Friday, August 17, 2007

Inside Thailand's Amulet Craze

Charm Offensive

By JENNIFER CHEN
August 17, 2007

NAKHON SI THAMMARAT, Thailand -- Not so long ago, Nakhon Si Thammarat was a sleepy town with no obvious tourist attractions -- or tourists. Its economy revolved around shrimp farming and fishing.

Now this provincial capital in southern Thailand is crawling with thousands of visitors each week. The big draw: amulets, some as small as three centimeters wide, called Jatukam Ramathep.

Thais are big believers in the supernatural. Amulets, which come in various materials and sizes and are usually worn around the neck, are basically lucky charms thought to have magical powers that protect from physical and spiritual harm as well as bring good fortune. Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country and the amulets usually depict famous monks or the Buddha.

[Amulet map]

Thailand has seen its share of amulet crazes over the years. But the Jatukam Ramathep medallion -- which depicts a mythical figure that resembles a Hindu god with multiple arms and heads -- has set new heights in the annals of amulet history. And at its birthplace in the town of Nakhon Si Thammarat, most buyers seem to be snapping them up more for their supposed power to deliver instant riches than for their promise of good health.

"Every province has its amulets, so I've asked myself, 'Why this one, and why has it become so popular now?'" asks Patrick Jory, a history professor from Australia who teaches at Walailak University in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. The answer, he thinks, lies in Thailand's weak economy and the political instability gripping the country, particularly a Muslim insurgency in the area around Nakhon Si Thammarat, a Buddhist stronghold that so far hasn't seen conflict. There is "this sense that maybe we're losing the south," Mr. Jory says, so many Thais are turning to the supernatural world for help. Popular demand for Jatukam Ramathep amulets also might be a way of expressing solidarity with the beleaguered Buddhists in the southernmost provinces, he adds.

Nithit Somsimme, who has traveled to Nakhon Si Thammarat to shop for an amulet, is a believer. Mr. Nithit owns a real-estate valuation business in northeast Thailand. After his father-in-law gave him a Jatukam Ramathep amulet a few years ago, his business boomed -- an outcome he attributes "100%" to the amulet. Mr. Nithit now plans to expand his business, and he wants to buy another amulet before going ahead. He's willing to pay up to 100,000 baht ($3,200) -- in cash -- for the right one. "It has to be a special one," he says before strolling off to peruse the town's wares, which include medallions with auspicious-sounding names such as "Enormously Super Rich" and "Get Rich Quickly."

Gold and Ivory

To the untrained eye, Jatukam Ramathep amulets might not look like much: the most popular size is five centimeters in diameter but they can be bigger. Most are decorated with a many-armed Hindu-esque god on one side and on the other, a demon-god eating the moon or a mandala, a geometric pattern that represents the universe.

[Amulet photo]
A Thai man wears three amulets, including a Jatukam Ramthep.

Some are fashioned out of ivory and gilded in gold, silver or bronze. Typically, though, they're made of more humble materials, such as dried jasmine, tree bark, sacred soil, medicinal herbs and holy water, all of which are mixed together and pressed into a mold, often by monks. The amulets are then glazed or touched up with gold and silver paint. They are often marketed in series, and prices start at less than $2 (about double the price of other kinds of amulets), and can go up to several thousand dollars. And as prices have climbed, speculators and investors have jumped in.

Fake plastic versions abound, especially in Bangkok's night markets. But unless a Jatukam Ramathep amulet is registered and consecrated at Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan, a 13th century temple in Nakhon Si Thammarat, it isn't regarded as being official, and is believed to have fewer magical powers.

As to who exactly Jatukam Ramathep is, no one knows for sure, says Narong Bunsuaikhwan, a sociologist from Walailak University. Some people say it's the spirit of a 17th-century king. Others believe the figure represents two princes from the 13th century. And there is a coterie of academics and local town officials who are bent on proving that the figure is a genuine Hindu god.

But there is one thing most people agree on: It was the death about a year ago of the man who created the amulet, Phantarak Rajadej, the town's former police chief, that sparked the current craze. An imposing figure with a handlebar moustache, he was said to have practiced black magic and could disappear into thin air at will. According to one story, the police chief created the amulet 20 years ago as a way to raise money for a city shrine.

