Past Issue

Klong Article – Phra

Michael D. Love, 11

 

Because of the risk connected with a trip I made recently, I was asked by some Thai friends to wear a little clay statue around my neck. This, they felt, would protect me from accident. I did and there were no accidents.

Except one . . .

Like a lot of Volunteers I’ve gotten so I play solitaire pretty regularly; I usually win one game out of five (two games out of five if I cheat). While I was wearing the amulet, I noticed I was winning three games out of five.

After this accidental winning streak I began to ask a lot of questions about the little images. They are called phra; the classifier is ong.

It wasn’t hard to find out anything I wanted to know—just casually dropping the word phra into the dullest conversation was like tossing a match into a pool of oil. Immediattly everyone would eagerly start swapping opinions and stories for hours. Among other things, I found: a phra the size of a postage stamp can run up to 1,500 dollars, my salary for two years; the composition of phra ranges from jealously guarded secret formula clays to ground elephant trunk; almost no Chinese wear them; many of them are records of exciting chapters in Thai history.

I finally had to give the phra back to its owner and I’m only winning one out of five games again.

But, I think some of the lore I stumbled over might interest other Volunteers, especially those who want to improve their solitaire. Three factors make a phra important: (1) age, the older, the better; (2) nii yaum, “reputation,” usually founded on stories about instances of the phras power; (3) saaksit, the specific power a phra might have.

Together, these three factors determine which class a phra fits into. Six of them, for example, have a strong enough combination of age, nii yaum and saaksit to be ranked first class.

The single best phra in Thailand is named after an old priest who died a hundred years ago. The priest, Som Det, made the phra himself; the saaksit covers the protective powers of all the other phra . In good condition, a Som Det will run 30,000 baht.

A small village in Northern Thailand, Kaam Phaeng Phet, is called the “Land of phra.” It is the home of the very rare Thuung Setii (field of millionaires) which brings wealth to its owner. The suum kau and Pong Sypaan are types of Thuung Setii.

The Phra Raud from Lampuun dates from 1,200. Its saaksit is protection from accidents. Though generally not known in Thailand, it also helps with solitaire.

A few years ago, a famous bandit was surrounded by the police in a back alley in Bangkok. He was in open view, yet he began shooting at policemen. They, of course, openedfire. But after a few minutes he escaped from the crossfire unwounded. Later it was revealed that he had been wearing Naang Phra Jaa, which dates back to Pitsanuloke in the Ayuthia period. At that time, the King was absent and the city was under seige by the Burmese. In desperation, the Queen fashioned these phra to make her soldiers invulnerable to spear and arrow wounds. It worked and today, Thai men wear it for the same invulnerability. But some women often wear it mistakenly thinking its saaksit is the attraction of a sweetheart.

These six phra complete the first class The second class is made up of five phra coming from Lopburi and Ayuthia. They are all used for invulnerability. There are several interesting phra from lower classes.

The Khun Phaeng and the Phit Taa have the saaksit of attracting women. Interestingly enough, they are relegated to fairly low classes.

Female Thai merchants often wear Nang Kwag, “come here,” for prowess in sharp business dealings. It is rumoured to be made out of the tip of an elephant’s trunk.

The phra with the curious name Phit Thawaan, “close bodily holes,” is for invulnerability.

About two hundred years ago in Southern Thailand an old monk named Luang Phau Thuuat caused a lot of miracles, such as changing salt water to fresh water. Twenty years ago, phra started being fashioned in the image of this monk. An incident in Lopburi helped spur its popularity: a soldier wearing Luang Phau Thuuat was teaching two others how to use hand grenades, when one accidently exploded in his hand. He was uninjured, though the other two were seriously maimed.

Wearing a phra properly is a full time job. Violation of one of the rules can cause Seum, decline in power. When not being worn, they must be hung in a high place. You cannot step over a phra, point your feet at one, walk under a clothesline while wearing one, or carry one in your pants pocket You cannot wear it near prostitutes or when making love to a wife. Until a few years ago they were worn on either male or female neck chains. If a violation is strong enough, the phra will spontaneously shatter or crack.

I found that Thais approach phra with a variety of attitudes. Many believe literally in the saaksit of the phra, while many others collect them as objects d’arte, tokens of ancient Siamese heritage. Other people feel that wearing a phra makes its owner more alert to the type of protection it has. Thus, Phra Raud will cause the wearer to drive more carefully; Som Det makes him alert in all dealings and insures moral behavior, since to preserve the saaksit, the owner must live up to the phra standards. So, the phra work two psychological directions simultaneuosly: a. phra is a token of an inferiority or weakness and a visible reminder to build up.

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