Crackdown on Thai amulets and Buddha themed items in Thailand?

Over the past couple years, I’ve been to Thailand multiple times, I love the culture and the relatively inexpensive yet high quality dentistry (I posted about my dental experience HERE). It is only this most recent trip (to Bangkok) that I’ve noticed the signage regarding the “respecting of Buddhism”. The various signage that I’ve seen, seem to indicate that having the Buddha image as tattoos, t-shirts designs and such are prohibited as is the export of such items. At first, I didn’t know what to expect, as in how this is actually going to be enforced because I’m still seeing t-shirts, carvings, statues, artwork etc depicting Buddha in the shops albeit not as abundantly as before. Note: I’m interpreting, “Buddha image” as anything depicting the likeliness of Buddha (in any form/medium).

Frankly, I didn’t think anything of it, even though I had my heart set on acquiring a Thai Buddhist amulet. I had asked some Thai friends where I could acquire an “authentic” amulet and was told amulets are readily available “everywhere”, there’s even a street specifically selling such items but they advised me to get one from within a temple, those should be authentic. This amulet market, I was told, is near Wat Pho and a ferry terminal, I couldn’t miss it. Well, I walked from the Grand Palace to Wat Pho and visited 2 ferry terminals, I couldn’t find this amulet market. Maybe most of the shops were close since it was raining? Or maybe the crackdown is really happening? The most probably reason why is because I’m just an idiot and couldn’t find it, lol.

Now what is the big deal with Thai Amulets? Well, supposedly they have spiritual powers (if you’re so inclined to subscribe to that notion and belief system). Authentic amulets are the ones that are hand made by monks and have been “enchanted” through prayer. The more famous the wat and monk, the higher the “power” and worth/price the amulet will be. Some amulets cost in the 100’s of thousand US dollars range! There are different amulets covering different aspects of “life issues”. For example, luck and or success in your career or school, love life charms, warding of bad spirits, omens, calamities etc. Much like the plethora of different charms sold at the Japanese temples (Shinto temples, I think they were). Unlike the Japanese charms, you don’t have to return/recycle them after a year (I’ve seen big drop boxes at these temples for you to drop your old charms into. Instead Thai amulets (again this is what I’ve been told so I don’t know exactly how accurate this info is) are given out on loan and the monetary amount you pay is the rental/donation fee. Once your “crisis” has been averted and/or you feel better, you’re supposed to return the amulet. When I acquired my pendant from Wat Pho (first image of this post), I didn’t see any signage regarding the “rental” practices and I tried to ask but the language barrier was to great I think. So I have no idea if this is true and if so where to return the amulet to. What happens if I lose the amulet etc.

This is the one I got from Wat Pho (I picked the least expensive one that I felt “comfortable” with, the charm inside is suppose to be 22k gold foil). I also bought the stainless steel necklace for the charm at $100 Baht the charm itself set me back $400 Baht. Expensive or not, in my mind, the dollar amount that I’m relinquishing goes towards something I subscribe to, at a place that’s absolutely stunning plus authentically religious with historic significance and it gives me peace of mind (it can’t get much more authentic than this, right)?

Anyways, sorry for the lack of photos in this post, I really didn’t intend to post on this topic. So why am I? Well, I’ve always had a Buddhist pendant on me since childhood, so I never thought twice about the “warning” signage and although I’m not a full fledged follower of Buddhism, I’m still a believer in most of the teachings that I’m aware of. So these signs don’t pertain to me, right? Well, apparently not.

I had forgotten I had my new amulet on (I put it on at the temple and haven’t taken it off). So at the at the airport security screening I place my bag on the xray machine and walked through the metal detector, which didn’t beep but the guard beckoned me over, so I assumed the position, legs spread and arms out to the side. The usual waving of the wand, then he waves it up and down just below my chin, I thought he wanted to see the tattoo on my chest (it’s happened before at LAX they made me take off my shirt so they can full body scan me). He shakes his wand from side to side and says, “no” (when I showed him my tattoo) and uses the wand to point at my neck. I think I gave him a funny look cuz then he starts wiggling and pointing the wand at my neck, it’s then I realize he wanted to see my necklaces/pendants. I reach into my t-shirt to pull out my necklaces/pendants for him to check out. Which he does by leaning in for a closer look and then waves me off with the wand. Much ado about nothing?

