Bangkok amulet man. Thailand 2007

Back in the early 70s, when I first went to Thailand, I met some young Thai guys, who spoke English and I asked them about their amulets. I was told that many Thais believe that the amulets will protect them to such an extent that they almost give up control of their own lives and just trust the amulets will protect them. Apparently many bus and truck drivers think that if they have enough amulets that they are immune to accidents and as a result, some of them drive like absolute lunatics. I was also told that gangs of young men armed with sharpened metre long steel rulers that they use as makeshift swords, quite often got into fights with each other, declaring that their amulets gave them better protection than the amulets worn by the other gang. A sort of gang trial by amulet.

Nearly everywhere I’ve been in the world, religion is big business and this seems to go double for Thailand. It seems like everywhere you go there are temples and nearby stores selling offerings. You can buy anything from a bronze Buddha weighing a couple of tonnes to small birds that you can release so you can gain good karma.

Sometimes, it strikes me as being a bit odd that people will sell things that if they worked, they might be better off keeping for themselves. For instance, if you buy birds to release to gain good karma does that mean that the people who captured the birds gain bad karma?

In Bangkok, there is a huge business with religious amulets. The amulets are produced in monasteries and blessed by famous monks. You can buy an amulet for any purpose. There are amulets for wealth, love, happiness, health, protection, you name it.  It’s not uncommon to see people wearing necklaces with sometimes up to 30 or 40 amulets on them. There are also very big gaudy amulets that seemed to be aimed at the wealthy. I guess if you’re rich you’d like to think you could buy a better favours from your supreme being.

There is so much interest in religious amulets that there are even magazines aimed at amulet collectors. These magazines go into great detail, explaining how to look out for fakes and which amulets have the best properties or are the best investment.

When I was in Bangkok last year, I wished I could have spoken Thai, so I could’ve asked those amulet sellers why they would sell something that is so powerful for mere money?

Back in 1974 to 1975, when I was living in Cambodia during the war, I used to know a wise old Chinese man called Mr Heng who used to teach me Cantonese and I taught him English. I once introduced an antiques trader from Australia to Mr Heng who had quite a few beautiful objects in his house. The antiques dealer offered to buy some pieces from Mr Heng, but Mr Heng declined to sell the statues of his household gods. After the dealer left, I asked Mr Heng why he didn’t want to sell them because the money that he had been offered was quite considerable. Mr Heng said, “that if I was to sell one of the gods, like the God of long life, then I would be saying to the heavens that I didn’t want long life”. It would seem that some things are worth more than money. 

To some people.

I don’t think the guy selling the amulets in this photograph was doing all that well. 

A Bangkok amulet trader

I don’t think sitting on your backside on pavement in the stinking hot sun all day, seven days a week is a very good outcome for someone in possession of so many allegedly efficacious talismans. Perhaps he just didn’t have the money to buy the really powerful medallions. Perhaps it’s part of the karmic reincarnation cycle that only the rich get the best protection that money can buy.

 All this amulet business seems so far away from the compassionate teachings of Buddha who also wanted us to let go of our attachments.