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Mahathat Amulet Market

Amulets and mums at the market.

“I don’t want to go to some stupid amulet market,” Helena huffed, giving the idea her stamp of disapproval: “TT.”

Helena was one of a pair of dykes I’d brought along on my year end trip to Thailand. She’d coined her TT phrase at the airport, meaning ‘Too Thai,’ and used it repeatedly throughout the trip to show displeasure with any place she didn’t want to visit, or anything with the slightest Asian flare her partner wanted to buy. Turns out, short of the hotel’s bar, to Helena, everywhere in Thailand was TT.

We’d hit the Grand Palace and Wat Pho on day #1 and Helena was already watted out, firmly putting her foot down on the idea of visiting any more temples in Thailand. Nights spent at the bars in Patpong were cool. And she liked shopping at MBK and Platinum Mall, but even there the echo of TT floated down the aisles. By the time the weekend rolled around I was beginning to wonder why she’d paid a few grand to make the trip if what she really wanted was an American version of a foreign land. She’d have been better off taking the hour drive to Disneyland and spending her weekend cruising the It’s A Small World ride. But then I don’t think you can get Patron Silver at Disneyland.

I’ve always held when travelling with friends, ‘you can come along for the day or not, up to you’ is a good way to go. No reason to force someone with a lack of interest to spend their day doing something they have no desire in doing. So come Sunday morning I announced to our small group I was headed off to the amulet market and asked if anyone was interested in joining in. Helena huffed out her TT thing. Dee, her partner, was loving everything about Thailand and wanted to go. Chris chimed in on the positive, too. Being a gay man, he’d heard market and assumed there was shopping involved. Helena finally agreed. TT or not, she didn’t want to be left alone. And the hotel’s bar didn’t open for another three hours.

cool dude

Cool dude market merchant.

One of my favorite pastimes in Thailand is shopping. Another is people watching. Throw in eating and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a Bangkok street market. Every guide book will tell you about the Patpong night market. And if your hotel is anywhere along Sukhumvit you’ll stumble onto that area’s vending extragavansa, which really reaches full bloom at dusk. Khosan Road, the Chatuchak weekend market, and Bo Bae wholesale clothing markets all qualify as overblown versions of street markets, and are all well known. But for me, the perfect trifecta of food, people (monks!), and shopping is a Sunday morning at the Wat Mahathat Amulet market by the Grand Palace.

It’s a ‘color’ day trip, so the best way to get there is the Chao Phraya Express boat. From Saphan Taksin BTS station and the Central Pier, it’s a 14 baht, 30 minute boat ride up the river. After the touri hordes get off at Tha Tien Pier (N8), one more stop will bring you to the Tha Chang Pier (N9). Before you even get out of the pier’s crumbling wood shelter, the Tha Chang market begins. Inside, there are a few tchotchke stalls but as soon as you hit open air, the plaza is packed with street-side food vendors offering an amazing array of tasty Thai dishes. Lots of snacks and drinks, fried meat and fruit, and mini food court version places spilling mouth watering dishes into the narrow walkways. The food stalls’ umbrellas trap the smoke from cooking fires sending it drifting just inches above the heads of the passing crowd; tempting aromas fill the air. Grab a snack now, or pick out the best of the lot for an inexpensive lunch when you’re on your way back to your hotel.

A 7/11 half way up on the left side is a popular spot to grab water or juice to stay hydrated under Bangkok’s blistering sun. Shuffle your way up to the intersection of Thanon Mahathat and Na Phra Lan Road and the crowds thin a bit with touri spitting off. Some head right toward Wat Pho, others straight ahead for the Grand Palace, and a larger group of befuddled travellers quickly fall prey to the ‘The Grand Palace Is Closed’ scam, whisked off by tuktuk to an overpriced jewelry store brimming with colored gems and jewelry of dubious quality.

