In a tiny alley off Rassada Road in Phuket Town, not far from the Fountain Circle and just a few steps from Salvatore’s Italian restaurant, is the Phuket Buddha image and amulet market, a specialised market that attracts many local and overseas Buddhists.
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About the Amulet Market
In the alley is a long row of stands, each displaying hundreds of amulets. Behind these is a small row of shops, also selling amulets and Buddha images. The displays attract a variety of people, using magnifying glasses to check the wares. There is quiet, serious discussion but when Phuket.com tries to talk with vendors, they are very shy and plainly would rather not talk to journalists.
Instead, they point us to Khun Sorn who explains later that the vendors want to keep things low-key – they are not keen to attract attention from the tax man.
Khun Sorn, however, is quite open and does not hesitate to answer questions or give opinions. He explains that he comes from an entrepreneurial background that included shrimp farming and selling clothing. Finally he went into business selling amulets and images of famous Thai monks, something that had fascinated him for some 15 years.
The Phuket Amulet Centre itself was established about 20 years ago. It now has 20 small outlets. “We’ve moved a few times, though we have always been in this area. Recently, we moved here from just across the road,” says Khun Sorn.
In Thailand, amulets were first made in temples and handed out to followers of the Buddha’s teachings to provide them with a constant reminder of the Buddha’s values, or to commemorate highly respected monks after their death.
These days, amulets blessed by well-regarded Buddhist monks still sell well and some types are hard to get, resulting in growing demand and a market based not only on Buddhist beliefs but also on potential profit.
Thais of all ages and in all levels of society believe that wearing a Buddha amulet around the neck can protect them from harm and, in some cases, will bring them good fortune. “I feel more at ease if I have my amulet with me, especially when I’m on my motorbike,” explains Suwannee Sea-Chao from Thalang. “I believe that the amulet protects me from accidents.”
Somchai Tongtip, a tuk tuk driver, believes his amulet is good for business. “It is a personal belief,” he says. “I’ve been wearing it since I was young. One day I forgot to put it on again after taking a shower. You know what had happened? I didn’t have a single customer all day.”
Many Thai police officers and soldiers wear amulets when on duty. They may wear bullet-proof jackets but the amulet is probably more important in raising their spirits and their confidence when they have to go into harm’s way.
Amulets can be made from a variety of material including gypsum, clay, various metals and even silver or gold. Khun Sorn explained that there are no standard market prices; the price paid will depend on negotiations between buyer and seller. The two parties will take into account the age of the amulet, the fame of the monk who made it and, sometimes, who wore it in the past.
In the past couple of years Jatukam Ramatep amulets, depicting two mythical princes of an ancient kingdom in what is now Thailand, have become extremely popular, with some versions in high demand. In April 2007, a woman was actually trampled to death in a rush to acquire one particularly desirable model, while other Jatukam issues have seen people queuing all night in hopes of being able to get their hands on one.
“Amulets selling in the center come from many places,” says Khun Sorn. “Some are new. Some are old and command high prices. The hottest three items at the moment are amulets depicting two famed monks Luang Por Tuat and Luang Por Chem of Chalong Temple in Phuket and Jatukam amulets. Prices of amulets can range from a couple of hundred baht to as much as 100,000 baht.”
Customers at the centre in Phuket come from all over the world, from neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, but also from the USA and Australia.
“If you are a collector, amulets are not something you buy in a rush,” Khun Sorn notes. “You need time to look and learn about each piece. Many of the Asian customers who come to us bargain a lot but they rarely buy. Those who do buy are usually traders who will resell the amulets in their home countries.
“Western buyers are different. They are usually not window shopping. They actually buy amulets and then wear them or keep them in their homes as religious objects.”
Did You Know?
With antique Thai amulets in high demand – and commanding high prices – fakes do appear. The experts can spot them, either using their experience and their magnifying glasses or even using technology such as X-rays.