Amulets in Bangkok

By DANIELLE PERGAMENT, New York Times, December 18, 2005

Bangkok, Thailand -- You'll know you've arrived at the Ta Prachan market when before you unfurls a street lined with thousands of figurines, Buddhas and monks the size of Thumbelina, a child's army of religious icons.

To find the market from the Grand Palace, walk toward the river, and just before you reach it, turn left. On Na Phra That Road in Bangkok, across from the Wat Mahathat temple, Thai men squat behind their rickety stalls eating fish cakes, Buddhist monks in vibrant orange robes scrutinize what look like framed postage stamps, and sunburned tourists curiously study inch-tall bronze phalluses. Unlike Western flea markets, with their pagan kitchen appliances and secular T-shirts, the Ta Prachan outdoor market traffics in holy iconography in miniature.

For every ill, there is an amulet. Correction: there is an amulet or talisman. An amulet, known as pra, bears the visage of one of many famous monks. He may be alive or dead, and the amulet is usually in the form of a minuscule portrait, tiny model or occasionally life-size bust. Talismans, or kreung rang, include every other holy symbol, primarily Buddhas, monkeys, buffalos, elephants and phalluses.

Need protection from danger? Pick up a Pra Rod amulet. Looking for wealth? Pra Leela Thung Sethi is for you. Low on good fortune? That's Pra Nang Praya. And if you want a blanket, ward-off-anything-bad amulet, the Somdej Parakang is the best bet. Forget the Western premium on a fresh-from-the-box gleam. Here, the older and dirtier an amulet is, the more good luck it has accrued.

It's improper to talk about buying or selling amulets, as their powers don't belong to mortals. "We say we rent the amulets and talismans, especially the Buddha image," said Somtavil Ploythai, a vendor at the market. "They are not ours to own." If the amulet was made by a monk, as most are, the price varies according to the monk's stature - as low as $1 for a starter monk and a few thousand dollars for a "revered monk." If the amulet has a history of protection, say someone survived a car crash or dodged a bullet while in possession of said amulet, the value increases.

There is a friendly rivalry between the vendors of amulets and talismans at Ta Prachan. The amulet sellers pride themselves on their faith and sense of history. The talisman vendors are perhaps more pragmatic. According to Ms. Ploythai, Pra Thai amulets "only protect good people, but talisman will protect both good and bad."