By URISARA KOWITDAMRONG
THROUGH his 55-day epic charity run, Artiwara “Toon” Kongmalai has transformed himself from a music celebrity into a national hero.
Recent public surveys show Artiwara is consistently ranked as 2017’s most admired person in Thailand, whether “the most popular” or “Man of the Year” depending on how pollsters ask the question.
One conclusion is inescapable – Artiwara, alias Toon Bodyslam, is no longer just a famous rock singer, but has become an inspiration seen as a dedicated and even great man in the eyes of the public.
“I feel like I am in a dream,” Artiwara himself admitted after completing his months-long charity run in Chiang Rai province.
The campaign was initiated by Artiwara to raise funds for state hospitals, with his marathon run starting on November 1 in Thailand’s southernmost province of Yala. When he completed his mission in Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district on December 25, he officially became the first person to have run from the country’s southernmost border to its northernmost tip.
The much-publicised run, which covered a distance of about 2,215.4 kilometres, exceeded expectations in several ways.
For one, Artiwara initially hoped to raise Bt700 million, but by the end of the marathon donations exceeded Bt1.2 billion.
“I’d never imagined that I could have come this far,” he said.
Over the past two months, Artiwara also received non-stop media coverage daily and attracted new fans, expanding his support base massively.
But what made the charity run exceptional was that it made Thai society recognise people’s power to make a difference.
He has inspired others to also do good deeds and make contributions to society, in an ethic that might be expressed as every small step counts.
The momentum of the campaign has enjoyed a boost as celebrities such as Worachet “Chet” Empia, among others, also started charity runs to help Artiwara raise funds in provinces not included along his own route.
And while many made donations, others promised to use hospital resources more efficiently, with an acute awareness of state hospitals’ budget constraints.
When Artiwara first unveiled his plan to raise funds for state hospitals in an unprecedented run, many people openly questioned the idea, with some suggesting the campaign would fail to solve healthcare budgetary problems at their roots.
The target of Bt700 million was considered a relative drop in the bucket given that the annual budget provided by the government to state hospitals in general was about Bt300 billion a year. Critics said they believed donations were not the right solution as relevant authorities should try harder to manage existing resources and ensure good healthcare.
Artiwara was nonetheless determined to proceed, saying simply: “I will help where I can … I am more of a doer, not a talker.”
Born in 1979 and growing up in Suphan Buri province, Artiwara later moved to Bangkok to further his studies. He enrolled at the prestigious Suankularb Wittayalai School where with fellow music-loving friends he formed the successful La-On band.
After winning a well-known music contest for high school bands, La-On commercially released a few albums.
Although that band would later break up and Artiwara would later graduate in law at Chulalongkorn University, he never really left the music scene and in 2002 he and his friends founded the rock band Bodyslam.
As a prominent presence in Thailand’s music industry for two decades, Artiwara was inspired to launch the recent charity run after completing a similar event last year, when he was invited to join the Prachuap Khiri Khan-based Bang Saphan Hospital’s charity run. In just 10 days, that running event raised Bt85 million.
“I am not a professional athlete. I am just a singer who loves to run. But after the 2016 run turned out a success, several hospitals contacted me. So, I planned to do this cross-country run,” Artiwara said. “If you hold a concert to raise funds, you will have to cover many expenses and in the end hospitals may not receive much.”
The singer chose 11 state hospitals as the recipients of funds: Saraburi Hospital, Surat Thani Hospital, Khon Kaen Hospital, Chaophraya Yommaraj Hospital, Nakornping Hospital, Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital, Chaopraya Abhaiphubejhr Hospital, Ratchaburi Hospital, Nan Hospital, Phramongkutklao Hospital and Yala Hospital.
Most are large and relatively well-equipped, but Artiwara selected them because the facilities treat very
high numbers of patients. With better facilities at these institutions, more patients will benefit.
Artiwara started his run in Yala’s Betong district on November 1 despite the continued insurgency in Thailand’s deep South with supporters lining his route ever since, offering cheers and donations.
During the first weeks of his run, Artiwara often mingled with his fans, allowing them to take selfie shots with him, shaking hands and receiving warm hugs.
He interacted with the crowds less in the following weeks after the continual stops and repetitive motions contributed to injuries that he accumulated along the way. Many people, for example, accidentally stepped on his feet during stops along the route. Such repetitive contact inflicted painful injuries for a man who had to run long distances almost every day and he was forced to make some brief stops to nurse the damage.
Despite those hardships, however, Artiwara never complained, although he did admit at the end of his epic marathon that he had seen his mission as very daunting by the time he reached Prachuap Khiri Khan.
“I sustained several injuries,” he said. “But fortunately, doctors and physical therapists helped me a lot.”
He also thanked the members of his team for making his project a success and all Thais for their moral support.
“Without Thais, we would have not been able to reach Mae Sai,” Artiwara said at the end of his run.
Far from claiming credit for his marathon, he insisted: “I am not a hero. The real heroes are dressed in white and work very hard at hospitals. After donations reach hospitals, Thais will be the beneficiaries.”
In addition to the physical feat, that sense of humility has prompted a widespread recognition across the country with praise for Artiwara coming from all sides. Among his fans is Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who apparently holds no grudges after he was beaten by a wide margin in a recent poll on “the most admirable person” of the year.
Suphan Buri authorities have also passed a resolution naming one local road as Artiwara and another as Kongmalai in his honour.