I have been wearing this one for at least 3 years.

And my new amulet’s casing is showing quite a bit of tarnish. Maybe I was let go because of the state my pendants were in? Maybe they look inexpensive/fake etc? I don’t know but I’m not complaining. Note: some amulets you can purchase without a case so you can find/purchase higher quality ones..

Having told my story to my Thai buddies, who had a big laugh, they related to me some instances in the news where some people were fined/jailed for having tattoo’s of a Buddha image, taking photos at religious places in “disrespectful” poses, standing/sitting on things that people normally wouldn’t etc. I have no idea what would have happened if the guard took offense to my amulet and pendant but it is something to think about, wouldn’t you agree?

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Visiting Wat Pho, a top ranked royal temple.

I finally made it to Wat Pho! Although I took a huge detour (which was worth it), I did make it before they closed. If you want read about my “forced” detour to the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Kaew complex it’s in THIS POST, and how I ended up there is detailed in THIS POST. Anyways, back to the subject at hand . . .

Wat Pho is one of the oldest and largest wat complexes in Bangkok (it’s actually comprised of 2 walled compounds dissected by a road). One of the buildings houses one of the largest Reclining Buddha statues in Thailand. Wat Pho is also recognized by UNESCO, has chedi’s which contain Buddha relics and some that contain the ashes of the royal family. On top of all that, Wat Pho is recognized as the first public university in Thailand where the Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School was the first school of Thai medicine approved by the Education Ministry. If that’s not enough, Wat Pho still sells amulets within the temple grounds. I’m a huge fan of UNESCO recognized places and temples with Buddha Relics. If you’re so inclined to believe, it’s said that an amulet’s “power” comes from the temple and monk who made the amulet and the amount of prayer bestowed on the amulet. The higher the “power” of the monk and temple, the better the amulet will be. I’m not a scholar of these beliefs so if I can’t explain it well, my apologies. So to ensure I got an “authentic” amulet I chose Wat Pho’s “gift shop” as opposed to the shops on the streets or even right outside the temples. You’d be hard pressed to find a “better” temple in Bangkok than Wat Pho.

I’m so glad I was able to visit. When I first arrived at the entrance, the first thing I noticed was the line of tuk tuk’s parked on the street, then I noticed the street art vendors who had their goods out even in the drizzling rain. Goods which consisted of amulets, Buddha busts, statues, painting, posters, keychains etc. I thought that was a bit out of place since I’ve seen a lot of billboards trying to prevent the sale and export of such items. Anyways, I ignored the tuk tuk drivers’ touts and went straight into the Wat Pho Complex, found the easy to see ticket booth and paid my $200 Baht entrance fee, which came with a coupon for a free bottle of water. I didn’t immediately see where to redeem the water and stopped looking because I got distracted by the “gift shop” which was right at the ticket gantry a few steps away from the ticket booth. Just thought I’d mention this as there’s more than one entrance/exit. Right outside the gift shop, I think I saw the booth to redeem the water coupon but I got distracted by the entrance to the Reclining Buddha statue which is the main tourist attraction of Wat Pho.

 

The Reclining Buddha statue is by far the biggest reclining statue I’ve seen to date, measuring 150 feet (45m) long. Recline, in this sense context, is Buddha lying on his side with his head propped on one arm. The statue is surrounded by a wooden picket fence that’s far enough away to prevent even the tallest basketball player to reach out and touch the statue (yeah, I have no idea how far away the fence is from the statue) except the feet because the building isn’t long enough. Along the front side, there are little sections for prayer and some sections for viewing/picture taking between the pillars. Along the back are some other artifacts as well as some prayer bowls (a whole row of 108 of them) that you can toss coins into while praying/chanting. You can donate $20 Baht for a plate of coins to drop into the prayer bowls. I don’t know how many coins I was given but I had more than enough coins to put 2 in each bowl. I was fortunate that it wasn’t that crowded when I was there but there was enough people around which made getting pictures a bit of a challenge (plus the pillars were in the way a lot). I can’t imagine how packed it would be if a tour group or two came through, well I can and it’s not pleasant, haha.

