This post is about some of the unique aspects of our two week stay in Chiang Mai and the people we stayed with. Our host, James Patrick Hawkins, among many other interesting characteristics, is a highly respected Thai Buddhist amulet collector and identifier. He has written a dozen books on the subject with the help of a Thai writer and publisher to educate Thai people about their heritage and their family heirlooms (almost every Buddhist in Thailand owns at least one amulet). Amulets that were carved and blessed by prominent monks in ages past are revered in Thailand and abroad for being sacred, powerful and lucky Buddhist relics. They range in age, size, shape, style and substance but have many similar characteristics, most notably that almost all of them depict the Buddha in a meditative position. In the history of these amulets millions have been created by laymen and by factories, in some cases to replicate the originals as closely as possible and sold for high prices; meanwhile the real ones are increasingly rare and valuable.

Here’s a quick shot of Kristof and me with James, his wife Ah and their son James Edwards.

James gave us an interesting explanation of the history of the amulets and his personal history of becoming interested in them and learning everything about them. Over time his reputation for being able to accurately verify the authenticity of the works and his push for the education of the Thai people about them attracted the king of Thailand’s attention and he achieved royal recognition for his accomplishments and efforts. In his home are several letters from the king, which he says boggle the minds of Thai men who see them.

James laid out some of his collection of rare, powerful and valuable amulets on the kitchen table. Some of them he found scattered among the fakes for sale in the Buddhist markets. 99% of the amulets there are factory made or in some way unauthentic, but every once in a while you can find a thousand year old monk-made Bhudda carving. The more common way he has built his collection is that Thai men will show him their collections to determine the power and value of their pieces, and his rule for identifying them is that for every five amulets he examines, he gets to keep a sixth if he likes it. If they only have one authentic one he lets them keep it, but sometimes they have several and his collection of ancient and powerful amulets accumulates.

One day James and Ah took us to the Buddhist amulet market to look for some good ones for us to buy. For three hours he perused tray after tray of amulets looking for something special.

We decided what we wanted to buy were some Phra Pidta, a carving of stone or metal that depicts a man covering his face and sometimes also his stomach, privates and back with many arms. The ones we picked are from eighty to a hundred and fifty years old. They look like this (note: this is not mine, but looks very much like mine. My amulets are buried at the bottom of my pack and I’m not going to dig them out at this time):

After finding some sweet Phra Pidta James helped us put together a string of five of the rarest amulets that together are called a Benja Pa Kee. He found us the outer four in the market and from his personal collection gave us the rarest and most valuable of the set, the Phra Somdej which is said to bring strong protection and great fortune to the wearer. Considered the “emperor of all Buddha amulets,” the Phra Somdej was carved by Reverand Somdej Phra Puttajarn “Toh Promarangsri”, an abbot of Wat Rakhang Kositararm who lived 1788-1872 and became one Thailand’s most famous monks. Here is my Benja Pa Kee. The centerpiece is the Phra Somdej. The one on the far right is called Phra Rod and is approximately 1200 years old.

After we had settled on the amulets we wanted to buy James spent another hour examining amulets for Thai men who knew of his reputation and wanted his advice. It was a little surreal watching half a dozen Thai men line up with trays full of amulets waiting their turn for James to go through them all. By the end of the day James had several new ones for his own collection. Thank you James for letting us in on an awesome experience!

Here are a few pictures of the Hawkins home. It is decorated with beautiful Thai cultural artifacts and art.

James Edwards is a tenacious eight year old who is very smart, speaks three languages fluently and has the world’s most awesome toy collection. We played lots of video games (Lego Star Wars 2, Lego Indiana Jones, Up) and clay Star Wars games together and had a great time. He made our stay interesting and unexpected.

One evening Ah and her sister treated us to a delicous Thai delicacy: red ant soup. It was a bit of a shock to see the tray of ant eggs covered in protective red ants stalking the eggs making sure no harm came to them. It was much more shocking to watch Ah pick up a fat red ant and bite it in half, then gobble up the rest of it and the egg it was hovering over. The whole mess was scooped into a pot of spicy soup on the stove. After brief reluctance we ate a couple bowls of it and decided it was definitely worth the experience.