Bangkok is full of golden treasures.
Everywhere you look: every nook and cranny; every street and every market – there are unique and interesting artefacts to be discovered. This is particularly true in the old city, where each building and every object has historical, religious and/or artistic significance. Turn a corner and you make a new discovery.
Take for example, Wat Ratchanatdaram Worawiharn: a temple built by order of King Rama III (1824-1851) to honour a royal princess. Architecturally beautiful, the temple is known for it’s unique 37-tiered Loha Prasada (brazen palace) representing the 37 buddhist virtues. But, behind the temple buildings are the real treasures – Wat Ratchanada is also known for the the amulet market within its grounds.
Bordering the car park, an unprepossessing collection of stalls patched together from plywood and corrugated iron house metal shelves and plastic tubs, piled to overflowing with beads, amulets, and religious and sacred images.
Protective talismans, religious symbols and good-luck charms come in a variety of forms. Buddhas of all shapes and sizes can be found in glass, precious stone, metal and garish plastics. Fat, smiling, Chinese Buddhas mix with Sukhothai-style renditions of Siddhārtha Gautama. Turtles, dragons and other Chinese horoscope animals are jumbled together beside figurines of Hindu gods like Ganesh and Vishnu. Thai-specific iconography includes past kings, variations on the animist rice goddess, and revered Buddhist abbots. Amulets designed to be worn, tucked into pockets, or hung from car and truck mirrors, come in all sizes and form to protect the wearer or user from harm. Vials filled with liquid and herbs are made to age-old folk-magic traditions to bring love, heal sickness and ensure long life and financial security.
To a Western eye, the most noticeable talismans are the myriads of penis amulets. Ornately decorated or plain; cast in metal or resin or carved from wood, horn or bone; small or large – these protective, good-luck talismans can be seen everywhere in Thailand. Clearly they are in demand: they hang bundled on strings in the amulet shops, like bunches of bananas, ready for picking.
Amulets, if old or if blessed by the right monk, can be priceless, and serious collectors can often be seen with a jeweller’s glass loupe examining them closely.
Wat Ratchanada is one of the busiest amulet markets in Bangkok. The morning I was there, however, it was quiet. I was with a walking group organised by ANZWG (the Australian New Zealand Women’s Group) and we had the market to ourselves as we wandered around the fluorescent-lit stalls. Sellers pass the quiet hours cleaning and stocking the dusty shelves, chatting, eating, or putting intricate amulet jewellery together.
It’s a short walk from the amulet markets to the small neighbourhood of Baan Bat, where more treasures can be found and bartered for. With a small development loan from the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI) this community has revitalised its traditional craft of hand-making beautiful hammered-metal monk’s begging bowls.
The Baan Bat community is at the foot of the Golden Mount (Phu Khao Thong ~ ภูเขาทอง), the artificial hill originally built by King Rama III (1787 – 1851) and topped by a chedhi finished by King Rama V (1853– 1910).
It was a golden summer morning – full of discoveries – with clear, untroubled skies over the City of Angels.
It is rainy season here now. Today, as I write this, Bangkok is under siege from the very waters that, the rest of the year, are its lifeline. The rivers and klongs that allow us to bypass the notorious traffic jams are about to overflow. Up-country, three hundred lives and countless properties havebeen lost as the country battles the worst flooding in over 50 years. The old city and and its treasures are under threat.
It may take more than amulets and lucky charms to keep us safe.