I didn’t expect the complex to be as big as it was. I thought it was just he usual chedi, main hall, ubusot type of complex. Yes, I was wrong, there’s a lot more to see. I exit one area only to find myself at the start of another interesting area. I wouldn’t say I got lost but it just seemed like I maze where everywhere I went was something cool to look at or a place where I felt an image to be made, I just had to stop and find it. Unfortunately for me, time was what I didn’t have that day. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get to see 1/2 of the complex, by that I mean literally see it and not “seeing” it creatively. Although I wasn’t rushed by anyone, the closing of gates and such pushed a sense of urgency to find an exit, plus I had no exit strategy to get to my dinner appointment, which I ended up being almost 2 hours late for (transportation issues posted HERE if you wanna read about it, lol). I’m really wanting to go back in the evening just before closing, on a nice day to catch the sunset light on the chedi’s, I bet that would be an amazing picture.

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Chedi Luang Chiang Mai’s largest Chedi

Chedi Luang Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chedi Luang is second on my top 3 wat’s in Chiang Mai. The first being Doi Suthep, you can check out my post “Doi Suthep” for more info. If you’re ever in Chiang Mai, be sure to check this place out, their hours of operation are between 6am and 6pm and being near the centre of the walled city it’s walkable if you’re already in the ancient city. It’s free to enter and will take you at least 30 minutes just to walk around and see everything without stopping for photos or for closer looks. I took around two hours and still wasn’t quite satisfied with seeing everything but then again, I like to linger, soak in the atmosphere, feel the energy etc and look for a photo to make.

The modern day property that the Chedi sits on is a merger with two other wats (Wat Ho Tham and Wat Sukmin) so you can enjoy visiting them as well. When you walk onto the premises, the huge ornate prayer hall is quite impressive and houses a 14th century Buddha statue, I found the sheer golden-ness inside truly amazing. As per the norm at all the wats, if you want to go in and check out the interior, you have to take your foot wear off. Don’t worry they have shoe racks you can use though, just don’t forget which rack you put your shoes on, ha ha.

Chedi Luang Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand

If you’re short on time, I suggest you walk around the prayer hall and check out the stupa first because it’s truly unique. Why is Chedi Luang so special? Construction began in 1391 so it’s old, withstood some natural disasters and is partially rebuilt. At one point in time, it was the largest structure in Chiang Mai and home to the highly revered, original Emerald Buddha. It’s by far the biggest Chedi/Stupa I’ve ever seen and I can only imagine and wonder how grand it was when it was fully intact. I’d recommend a sunrise or sunset visit for some additional color in the sky and you’d probably miss most of the tour crowd too.

After admiring all for sides of the Stupa, there are also a couple of structures housing statues and other religious pieces including the shrine for the “City Pillar” guarded by canons. Yup, I’ve never seen any religious structure guarded by canons before. I had to Google it, and found out that “City Pillars” are very highly revered pieces of architecture in ancient Thai culture. These pillars were erected at entrances of new cities or at major shrines for housing guardian spirits. Another structure that I found pretty cool was the huge golden Buddha lying down statue. Very detailed and I think covered with gold leaf. I didn’t get a chance to go inside the other two wats nor the smaller viharn so I definitely will need to revisit Chedi Luang, it’s so worth it!

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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a jewel in Chiang Mai’s crown

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

If you’re ever in Chiang Mai and can only choose one temple to visit, choose Wat Phra That on Doi Suthep. Doi Suthep is the mountain West of Chiang Mai, the smaller of the two in that area. The other being Doi Pui and together make up the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Although I haven’t been to every single temple in Chiang Mai, I have been to several and what makes Wat Phra That so special? It’s reportedly the temple that has a Buddha Relic, a piece of his shoulder, if I heard correctly. Now I didn’t get to see the Relic but this wat, to me, has a tranquil/serene “feel” to it, more so than any of the other temples I’ve been to in the Chiang Mai region. I truly lack the words to describe that feeling. No, it’s not like a life changing OMG Hallelujah kinda feeling…it’s more like a peaceful at ease feeling. I imagine “resting in peace” would feel like this. I’m not particularly religious but I do believe in certain principles from different religions. Yes, I’m a “confused child” haha.

