Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’

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Halal street food is a common sight in the area.
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From halal culinary delights to pioneering Islamic art, the Bang Rak district is a breath of fresh air.
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A close up of the gift given to the Thai king.
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The peaceful interior of the Haroon Mosque.
Updated 23 October 2017
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Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’

BANGKOK: “Only a few years ago there was no such thing as Thai-Islamic art and now a piece of it sits inside the royal palace,” beams Ismail Ywaiyavata, the 39-year-old vice chairman of the Institute of Islamic Art Thailand.
I am sat in a modest-sized room inside the Tuan Suwanasana Chularjmontri Foundation in the Bang Rak district of Bangkok.
All four walls display works of Thai-Islamic art, some lean on tables because of a lack of space. In one corner, a desk with a lamp and open laptop acts as Ywaiyavata’s office. Next to that, on an artist’s drawing board, bamboo quills lie scattered across pieces of calligraphy.
The building is also multi-functional, serving as a community hall and a school.
The Bang Rak district is noted for its upmarket hotels and old European-style architecture, but I am here because it is also where one of Bangkok’s largest concentration of Muslims live and Ywaiyavata, a popular member of this so-called “Muslim Quarter,” is heading up its most exciting new project.
“Thai people don’t know about Islamic art. We want to use it to promote the beauty of Islam. That is why we are developing our own modern interpretation of a Thai-Islamic art style,” he said.
Of medium build, Ywaiyavata’s round face has a typically light beard. He is wearing a round collared, navy blue top with stonewashed denim jeans. A fine art graduate, Ywaiyavata founded the institute in April 2016 alongside local lawyer, Abdul Samad, calligrapher, Ustad Suleiman and Islamic art graduate, Shareef Toleb. Within a few months, they were given the opportunity to seek royal approval.
Last December, they presented the king with a piece of their pioneering work.
“We wanted to show the king how our art style brings the two cultures together. The design we presented took the popular Thai lotus flower and applied the Islamic artistic principles of geometry and repetition to create a frame inside which we wrote his name in Arabic calligraphy.”
The exquisite piece has a circular frame of mesmeric lotus flowers that echo patterns seen all over Thailand, from architecture to clothing. In the middle, the king’s full name, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, is artistically inscribed in Arabic calligraphy. Made by placing gold leaf onto the finest black Thai silk, the result is stunning and made quite the impression.
“The king asked me about the patterns and how we came up with the idea. He agreed it was a beautiful way to present Islamic culture in Thailand,” Ywaiyavata said.
However, Ywaiyavata’s institute is not just about calligraphy.
Two of the largest pieces on display are by award-winning female Thai artist, Thidarat Chantachua.
Using colored threading on black canvas, Chantachua’s semi-abstract, geometric patterns present an echo of arabesque architecture.
The institute has also begun work on the first-ever Qur’an to be decorated with the new Thai-Islamic design style.
