Artist Dale Konstanz has been addicted to taking Thai taxis since he moved to Bangkok in 2003. They became not just a way to get around, but an opportunity to chat with the drivers, practice his Thai, and learn about the culture. For his book, Thai Taxi Talismans, Konstanz has compiled the best of his photos of Buddha images, lucky charms, and pop culture paraphernalia that sit on dashboards and dangle from rear-view mirrors in Bangkok cabs.
Read an excerpt and look through our slideshow of some of the talismans below:
Thai Taxi Talismans
Riding in Thai taxis can be unnerving when drivers wildly swerve in and out of lanes or monotonous if you’re stuck in Bangkok’s relentless traffic, but fortunately cab drivers here can comfort themselves and their passengers with talismans. The majority of the taxis in this city are filled with statuettes and images of the Buddha, Buddhist monks, and Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as amulets dangling on chains, beribboned flower garlands, magical yan drawings by monks, and miscellaneous charms that are supposed to bring luck and prosperity, create a peaceful environment, assure good health and physical strength, as well as provide protection for the car, the driver, and those riding in the cab.
If you happen to be in the passenger seat of a Bangkok cab and study the talismans stuck on the dashboard, pinned to the ceiling, or hung from the rearview mirror, you become aware that you are looking into the world of ordinary Thai people and are witnessing an integral aspect of everyday life there. To examine the contents of the taxis is to gain a better understanding of Thai philosophies and ideologies.
In general, Thais and especially cabbies, tend to be rather superstitious, not to mention religious. Most drivers practice the most prevalent religion in Thailand, Theravada Buddhism, infused with folk beliefs. Spiritual practices often further involve combining aspects from various religions including Hinduism, Taoism, Animism, and even Christianity with Buddhism to create a particular type of spiritual syncretism. This approach to religion maintains that if one god is good, several must be better. It’s common to see images of the Buddha next to icons of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant-headed deity in the taxis, alongside a picture of a Yin-Yang symbol, for example. Even in cabs where the drivers are Muslim or Christian, you sometimes find unexpected mixtures of religious paraphernalia combined with personal items and random elements from popular culture.
While holy objects are usually located within the confines of spiritual structures, in this scenario, you encounter the sacred artifacts on makeshift dashboard altars in colorful vehicles racing around in an urban sprawl. This is logical in a land of dualities. This is a place where traditional ways of life co-exist with modern conveniences. Here, the locals effortlessly keep their customs alive as the country, and especially Bangkok, concurrently drives forward.
Acquire a copy of Thai Taxi Talismans (River Books, January 2012) here.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.