Thailand's talismans cast a wide net of protection

As I round a corner near the monastery in Bangkok, I witness an extraordinary sight. A saffron-robed monk is standing in front of a shiny car with a raised sword. I watch, mesmerized, as he swings the sword over his head and brings it down slowly over the hood of the car. Some weird form of martial arts that slices up cars? Then I spot a second figure-the driver-standing close by. The monk's sword stops just short of the hood, and he starts chanting.

It turns out that the monk is engaging in an elaborate blessing ritual for the vehicle. The brand-new vehicle is being consecrated as a taxi, and the driver, taking no chances, wants everything thoroughly protected. The monk applies gold leaf to the inside roof above the driver's seat to ward off accidents, and blesses a small dashboard shrine by lighting sticks of incense on it. Then he proceeds to bless the driver himself. Spells are cast to protect the taxi against accident, mechanical failure, and theft and to protect its inhabitants against death and robbery-the rituals go on.

This all makes perfect sense when you take into account reckless Thai driving habits and, more to the point, the fact that there's very little in the way of proper auto insurance in Bangkok. A common reaction for drivers involved in an accident is to take off from the scene at high speed, if the car is still running. Money matters can be sorted out on-site between drivers, or by bribing police officers present.

Thai monks bless vehicles a lot larger than cars: they also conduct special ceremonies for jumbos-as in new Boeing 757s-entering service. How? Blessing a car, or an airplane, is of highly dubious origins since the historical Buddha never envisaged any of these vehicles, nor commented on them. But older ritual blessings have simply been transferred to modern devices to suit.

Apart from appeasing the traffic gods, there are myriad other forms of warding off trouble in Bangkok, from supplicating at key Buddha statues to wearing tiny Buddha amulets around the neck. These amulets can be multipurpose or can be specifically blessed by an abbot for protection against bullets, knives, ghosts, or wild animals.

Thais place extraordinary faith in animist shrines, amulets, and other talismans for protection. These beliefs come from a mixture of sources: Buddhism, Brahmanism, and a belief in spirits, astrology, ghosts, and supernatural forces. Most Thai houses are protected by a small shrine or spirit house to keep ghosts out. If a ghost appears in a residence or place of business, it can wreak havoc by causing fire, sickness, or worse. Hospitals and police stations have shrines outside to deflect evil forces. Hotels and department stores invariably have a resident guardian spirit to oversee their fortunes. Cities need protection, too: Bangkok has the large Lak Muang shrine, which houses the city pillar.

To keep a person protected from harm at all times, portable charms are required. Ask a Thai about amulets and you're bound to discover that he or she carries at least one, and a taxi driver might swear by a string of them. The amulets come in all shapes and sizes, and for a myriad of protective purposes: Thai males sometimes wear a wooden penis-shaped object in their underclothing to ensure potency. A thriving amulet market lies near the National Museum at Wat Mahathat. Rather like stamp collectors, dealers at an amulet market examine images through a magnifying loupe checking features, age, texture, and other factors.

Miraculous stories about the supernatural powers of amulets grace the pages of half a dozen magazines in Bangkok devoted solely to these charms. One that was translated for me showed a taxi driver shot by a high-powered gun at close range, but the bullet didn't even pierce his skin, just left him with a burn mark and a bruise. The driver claims his amulet saved his life. It cost him the equivalent of $5, but now he wouldn't sell it for $50,000. Hearing this story, I flash back to the taxi driver and the consecration of his new vehicle.

Among the very rare amulets that can confer invincibility to the wearer is Pra Rawd, the oldest amulet, with a history that can still be traced back to the seventh century. Originals are worth over a million baht ($30,000) and some are in the hands of collectors, who regard them as a financial investment, similar to buying famous artwork. Herein lies a quandary: if an amulet is worth a million baht, wouldn't a thug kill the owner to get it? There have been a number of cases where this has happened; instead of the amulet protecting the owner, the owner may have to protect the amulet.

Call me superstitious, but I also travel with assorted talismans in my baggage, because I believe in the role of luck and harbour the illusion that talismans give me an extra edge. Insurance is for when things go terribly wrong; talismans ensure that you dodge the dangers in the first place. And before you laugh at Thai attitudes, you'd best check your travel insurance to see if it covers you in the event of kidnapping or terrorist activity. And then think about the loonie at centre ice at hockey games, a superstition not greatly removed from what the Thais have in mind.

My talismans include a tiny amulet made from B.C. jade. I acquired it while visiting Wat Dhammamongkol in the eastern outskirts of Bangkok. In 1991, the abbot of this monastery purchased a 32-tonne boulder of nephrite jade from B.C. and had two colossal images hewn from it, one of Buddha (the male aspect) and one of Guanyin (the female aspect). At 2.3 metres high, the serene Buddha statue is the largest jade Buddha in the world. Monasteries in Thailand are supported entirely by donations, and the time-honoured method of fundraising is production of amulets, which derive their power from the blessing of an important abbot. In this case, substantial offcuts from the principal jade block were slated for amulet-carving, with monks mass- producing tiny jade images in half a dozen designs, some copies of Thailand's most revered clay amulets. The two-centimetre-tall amulets are offered by donation.

At Bangkok's Khao San Road, travellers can purchase talismans in the form of jewellery-necklaces, bracelets, earrings-made of rainbow moonstones. The sellers claim these serve as a Thai version of the medal of St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers. In traditional Thai lore, however, the effectiveness of an amulet comes from its blessing by a powerful abbot. Without this blessing, the talisman has no power. Another pitfall is that it's exceedingly rare to find a talisman that renders the wearer invincible. A person could, for example, be wearing an amulet that protects against bullets but be taken out by a great white on a beach holiday because the amulet was not designed to ward off shark attacks. That's why Thais often carry several amulets-to keep all bases covered.

ACCESS: Bangkok's largest amulet market lies opposite Wat Mahathat, close to the Chao Phraya river. (The closest express boat stop is Tha Maharaj.) Within striking range of that is Lak Muang, the protector shrine for Bangkok. To the south, housed in Wat Pra Keo (part of the Grand Palace) is the Emerald Buddha, reckoned to be the most powerful in Bangkok, ensuring prosperity and good fortune for the entire city. The massive Jade Buddha (of B.C. origin) is housed at Wat Dhammamongkol, deep down Sukhumvit Soi 101.