Mamat Pengsut, a senior government official from a nearby district, swears by a Jatukam Ramathep amulet for its protective powers. Mr. Mamat wears one around his neck on a heavy chain. A few weeks ago, he contends, the amulet saved him -- and eight other people who each were wearing one as well -- from harm in a three-car pileup. Another person, the only one in the accident who wasn't wearing a Jatukam Ramathep amulet, sustained a shoulder injury.

[Amulet photo]
A glass case filled with Jatukam Ramathep amulets in the market next to the Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan.

Stories like that keep people pouring into Nakhon Si Thammarat to buy the medallions.

The extent of the craze is far-reaching -- stoked by marketing campaigns. According to Neilsen Media Research in Thailand, amulet purveyors spent $5 million between January and March this year alone on TV, radio and newspaper advertising for Jatukam Ramathep amulets. It's even swept up tourists from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong who are beating a path to Nakhon Si Thammarat.

In Bangkok, for instance -- 780 kilometers north of Nakhon si Thammarat -- Chinese-Thai businessmen in suits as well as noodle vendors proudly wear the medallions, sometimes more than one. Military figures and politicians are also believers. Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont presided over several unofficial Jatukam Ramathep amulet blessing ceremonies in June at a beach getaway destination near Bangkok favored by Thai high society.

About 70% of the people buying Jatukam Ramathep amulets are speculators who are betting that their value will skyrocket, says Paka-on Tipayathanabaja, a senior researcher for Kasikorn Research Center, a Bangkok financial-information company, who has tracked the amulet market for the past five years.

Consider the gain an investor could have made on the first edition of a Jatukam Ramathep amulet. When it was issued in 1987, the amulet cost about $1.30, says Mr. Narong, the sociologist from Walailak University who has a collection of rare Jatukam Ramathep pieces he says is worth more than $160,000. Today, Mr. Narong says that same medallion has been appraised by amulet experts at nearly $13,000. "Look at me," says Mr. Narong, chuckling. "Even Ph.D.s have lucky charms."

Online Amulets

Thailand's amulet trade is well established. Every major Thai town has shops that specialize in selling medallions. Amulets also are sold on eBay. There are magazines -- almost 40 in all, available at mainstream bookstores nationwide -- and Web sites devoted to the lucky charms. The opinions of amulet appraisers are quoted in publications, on Web sites and in Thai-language mass media. Kasikorn Research Center estimates that the total amulet market will be worth about $1.5 billion this year, more than double the total in 2005, driven largely by the demand for Jatukam Ramathep amulets. By comparison, according to the latest government figures available, in 2005 Thais spent $1.8 billion on books and newspapers.

"I feel a little weird about it," says Watcharapong Radomsittipat, an amulet expert who has been in the business for 15 years. "Like people are too crazy about it. It's almost overshadowing Buddhism."

Not everyone has succumbed to Jatukam Ramathep fever though. To Buddhist purists, the big emphasis the amulet puts on wealth is anathema. They argue it is unseemly for monks to participate in such an overtly commercial venture.

[Amulet photo]
A monk blesses amulets at a temple ceremony.

At Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan, for instance, the temple where all true Jatukam Ramathep amulets are blessed, sponsors give the temple $1,600 to $3,200 for each incantation ceremony. The temple holds the ceremonies, during which many amulets are blessed at once, four or five times a day. Officials at the temple say they have no idea how much money such services bring in.

As much as the Jatukam Ramathep amulet frenzy reflects "a degree of hopelessness in Thai society," says Mettanando Bhikku, an Oxford- and Harvard-educated physician-turned-monk, "it also reflects the decadence of monks' morality."

Moral issues aside, Nakhon Si Thammarat's economy is booming. While local government authorities won't say how much the town has earned, the amulet's effect is impossible to miss: Along the road from the airport, billboards advertise the latest series of Jatukam Ramathep amulets. In town, nearly every business along the main drag has banners emblazoned with images of medallions as well as glass display cases holding a dozen or so for sale.

Besides tourists, the craze is attracting attention from another quarter: Thailand's tax authorities recently sent a team to town to study imposing a special tax on shops that sell the amulets.

--Jennifer Chen is a Bangkok-based writer.

No comments: