was then the New Zealand Dairy Board (now Fonterra). Finally, I ended up teaching in Korea and then Thailand.

I did CPR on a man when I was an electrician and was amazed that we have the ability to save people's lives. Now, I couldn't think of anything else I would rather do.

I want to start the Bangkok Free Ambulance like we have back in New Zealand, by the end of the year. I continually study and update my knowledge. Working as a medic is not a job but a way of life.

I love New Zealand, but I don't think I'll ever leave Thailand. I've done this adrenaline-pumping job for 10 years. I go home every year at Christmas. It's enough. A missionary friend in Nepal has asked me to set up something similar there but I am dedicated to Thailand. I'll leave Nepal to young blood.

Find out more about Marko's work or donate on his website:

As told to Julie Clothier