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.


The road less traveled

Updated 26 April 2018
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The road less traveled

DUBAI: For the more free-spirited traveler who wants to avoid the tourist trails this summer, check out some of the more unconventional destinations on offer at last week’s Arabian Travel Market

The light fantastic
LAPLAND

It’s most famous as the home of Santa Claus, of course, but Finland’s northernmost region is much more than just a kitschy seasonal holiday destination. For a true once-in-a-lifetime experience, the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort offers glass igloos from which to view the breathtaking Northern Lights (on view for eight months of the year — August to April — from this fringe-of-the-wilderness resort on the road to the Arctic Sea) in one of the cleanest environments on the planet. If you want a bit more privacy than a glass dome offers, the rustic log cabins should do it for you. They have a mini glass igloo attached too, so you can still enjoy the midnight sun in the summer. If you want something a little more active than sightseeing, there’s hiking, mountain-biking and kayaking on offer, as well as horse or husky safaris.
It’s a good place to soak up some local culture too; the semi-nomadic reindeer-herding Sami people have inhabited the region for more than 100 years. And the resort is just next to Finland’s largest national park, Urho Kekkonen.
And if you still need your dose of kitsch, Santa’s Home (official!) is just a five-minute drive into the forest.

Ape adventures
UGANDA

With Rwanda doubling the price of its gorilla permits last year, neighboring Uganda — the only other place on earth you can see the magnificent apes in their natural habitat — has become increasingly attractive to nature lovers. It’s not just gorillas either. Uganda is home to 10 national parks and boasts some astonishingly diverse scenery — the sparse savannah of Kidepo Valley, the snow-tipped peaks of Mount Eldon on the Kenyan border, the northern shores of Lake Victoria, the Mabria Forest reserve, the awe-inspiring Murchison Falls, and more. You can see plenty of big game, if that’s your thing, a huge variety of endangered bird species, and monkeys galore. For a more cultural experience, take a trip to the home of the Echuya Batwa, commonly known as pygmies.
There’s a wide range of accommodation on offer too. If you’re on a budget and not too concerned about comfort, then opt for public transport and camping and you’ll spend very little. Of course, you can go the other way and choose luxury safari options too.

Street to sky
TAIWAN

New York might have been immortalized in song as “the city that never sleeps,” but Taiwan’s capital of Taipei puts up a persuasive argument for deserving that title. This place is buzzing in the daytime, but when the sun goes down things really take off. The renowned Shilin Night Market is a must-visit for shopaholics and foodies alike, while culture vultures will love the city’s burgeoning indie arts scene in the Zhongsan and Dongmen neighborhoods. Taipei offers a great range of accommodation too, from the classic Chinese style of the iconic Grand Hotel to hipster hangouts like Humble House (where you’re “not only a guest but also an artist in living,” apparently).
If that all sounds too much, Taipei also has plenty of less hectic attractions: Take a bike ride around some of its beautiful parks and ancient temples, visit the hot springs and geysers at Beitou, or head up Maokong Mountain to escape the rush of the streets. Alternatively, go full vertical and ride the world’s fastest elevator to the viewing decks of Taipei 101, the country’s legendary skyscraper.

Cream of the Caribbean
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

As the rep at the Dominican Republic stand at the Arabian Travel Market pointed out, the country is ideally located for a Caribbean cruise holiday. But once you reach this place, you might decide against moving on. The republic is, the rep explained, home to “eight climates.” Its geographical diversity incorporates mountains, deserts, some of the world’s finest beaches and the stunning UNESCO heritage site of Santo Domingo, the capital, founded by Bartholomew Columbus (Christopher’s younger brother) in 1496. As you might expect, then, there is some stunning colonial architecture to be seen, particularly in the capital’s Zona Colonial — home to several of the New World’s “firsts” including the Catedral Primada de America, the oldest standing cathedral in the Western hemisphere.
But the Dominican Republic is by no means all about history. It’s a vibrant, chaotic treat, and a haven for culture lovers, from the highbrow — opera, orchestra, ballet, theater, avant-garde arts — to the pulsating nightlife and streetlife. The nature, too, is breathtaking: Humpback whales visit its northern shores every year, the protected Los Haitises forest is home to over 200 bird species, while dolphins and manatees regularly visit its waters. This country really does have something for everyone.

Here be tigers
BANGLADESH

It rarely features on the South Asian tourist trail, as Bangladesh continues to suffer from its media image as a place of natural disasters and political turmoil, but the country has a wealth of beauty, culture and comfort to offer travelers.
Its Arabian Travel Market brochure proclaims it “a country of rivers,” and they’re the cause of Bangladesh’s jaw-dropping, lush greenery. For outdoor types, this is a true haven — you can hike the rolling hills, dense forests and tea plantations of Srimangal or go bird- and snake-spotting in the freshwater swamp forest of Ratargul. The main draw for wildlife enthusiasts, of course, is the Bengal tiger. In the world’s largest mangrove forest, the UNESCO-protected Sundarbans, which Bangladesh shares with India, you can track these magnificent cats through the bleak beauty of the watery wilderness.
If you’re one of those people who thrive on the rush of sensory overload and hi-energy vibes that can only be found on city streets, you’ll love the bustling, colorful capital city, Dhaka. There’s history, architectural marvels and culture a-plenty (the stunning Pink Palace — Ahsan Manzil — will fill your Insta-feed for days), and, as you’d expect, some awesome street food to fuel your wanderings.