When we head outside, Ywaiyavata shows me where the institute hopes to soon be permanently based — a pretty house, complete with pale blue wooden slats. Like many buildings in Bang Rak, it is more European than Thai.
Muslims in Bangkok
As we walk down the narrow back streets of the Muslim quarter, we pass doors with “bismillah” written above them. Turning a corner, the air becomes smoky and filled with the whiff of roasting meat. A hijab-wearing Thai woman stands grilling satay sticks on a food cart labelled “halal.”
The woman smiles warmly and returns our greetings. Above her, a green sign announces the Haroon Mosque, one of the oldest in Bangkok.
Mohammed Kanzi, a local postgraduate student of Islamic history and a volunteer at the institute, tells me the story behind the mosque.
“It was named after Haroon Bafadel, whose father was an Indonesian-Arab trader from south Borneo. He built a wooden mosque in the Javanese style on the banks of the Chao Phraya in 1837.”
Bafadel’s father, Musa, arrived long before Bangkok became the huge metropolis it is today. Back then, the mosque stood in a village called Tom Samrong, outside the capital.
“This is why the mosque’s first name was the Tom Samrong Mosque. Then, in 1899, the Thai government wanted the land to build a customs house and the mosque was rebuilt inland.”
The first rebuild was also wooden, but in 1934, a brick building was constructed in the style of the surrounding architecture. As a result, the Haroon Mosque looks more like a European townhouse than an oriental institute, complete with neo-classical floral motifs, mock romanesque pillars and wooden shutters.
“The only distinguishing Islamic feature was that crescent and star mold up there,” my guide said as he pointed toward the ceiling.
Ywaiyavata and I strain to see where our guide is pointing — high up on the apex roof’s brickwork, a gold-and-green crescent and star can just about be made out.
Origins of Thai-Islamic art
Once inside, the real reason I was brought here becomes apparent. At the front of the prayer hall, two ornate wooden structures stand in stark contrast to the mosque’s otherwise simple, plain interior.
“This unique mehrab and mimbar might also be called Islamic-Thai art style. The mehrab reminds us of the royal barges on our rivers and has Arabic and French influence. Meanwhile, the mimbar is a cross between a Muslim and traditional Thai throne,” Mohammed said.
The Muslim Quarter
The Haroon Mosque is one of many in Bang Rak. There is also the Ban Oou Mosque, Faizane Madina and the brilliantly-named Thai-Pakistan Friendship Mosque.
Thailand’s capital is home to the largest concentration of Muslims in the country and Bang Rak’s community wonderful reflects this diversity. Mohammed explained how many reached the shores of Thailand.
“We know Muslim traders were in contact with Thailand since the early times of Islam and this led to conversions and inter-marriage along the Malay peninsula, so many Muslims here have Malay and Middle Eastern ancestry. Others are Thai whose families converted sometime in history and then there are those from the Indian Sub-Continent that came here as sea merchants centuries ago.”
Mohammed’s own ethnic ancestry is Malay and Chinese, while Ywaiyavata traces his paternal roots to southern Thailand and his maternal roots back to Hadhramaut in Yemen.
The ethnic diversity is also reflected in the halal eateries of Bang Rak. Places serving Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern food rub shoulders with halal Thai eateries and Muslim grocery stores are more abundant here than in most other parts of Bangkok.
In a city famous for its hedonism, Bang Rak presents a refreshing haven for Muslim travelers headed to Thailand’s capital city.