If you head right, there is a rag tag collection of vendors claiming swatches of pavement selling a variety of used goods. Shoes, clothing, electronics, and computer parts spread over old blankets line the walkway. Cheap plastic jewelry mixed in with piles of clay amulets compete for space with eclectic collections of antique coins, brass statutes and a whole gamut of used fashion accessories. Touri prices are displayed on beat up cardboard signs, the locals know better. This over-spill of the Tha Chang food stall market lines the shady lane most days of the week providing a break to the monotonous walk down to Wat Pho (Uh, should have gotten off at the Tien Pier). On Sundays, it’s a bit busier and a larger number of sellers form a gauntlet of consumerism that looks suspiciously like a bad flea market back home.


Five Baht Amulets

Instead, when you hit Mahathat Road, hang a left toward Thammasat University. There the sidewalk is immediately taken over by the street-side stalls of the Mahathat Amulet Market, one of Bangkok’s oldest markets and probably the best place in town for buying religious paraphernalia. During the week there are few vendors and even fewer customers. But on Sunday, hundreds of merchants join the established street-side stores to form a bustling pedestrianized market along the leafy boulevard brimming with atmosphere, monks, and shophouses from the King Rama V era.

The market is meant for religious locals rather than touri. You won’t find typical souvenirs, T shirts, or Thai handicrafts made in Viet Nam. You will find lots of Thais. It seems that the whole city comes here to talk, trade, and shop for the perfect amulet, a magic cure for whatever ails or troubles them. A fantastically colorful people watching scene, monks gather in clusters perusing the merchandise; dainty dowagers dressed up in their finest share the sidewalk with cool dudes who look like they belong on Khosan Road, and scrofulous old men gather in groups, pawing through dusty piles of Buddha images. The goods on display are fascinating, the taste of local culture sublime.

Rickety tables overflow with goods offering everything a devout Buddhist needs: tusks and antlers, dentures from hallowed monks, images of the Buddha, Hindu Gods, and famous monks formed of bronze, wood or clay. Savvy shoppers study the amulets with a magnifying glass, hoping to find just the right one to bring good luck or ward off bad spirits. The street is filled with jewelry, both gemstone and gold, along with tiger teeth and skins, magic potions, and phallic charms. Amulets made of clay, bronze, and pot metal are everywhere. The expensive ones have been blessed by a monk, buy a cheap one and you will need to find a monk to empower it for you.

Chris spent his time debating over his need for a wood dildo inscribed with a Thai blessing, possibly the magic charm that would land him a winner on his nightly prowl through Bangkok’s gay gogo bars, or that’d bring him some comfort if he returned home alone. Dee flitted from one stall to the next, looking for a cure for love gone sour to combat the bad patch she was struggling through in her relationship with Helena, and not happy that all charms offered for her purpose seemed to involve a penis. “Haven’t they ever heard of lesbians in Thailand!” she wailed.

penis amulets

A size and shape for every taste.

Helena found an amulet vendor who spoke excellent English and abandoned her TT attitude while he patiently explained what temple each amulet came from and what purpose each one served. Avoiding the scary voodoo-like objects; cloth dolls, crocodile heads, and tree parts that looked like people, she was on the hunt for a small amulet to wear around her neck, a promise of good luck, good fortune, and money. With an emphasis on money. Wealth was what it was all about as she’d hold one up that caught her eye and query, “Money?”

Down a shady side street lined with life size Buddha images cast in bronze or hacked out of wood, then back out again to the bustling street, Dee moved on, her quest altered into a search for a talisman for good health; screw the love, I just need to stay alive. Chris took up Helena’s pursuit for wealth, but made an abrupt stop each time more peni came into view. Helena held firm to her purpose, finally settling on not a single amulet but a necklace full of charms guaranteed to bring her some cold hard cash. They all enjoyed the morning’s outing and all came back with handfuls of Buddhist blessings. And I decided, considering the Thai peoples’ love affair with money, that Helena herself may be just a little TT.

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