By Bertil Lintner
They are studied under magnifying glasses, judged in competitions, and featured in specialist magazines. They are Buddhist amulets, worn for centuries in Thailand, and many other parts of Asia, to ward off evil spirits and guarantee good luck and a healthy life.
These days almost every Thai wears at least one, usually blessed by a monk. But tradition ends there for many modern collectors, who are as likely to pick up their amulets on-line and to pay with a credit card.
Indeed, the best amulets don't come cheap. Lung Leut, a 70-year-old fortune teller from the northern city of Chiang Mai, is keen to show the most valuable piece in his collection: An amulet that was made almost two centuries ago at Wat Rakang, a temple in Bangkok. If he sold the amulet, it would fetch at least 700,000 baht ($16,000), "but I want to keep it," says Lung Leut, holding the amulet between his fingers. "It gives me good luck and makes people like me."
Lung Leut usually wears about 10 amulets, but the one from Wat Rakang is the most powerful. And it's very rare, hence the high price. Less sought-after amulets can cost as little as $10, but usually lack qualities like age, beauty and supposed supernatural powers.
Amulets are usually made of stone or clay (though gold, copper, jade and other materials are not unheard of), and usually display images of the Buddha or revered monks. Wearers carry them about their neck, often in small silver or gold boxes. The value of an amulet is affected by a number of factors: Who made it and where, the beauty of the image and--just as importantly--its reputation for bringing luck.
Lung Leut has been collecting amulets for 50 years, and reckons he's won about a dozen prizes for his collection. Competitions are held all over Thailand, and the biggest events attract collectors from as far away as Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia. Visitors to the shows can get expert opinions on their amulets, and put them through X-ray machines to help determine if they're the real thing: Fakes are a constant problem, and a serious issue in a market with an estimated annual turnover in 2000 of 5 billion baht, according to the research arm of the Thai Farmers Bank.
Lung Leut, however, prefers to avoid the big events and stays at home in Chiang Mai, where he attends local amulet competitions--and reads people's fortunes every Sunday at a temple in downtown Chiang Mai. Old-fashioned, he has no time for credit cards or Web sites. His faith lies in his collection of old, rare and unique Buddhist amulets.
This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, April 03, 2003
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