Back to the Doi Suthep and one of Chiang Mai’s crown jewels, Wat Phra That. I’ll just do what the locals do and refer to the area as Doi Suthep. So how can one get to Doi Suthep? There are a number of ways both public and private. If you choose the private way, have a read of my post “Did I get scammed in Chiang Mai” for my recounting on private hire fiasco/scam that was run on me whilst going to a different “must see” Chiang Mai crown jewel. The most convenient way is to take a red songthaew to Doi Suthep. It can be as easy as flagging one down anywhere around the old city. A songthaew is a pickup truck with the back converted to bench seating. They operate like a public bus/shared taxi but with negotiable fare. The way to get a ride is you flag one down (like flagging a taxi) or they will honk at you, in which case just wave back if you want them to stop. Before you hop in, you have to negotiate your fare. The price will depend on where you’re going, how many passengers already in the songthaew and probably the way you look. So the better dressed you are, the less they will be willing to drop the prices. The number of people already on board will help decrease the price as well and/or if there’s no one already on board, you can pay a bit more and the driver will not pick up anyone along the way to your destination. Trips within the old city are $30-$40 TBH (as told to me by the hotel staff and $30 TBH is written on all the red songthaews (I can’t read Thai so don’t know what the context is) but as soon as you get outside the walled city they will start at $100 TBH (at least that’s always been the starting point whenever I asked). There are also different marked songthaews, the markings will indicate which attraction they are going to, so you can look out for those as those may have people in them already going to the same place making it cheaper for you to tag along (or at least you won’t be “forced” to pay the full single rider fare). If you prefer to hire out a songthaew (have it all to yourself) you can probably negotiate a price for him/her to wait for you and give you a ride back. If not, there are a lot of songthaews waiting up there to give passengers rides back into town. The only drawback is that they will not leave until the songthaew is full with 8 passengers so if you’re first on, there may be a wait. For me, I was lucky, I was the 8th. As I was about to pay the driver, 1/2 the other passengers started to negotiate a lower fare but to no avail so ya that’s something to consider too. Just to give you an idea, hiring out a songthaew cost me $350 TBH, I needed to get there as fast as possible but coming back only cost $80 TBH. The other public way are guided tours. Your hotel lobby will have info and be able to help you out, or you can find tour agent kiosks everywhere, seriously you can’t walk a block without seeing one. These are convenient if have minimal time and need a guide to show you around and/or rush you plus you won’t have to worry about haggling prices everywhere, where to go to the ticket booth etc. The private vehicles are in the form of metered taxis although you have to specifically book one from somewhere as they are nowhere to to be found on the streets. The only time I saw any were at the airport and twice in town dropping guests at a hotel. I’m pretty sure they will be the most expensive private car option with Grab taxi being the second most expensive. The least expensive is the non grab, private hires which the hotel can arrange for you and the tuk tuk’s (they look like motorized rickshaws) which you can flag on the street. Note: if you get motion sickness then take some motion sickness pills if you plan on taking the songthaew or tuk tuk. Also try to get on a newer model vehicle or at least one that doesn’t look beat up as that will affect the bumpiness of your ride as well as the amount of exhaust (if any) you’ll be subjected to.

Stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Local tribes girls on the stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Local tribes girls on the stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Local tribes girls on the stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Now that transport is sorted out and you’re at the drop off point of Doi Suthep, there’s two routes you can take up to the temple but first, there are shops/markets by the road side you may want to check out. If not, make your way to either the steps with the big archway (the left most stair case as you’re facing the mountain) if you’re looking to walk up to the Wat. If walking up stairs is not your cup of tea, take the path on the right where you can see ticket booths. That’s where you can buy tickets to ride the gondola up. I didn’t take the gondola so I can’t comment on the fees nor the ride. Taking the stairs isn’t that bad. you go up a short flight of stairs and it opens up to a plaza of sorts with statues to see and more shops and restaurants. From this plaza you can see the flight of stairs leading up to the Wat, kind of steep but not scary steep. If you see adorable little kids dressed in (I’m guessing) traditional attire of their culture, it’s ok to take photos but be prepared to offer a donation. They won’t be shy in asking for it. Although I had sniped a few shots of them from afar, pretty much without them knowing, as they were busy posing for other photo’s, I still walked by and gave them each a tip. I couldn’t help but feel sad, I didn’t notice their parents around and they were just hanging out, walking around the stairs. When you reach the top of the stairs you’ll be at the entrance to the temple area (not the temple grounds itself) and you’ll have to detour to the right because that is where the ticket office is and a snacks shop in case you need to buy a drink. Entrance fee is $30 TBH. Having taken care of the entrance fee you can enter the premises of where the actual temple is, you can see the stairs into the Wat in the photo below. The premises is quite big with lots to see and you can walk around with your shoes on but if you want to enter the Wat grounds, you have to take off your shoes at the designated area about a hop, skip and a jump away from the Wat’s entrance. No big deal, it’s relatively clean, as in free from debris as you can kinda see in the photo below. There’s more than enough room for shoes on the racks but there’s shoe lockers behind the benches too, just don’t forget where you put your shoes.

