Valod Palakawong's life was tough before he discovered the Jatukham Rammathep amulet. Each day he would rise before dawn and drag his sleepy young son and two adolescent daughters out of bed to go to caddy for the city's rich on one of Bangkok's many golf courses. The irrepressibly cheerful Mr Valod would joke with the golfers, hoping that his humour would earn him extra tips. After the 18th hole, Mr Valod's family would make their way to their small store where they sold fishing rods and tackle. Trade was slow, but Mr Valod didn't complain. There were others in Thailand whose lives were far worse. But Mr Valod's prospects took a turn for the better when he bought his first Jatukham amulet just over a year ago. He had resisted buying the charm, which hangs from a necklace and is now worn by many Thais, thinking it was just a fad - bling for Buddhists. But he kept hearing friends and extended family that the Jatukham amulet, a circular medallion, had brought them luck or wealth. The media carried reports on how Thais wearing it had miraculously survived horrific car accidents or brutal muggings. Then there were claims that the Jatukham image had begun mysteriously to appear on the screens of digital cameras. Some police and army officers gave kudos to the amulet's powers by saying it stopped bullets. The amulet's popularity soon spread among celebrities and movie stars who began presiding over Jatukham-making rituals. The hysteria surrounding the charm increased and in April resulted in a temple riot in the country's south among desperate Thais wanting to get their hands on the Jatukham. A 51-year-old woman was trampled to death in the chaos, dozens were injured and property was destroyed. The incident did nothing to quell demand. Jatukham fever remains widespread in Thailand. Internet chat rooms are full of discussions about the powers of the charm, and on street corners across the country people can be seen huddled in groups, poring over full-page newspaper advertisements offering the amulet in different editions. It was too much for Mr Valod. He decided to buy one. 'I didn't really believe in it at first,' he said. 'I just bought one because everyone else had one. Then I won the lottery a few times in a row.' And so Mr Valod's faith in the amulet was won. He began wearing two around his neck and used some of his winnings to open two shops selling the charm. Mr Valod declined to say how much money he won. Trade in the amulet, sold by hawkers such as Mr Valod or at Buddhist temples, has become serious business. Mr Valod is now making 28,000 baht (HK$6,913) a month from the shops. The Kasikorn Research Centre has predicted that the value of the Jatukham amulet trade and related businesses this year could hit 40 billion baht. It would make the Jatukham amulet industry worth almost half as much as Thailand's biggest export, rice. The income generated by amulet sales has prompted tax officials to investigate the trade. If the trade does reach 40 billion baht this year, it will be almost double that of last year and it will have defied Thailand's economic slowdown. The economic malaise and general uneasiness about the country's political future (the country has been under military administration since a coup last September) is one of the reasons demand for amulets is booming. People are seeking hope and fortune in places they hadn't looked before. Businesses are seeking to capitalise on these popular beliefs. Nielsen Media Research said almost 70 million baht was spent on advertising the Jatukham amulet in the first quarter of this year. The trade has also spawned so-called amulet experts, T-shirts, songs, books, magazines, amulet-only pawnshops, and even contests to see who owns the best charm. Counterfeiters have also entered the fray, as have thieves. There are regular media reports of how highly sought-after editions of the charm have been stolen from the homes of wealthy Thais. The craze has even taken to the air, with stunts by the Royal Thai Air Force and airline Orient-Thai to hold Jatukham-making rituals aboard planes. There is a belief that the higher the place in which the ritual is held, the more sacred the amulet. Until recently, the amulet trade was a low-profile activity confined to the army and police. In 2003, 443 Thai troops went to Iraq as peacekeepers and were armed with 6,000 amulets. In February this year, 10,000 amulets were given to military officers fighting a Muslim insurgency in the country's southernmost provinces. In public life, Thais believe that amulets bring an owner peace of mind and good luck by warding off illness and danger. Many also believe they will bring wealth, as suggested by the names of the different series of Jatukham amulets: Kote Ruay Maha Sarn (Enormously Super Rich), Ruay Mai Mee Het Phon (Rich Without Reasons) and Kum Sap Thep Prathan (Divine-Given Treasure). The Jatukham amulet features a seated divine being with a raised right knee in a yoga position. It was created in 1987 by Major-General Phantharak Rajadej, a policeman who claimed to possess occult knowledge. He died last year, with reports saying he was as old as 110. Khun Phan, as he was known, created the divine figure Jatukham Rammathep after it appeared to him in a dream. There has been much debate about what the divinity represents among Buddhist scholars, as it doesn't appear in scriptures. The figure is said to be a combination of two brother princes from Thai history, whose aliases were Jatukham and Rammathep. The first amulet was circular, five centimetres in diameter and cost 39 baht. Now, there are 400 different editions and some can fetch as much as one million baht. The starting price of newly minted Jatukham amulets is 300-500 baht. The craze, unsurprisingly, has upset many Buddhist leaders, even though most charms are sold at temples. The amulet industry goes against core Buddhist principles, said the revered monk Phra Maha Wudhijaya Vajiramedhi. 'The rightful way to make a living is to use our brain and two hands, not a talisman.' Some Buddhist leaders have accused amulet traders of fostering a cult, pointing out that Buddha taught people to detach from worldly temptations and not to take refuge in material objects. 'The three refuges a Buddhist should seek are the Lord Buddha, his teachings and his ministers [monks],' said Phra Wudhijaya. The amulet's commercialisation and exploitation is triggering concern among the authorities and the tax department is now clamping down, although the money trail will be difficult to follow since much of the trade is in cash. Until this year, any sales or donations earned by Buddhist temples were not taxed, but now government officials have said they will collect taxes on any amulet sales where the proceeds are not being used for charitable purposes. Many high-ranking monks are behind the lucrative industry, with some claiming they can predict lottery numbers. Schools have also been selling the amulets to raise money for extensions and may fall foul of such investigations. And bank accounts of businessmen who pay a donation to use the name of a Buddhist temple to sell the charms could be scrutinised. The donation is supposed to be used by the temple to support the resident monks and provide medical supplies and educational support to nearby villages. An amulet's value is partly determined by the temple at which it is blessed. If an amulet edition comes from a temple in Thailand's southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, where the Jatukham amulet originated, then the demand will be enormous. Other temples across the country, such as Wat Pathumwanaram Rachaworawiharn at Bangkok's busiest shopping junction, Siam Square, have benefited from the trickle-down effect of the popularity of the Jatukham amulet. The bustling Bangkok temple recently produced a series of five Jatukham amulets, sold in a box, for a minimum of 500 baht. The price jumped to 3,500 if the amulets were made of more expensive materials. At Wat Pathumwanaram Rachaworawiharn there were queues of Thais waiting to collect their amulet orders. Chuluporn Permsiriphan, a housewife, bought the box set for an amulet room in her house which contains a collection of more than 300 amulets, some 20 years old. 'When my husband was younger he was scared of ghosts and so he bought an amulet to protect himself,' she said. 'He's not afraid any longer, but having the amulets does give us a sense of peace. If we feel troubled we can go and hold our favourite amulet.' When asked if buying amulets was against Buddhist principles, Ms Chuluporn appeared embarrassed, as did Mr Valod. Both qualified their actions by saying it depended on each person's belief, and declined to say any more. But with or without Jatukham amulets, Thais are nevertheless often superstitious and many of the country's political leaders are known for visiting fortune-tellers. The leaders of last year's bloodless military coup, which ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have paid a handful of visits to a fortune-teller to ward off bad luck. Thaksin was known to make similar visits, but they failed to forestall his eviction from office.