Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Walk Through Ban Krua

A man sits in the shade in front of the mosque in Ban Krua

Bangkok is a surprisingly diverse city. Thailand is a Buddhist country and most Thais are devout Buddhists, but Thai Buddhism is tolerant of different religions and lifestyles. 

There is a large Muslim population in Bangkok, both of native Thai Muslims but also people who have emigrated to Thailand from elsewhere in the Muslim world. There are also large Christian communities (and not just in the expat community but also Thai Christians) and large communities of Hindus, Sikhs and others from the Indian subcontinent. There is a Jewish community center down the street from my apartment. 

Most people who come to Bangkok, whether to live or visit, see only a small part of the city - the area around the Palace, Chinatown, Ratchaprasong and Sukhumvit (which is sort of all one street) and the financial neighborhood at Silom. 

Get off the beaten path though and Bangkok starts to reveal itself as a city that is much more than retail and temples.

Ban Krua is one such neighborhood. It's incredibly easy to get to - it is just across Khlong Saen Saeb from the Jim Thompson house. Most people pass right by it without venturing in. It was the first Muslim community in Bangkok and traces its history back to the very early years of the Chakri Dynasty and King Rama I. 

Thailand (then Siam) was caught in one of its several wars with Cambodia (then the Khmer empire). Rama I told the Khmer Cham Muslims he would give them a royal land grant if they joined him in his fight against the Khmers and they did. When the war ended, he fulfilled his promise and thousands of Khmer Cham Muslims moved to Bangkok. 

Thus was created Ban Krua. At the time, in the early 1800s, the community was beyond Bangkok's city walls and more or less in the countryside. Now Bangkok has grown up around the community and Ban Krua is firmly in the middle of town. 

Walking into these communities can be a little intimidating to the first time visitor. Streets aren't really streets at all. They're no wider than sidewalks and way too narrow for cars. Motorcycles, bicycles and pushcarts share space on the "avenues" with pedestrians. Roofs overhang the sidewalk/streets. To an outsider the view might be dark and a little unwelcoming. 

Don't let appearances fool you. What you're seeing is the way Bangkok used to be, before the car became the main form of transport. People walked to the Khlong and then caught a boat, or poled their canoes from place to place (most of the small khlongs have been filled in and people no longer pole their canoes in the neighborhood). 

Ban Krua now is a changing community. The Bangkok municipal government wants to evict the community and put in an expressway but the community has resisted the move. Some of the Muslim families have moved out and more Buddhists have moved in. But mosques still outnumber wats, women still wear hijab and the food is still halal

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