Pavilion area provides shade and benches for rest and removal of shoes.

SO MUCH GOLD!!! Was my first reaction as stepped through the entrance into the wat. I don’t know if it was gold leaf, gold paint, gold plated or what but boy was it impressive. Pretty much in the center of the temple grounds is the gold stupa with the prayer path around it. There are flowers you can buy and hold as you walk and pray on this path and then offer them to an altar of your choice. This prayer path is in between the stupa and a stone fence that has opening at the corners for entering and exiting the prayer path. On top of this fence, on two of the sides, are various statues and religious relics. Lining the walls to the temple complex are altars, prayer halls, statues and other religious artifacts. There are monks walking around doing various duties as well from what I saw when I was there such as “monk chats,” blessing ceremonies, sweeping of the grounds, putting up decorations etc. Along the walls that define the Wat grounds are open air but sheltered corridors with religious statues and artifacts and enough space for visitors to pray in front of. These corridors are sometimes broken up by rooms housing religious statue(s) with all the prayer amenities like kneeling mats, incense pots etc. There is also a larger prayer hall which more detailed and ornate and is where the monk chats/blessing were held. If you want the on location tourist shot, look for the golden tree/umbrella statue. This is the designated spot where an “in house photographer” will take the “tourist shot” that all the marketing shots were taken. The spot features a golden umbrella (or maybe it’s a bamboo tree), under which you’ll stand with the golden stupa in the background and hopefully a blue sky with a fluffy cloud or two. There will be assistants walking around that area trying to drum up business. If you don’t want to engage their services you can just wait until the umbrella is vacant and go get your shot. Although I planned to photograph everything, I kinda forgot to or maybe just too “taken in” by beauty, splendor, calmness and serenity of this place I really don’t have the words so here’s a few shots:

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

When you’re done inside the Wat, have a look around the grounds. There’s a huge hall, gift shop (the usual items that you’d find in a temple’s gift shop are cheaper here than in any other place that I’ve been to), café type eatery, prayer bells, prayer halls, large statues, defunct museum (well that’s what it looked like to me) and a very ornate pavilion that over looks the valley. If you walk to the railing you will see the city of Chiang Mai and the airport, it’s quite a view if the weather is clear. I visited in early May and got ok weather, a bit too smoggy for detailed images but still a spectacular view. There were not many people so I was able to set up my tripod for some panoramic shots however I did get interrupted by a tourist who came right up next to me to shoot her panoramic shots, so I took some candid profile shots of her instead of landscape shots for a minute or so, lol. There also a very beautiful, colorful and well landscaped flower garden. It wasn’t until I was looking through the photos back at the hotel that I realized the flowers were fake.

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

I spent 3 hours at Doi Suthep not including travel time but could have easily spent hours more. I didn’t visit any of the markets or explore any of the areas not part of the temple grounds. I was there around dusk and the sunset sets behind the mountain but with the smog/haze/clouds it wasn’t that ‘wow’ Perhaps sunrise would be better as it would rise over the city when you’re viewing from the pavilion.

Consider following me for updates to find not only my other travel bloopers, blunders and shenanigans but also photography related news/reviews and the occasional contest entry.

All the photos (unless otherwise noted in the post) were taken by me and are available for sale. If you’re interested in buying an image or three, 😃 please don’t hesitate to contact me for more details. Thanks in advance!

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