Melting glacier in China draws tourists, climate worries

This Sept. 21, 2018 photo shows a Chinese Academy of Sciences research team atop the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the southern province of Yunnan in China. (AP)
Updated 21 October 2018
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Melting glacier in China draws tourists, climate worries

  • The team operates remote sensors that collect data on temperature, wind speed, rainfall, and humidity
  • Millions of people each year are drawn to Baishui’s frosty beauty on the southeastern edge of the Third Pole

YULONGXUESHAN, China: The loud crack rang out from the fog above the Baishui No. 1 Glacier as a stone shard careened down the ice, flying past Chen Yanjun as he operated a GPS device.
More projectiles were tumbling down the hulk of ice that scientists say is one of the world’s fastest melting glaciers.
“We should go,” said the 30-year-old geologist. “The first rule is safety.”
Chen hiked away and onto a barren landscape once buried beneath the glacier. Now there is exposed rock littered with oxygen tanks discarded by tourists visiting the 15,000-foot (4,570-meter) -high blanket of ice in southern China.
Millions of people each year are drawn to Baishui’s frosty beauty on the southeastern edge of the Third Pole __ a region in Central Asia with the world’s third largest store of ice after Antarctica and Greenland that’s roughly the size of Texas and New Mexico combined.
Third Pole glaciers are vital to billions of people from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Asia’s 10 largest rivers __ including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, and Ganges __ are fed by seasonal melting.
“You’re talking about one of the world’s largest freshwater sources,” said Ashley Johnson, energy program manager at the National Bureau of Asian Research, an American think tank. “Depending on how it melts, a lot of the freshwater will be leaving the region for the ocean, which will have severe impacts on water and food security.”
Earth is today 1 degree Centigrade (1.8 Fahrenheit) hotter than pre-industrial levels because of climate change __ enough to melt 28 to 44 percent of glaciers worldwide, according to a new report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Temperatures are expected to keep rising.
Baishui is about as close to the Equator as Tampa, Florida. And the impacts of climate change already are dramatic.
The glacier has lost 60 percent of its mass and shrunk 250 meters (820 feet) since 1982, according to a 2018 report in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
Scientists found in 2015 that 82 percent of glaciers surveyed in China had retreated. They warned that the effects of glacier melting on water resources are gradually becoming “increasingly serious” for China.
“China has always had a freshwater supply problem with 20 percent of the world’s population but only 7 percent of its freshwater,” said Jonna Nyman, an energy security lecturer at the University of Sheffield. “That’s heightened by the impact of climate change.”
For years, scientists have observed global warming change Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the Chinese province of Yunnan.
One research team has tracked Baishui’s retreat of about 30 yards (27 meters) per year over the past decade. Flowers, such as snow lotus, have rooted in exposed earth, says Wang Shijin, a glaciologist and director of the Yulong Snow Mountain Glacial and Environmental Observation Research Station, part of a network run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Nestled into a suburb of Lijiang, population 1.2 million, the station is home to Wang and his team: geologist and drone operator Chen, postgraduate glaciology student Zhou Lanyue and electrical engineer Zhang Xing, a private contractor.
After breakfast, the team heads off by van for the day’s mission. A cable car carries them up to a majestic view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
The team shuffles past a line of tourists __ many in red ponchos, most sucking oxygen canisters, a few vomiting from altitude sickness __ before descending to replace a broken meteorological station.
The team operates remote sensors that collect data on temperature, wind speed, rainfall, and humidity. Other sensors measure water flow in streams fed by melted ice. Cold, downpours, rock slides, gales and glacier movement break the equipment.
“It is not easy to encounter good weather here,” Wang said.
This weather will ensure Yunnan has plenty of freshwater while other glacier loss poses serious risk of drought across the Third Pole, he said.
The next day, the team wore crampons while repairing more sensors scattered across the glacier’s crags.
“Where we’re at right now was back in 2008 all covered with ice,” Wang said. “From here to there at the side, the glacier shrank about 20 to 30 meters. The shrinking is very remarkable.”
The team forded streams and jumped crevasses in search of long iron bars they previously embedded in the ice. GPS tells them how much the bars, and thus the glacier, have moved. They also measure how much height the glacier has lost during the summer.
Back on the viewing platform, Che launched a buzzing camera drone over the white expanse. The photographs help tell a story of staggering loss. A quarter of its ice has vanished since 1957 along with four of its 19 glaciers, researchers have found.
Changes to the Baishui provide the opportunity to educate visitors about global warming, Wang said.
Last year, 2.6 million tourists visited the mountain, according to Yulong Snow Mountain park officials.
On blustery day recently, hundreds of tourists climbed wooden stairs through grey fog to snap selfies in front of the glacier.
Hou Yugang said he wasn’t too bothered over climate change and Baishui’s melting. “I don’t think about it now because it still has a long way to go,” he said.
To protect the glacier, authorities have limited the number of visitors to 10,000 a day and have banned hiking on the ice. They plan to manufacture snow and to dam streams to increase humidity that slows melting.
Security guard Yang Shaofeng has witnessed a warming world melting this mountain, which his local Naxi minority community considers sacred.
Yang remembers being able to see the glacier’s lowest edge from his home village. No longer.
“Only when we climb up can we see it,” he said sadly, as tourists lined up to have their names engraved on medallions bearing the glacier’s image.
The etching is already outdated.