In Thailand, many put their trust into amulets and talismans: small, sometimes beautifully crafted items attached to necklaces or strategically placed in one’s home, workplace or vehicle. Amulets of all sorts may be found at Buddhist temples, and there’s a thriving trade outside the temples at street markets, magazines, even online. Finding the right amulet or collection of amulets is believed to bring about improvements in one’s life, as well as protection from harm.Tucked away in the heart of the historic Old Town district in Phuket Town is a narrow, tin-roofed lane where theamulet trade is carried out daily with great panache. Amulet Alley, found on a tiny walking soi connecting Phang Nga Road and Rassada Road, is so nondescript that many walking around the Old Town streets will pass it by completely unaware. It’s known locally as Nam Nao for the canal (klong) that runs under it.
About a dozen tables are set up along the length of the lane, each displaying neat rows of amulets, talismans and statues, and there are a few small shops behind the tables. There’s a wide variety of designs and colours, but often the amulet tradersthemselves are the most colourful sight in the market.
The small lane reverberates with laughter and chatter, with constant joking and haggling between the traders. Buyers can be seen giving the amulets a close inspection
with mini magnifying glasses, checking for authenticity and quality of design.
Curious onlookers are welcome to come and take a look at theamulets, and most of the traders are happy to show off their collections and explain a bit about each item. Friendly and relaxed, there’s no hard sell or pushy behaviour here.
One trader, when asked about his peculiar -looking belt, quickly removed it from his ample waist and held it up, saying, “Save from the gun! Save from the bomb!” Dangling from his belt were several carved phallic shapes of various sizes, apparently packed with enough power to protect the man from bullets. (Let’s hope they’re never put to the test.)
The phallic symbol is one of the most striking images on display, sitting amongst all kinds of figures derived from Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu and animist traditions. Many Buddha and monk images rub shoulders with rabbits, monkeys, turtles, dragons and various gods and goddesses including Toranee, the long-haired Earth Goddess of Buddhist legend.
One of the pricier amulets (1,900 baht) was a painted butterfly pendant with gemstones, which the seller brought out and invited us to smell. Its scent was of sandalwood, similar to incense joss sticks at a temple.
Amulets and talismanic items are made with bronze, gold, silver, stone, bone, clay and other materials. Many are skilfully designed, but an amulet’s worth is based on much more than its artistic value.
Collectors and life-improvement seekers look not only at the object’s design but also its age, historic importance, and, especially for amulets, the blessing of an important monk. The stories behind the amulet: which temple it came from, which monk it was consecrated by, and whether it’s known to bring good luck to others all come into play when considering its value.
Beliefs in the potent power of amulets still remain strong in modern Thailand, most strikingly so with the recent craze over the Jatukam Ramathep amulet. Created by a temple in Nakhon Sri Thammarat province for many years, its popularity grew when a local police
chief claimed that the amulet had helped him solve many crimes. The policeman’s death in 2007 then sparked a national frenzy over the amulet, with prices of original designs fetching millions of baht, plus millions more copies were sold around the country.
Given the intricacy of determining an item's value, as well as the ease with which copies may be made, it’s nearly impossible for non-expert buyers to know if the item is worth the price given. In any case, there are many atAmulet Alley that can be picked up for as little as 100 baht. Those searching for larger or higher-priced images may want to bring along a knowledgeable Thai friend or do some research to gain a better idea about an item’s current worth before negotiating a price.
One final tip: when browsing for amulets and other items, be sure to handle them in a respectful manner since they are considered sacred items. Good luck!