Thailand’s highways aren’t for timid drivers, with inundated roads, erratic speeders, and a cultural disdain for seat belts taking thousands of lives each year. So when Pitak Veangsima, a marketing executive, careened his Lamborghini off a road at 150 kph in June and smashed into a tree, it seemed as though he would be just one more goner.
Yet while his million-dollar vehicle was split in two, Pitak escaped unscathed: he calmly walked away from the wreckage to call his insurance company. Simple reasoning might posit that Pitak was either the luckiest man alive or the beneficiary of Lamborghini engineers, who some say designed the car to separate into two chunks in such high-impact situations.Pitak, however, had no doubt about where his good fortune came from.
As he saw it, his survival was thanks to protective energies emanating from the prized Buddhist amulet—a simple charm with an image of Buddha—that dangled from his neck at the time of the crash.
In other highly publicized incidents in Thailand, amulets have helped owners dodge bullets and avoid fatal plunges. Millions of Thais, in fact, can reference specific, often unfathomable incidents that prove the power of their amulets. Wearers believe that the small trinkets—ostensibly blessed by Buddhist monks—can generate enough positive energy to bring them everything from good luck and true love to wild sex and hard cash.
The ancient history of amulets lies wrapped in the slew of intermingling beliefs—Hindu, animist, superstitious, and Buddhist—that define Thai culture.
“I swear by them,” says Prachat, a customer at Bangkok’s main amulet market near Phra Chan Road, who owns more than 300 different objects. “They have helped me in many ways. Some are blessed by monks who are known for being wise, which gives me wisdom. Others are blessed by monks legendary for their generosity and kindness. These help me to care for my family.”
At the market, in the historic old city, stallholders lay out a bewildering selection of the energized trinkets. Amulets come in many styles and shapes and are made of metal, wood, bone, or plaster. They can also include colored dust from a temple’s bricks, human hair, and even droplets of blood.
Many of the palm-sized amulets depict Buddha or a senior monk in bas-relief. These are known as Phra Kreuang. Other versions are more bizarre. A macabre two-headed zombie baby is said to be a guardian angel, while one with the antlers of a muntjac deer is meant to bring prosperity. Nine-tailed lizards are added to whip more money into the pocket of the owner.
The most expensive amulets are carefully placed in separate velvet-lined compartments in cabinets made from golden teak wood. Less valuable amulets are placed in more modest cabinets, while the cheapest items are carried to the market in plastic shopping bags and set out roughly on ramshackle tables. Salesmen shuffle the mass-produced items around based on cycles of popularity, though antique amulets and ones blessed by recognized master monks never go out of style.
The showcasing techniques do not necessarily reflect the spiritual power of the amulets, however; the vendors are simply trying to lure buyers to pricier trinkets. Many shoppers know this, and when they buy expensive amulets, it’s less to take on extra powers than to display their status—like a flashy sports car or designer handbag.
Everyday shoppers can pick up amulets at the market—as well as in temples and department stores across the country—for as little as 10 baht (USD 0.30). High-end versions, prized by elite businessmen, decorated policemen and soldiers, regularly sell for over 3 million baht (USD 100,000). Pitak’s amulet, blessed by Luang Phor Sodh, one of Thailand’s most revered monks, costs roughly this much. The most elite versions are ones blessed by Somdej Toh, another prominent monk from the 19th century. The ancient history of amulets lies wrapped in the slew of intermingling beliefs—Hindu, animist, superstitious, and Buddhist—that define Thai culture. But as Thailand modernizes, its amulet industry is becoming increasingly commercialized. In the past, monks made just a few precious amulets. Today, amulets are mass-produced by more than a dozen domestic companies. Once a new design is finalized, batches are sent to selected temples to be blessed, resulting in lucrative tax-free profits for many monks.
All told, Thailand’s amulet industry is worth over a hundred million dollars a year. Beyond Thailand, the trinkets are extremely popular as a mystical source of energy and a fashionable accessory in other Asian markets and in Western countries.
Some Thai people complain that the amulet trend is just another example of the blatant monetization of Thai-style Buddhism. Others think the items are merely a superstitious scam.
“I think they are meaningless now,” says Apple Tangsinpoonchai, a 29-year-old Bangkok journalist. “Before, they signified something ceremonial and holy, as they were originally used as decorations in temples or good luck charms. Nowadays, they are as much of a fashion statement as anything else.”
Back at the Bangkok market, however, belief in the amulet’s transformative energy still thrives. Customers browsing the pieces span young and old, poor and affluent. Patchwipa Malika, a 30-year-old who works in the medical industry, is searching for a piece blessed by the monk Luang Phor Thod believed to protect travelers on their journeys.
She just landed a lucrative new job, but she doesn’t chalk her good fortune up to serendipity or skill. Instead, she attributes her employment to the mysterious powers of the collection of amulets she keeps in the glove box of her BMW convertible.
“I know it maybe sounds crazy to some foreigners, but I am a Buddhist and I believe in their energies,” she says of the amulets. “I hadn’t even put my resume online yet somehow, someone from Holland got hold of my details and gave me this opportunity. I know that, to a certain degree, you make your own luck in life, but I am very much of the belief that [the amulets] have aided me and protected me.”
Amulets have been protecting their owners from harm since ancient times. The word “amulet” comes from the Latin amuletum, which means “an object that protects a person from trouble”. The earliest mention of the word is in Natural History, the early encyclopedia published around 77 AD by Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder.
Mezuzah A piece of parchment inscribed with specific Hebrew verses from the Torah, which acts as a symbol of God’s watch upon the homes of Jews.
Scarab Symbolizing rebirth and sunrise, ancient Egyptians used scarab amulets during funerary rites—for example, a heart scarab to protect the heart from speaking out against the deceased.
Fascinus One of many amulets employed by ancient Romans to invoke the powers of an associated god—in this case, a phallus to protect women and children from envy, or “the evil eye”.