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After muttering a prayer, Thai taxi driver Sopee Silpakit strings a chain of amulets around his neck then jumps behind the wheel -- buoyed by the peace of mind the ritual gives him against Covid-19.
The 65-year-old's job driving a cab in Bangkok puts him in contact daily with the public, and his way of life is now plagued with worry, with the Thai capital the epicentre of a third wave.
"I pray to these amulets every day: 'Don't let the virus come near me,'" he tells AFP.
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"I really do believe that they could protect me from the virus and keep me in good health."
Buddhist-majority Thailand has a deeply superstitious culture, with much of the population steeped in the belief that luck and good fortune can be accrued through blessed objects.
Some spiritual fads are fuelled by the media, like the hyper-realistic "child angel" dolls.
But collecting amulets cuts across different demographics -- it is not uncommon to see an entrepreneur wear them underneath their polo shirt.
The charms may be simple -- such as a small Buddha statue -- or more elaborate, featuring intricate carvings encased behind a plastic covering for protection.
Sopee -- whose cab has more than a hundred holy objects adorning its interior -- says he is "more confident" that his taxi is virus-free than he would be without any spiritual protection.
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"I don't really care how much these amulets in my taxi are worth," he tells AFP, the charms hanging from his rear-view mirror swinging as he manoeuvres his way around narrow residential alleys.
"It really comes down to how much it's worth to my mind."
- Spiritual protection -
The tradition of collecting, buying and selling the amulets is so popular that Bangkok even has a dedicated market in its historic quarter specialising in them -- where those blessed by a popular abbot fetch hefty prices.
The government has shut the market whenever Covid-19 infections have spiked over the past year, due to the bazaar's popularity among older Thais.
"The most expensive ones in my possession are about 10,000-20,000 baht ($320-$640)," says taxi driver Wasan Sukjit, 43, who says he receives rare amulets from different provinces as gifts.
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His cab also has a large cloth scroll featuring a Buddhist monk adorning its ceiling -- as if the abbot is watching over him as he moves through Bangkok's choking traffic.
Among taxi drivers, the belief in these holy objects is fuelled by miraculous tales of drivers surviving accidents on Thailand's notoriously dangerous roads.
The kingdom has some of the deadliest roads in the world, according to the World Health Organization, second only to war-torn Libya.
"Some Buddhist amulet-decorated cars were in vehicle crashes but the drivers only sustained minor cuts and scratches," Wasan tells AFP, adding that his decked-out cab also "helps attract customers".
His extensive collection may give passengers peace of mind from the virus.
"But of course the real and physical protections would have to be masks and alcohol gel," he says, his surgical face mask always strapped onto his face.
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