Keeping the Faith

Mai Nguyen takes a look at Chiang Mai's thriving Wat Gate Muslim community.

By | Mon 29 Apr 2013

In spite of being named after a Buddhist temple, Chiang Mai’s Wat Gate area is, surprisingly, home to a thriving Muslim community. Walking around, you pass by men in white caps and women in flowing headscarves. There is the green and white mosque audible by its haunting daily calls to prayer and visible by the high dome topped by a minaret. And then there is the food. Just off of Kaewnawarat Road, there are Halal restaurants hidden within soi after soi, all marked by the ubiquitous crescent moon and star, the symbol of the Muslim religion. All the dishes here – ncluding beloved Thai dishes like khao soy, meat skewers and omelettes – have been adapted to follow the canons of the Quran.

When Citylife moved its office to the Wat Gate area in April, it was hard not to notice the Muslim community, identifiable by the people yes, but food-obsessed as we all are, it was mostly the various Halal restaurants and stalls that caught our attention.

The existence and popularity of Halal food in Chiang Mai is, in a sense, a sign of a healthy and thriving Muslim community, with the most popular spot being in the Night Bazaar area. Every Friday, there is a Halal Street Food Market from 4 to 6 p.m., attended in equal parts by Muslims and non-Muslims – cuisine without borders, so to speak.

The Wat Gate area itself falls east of the Ping River, nestled between Kaewnawarat and Charoen Muang Roads. Since this is now the new home of Citylife, we wanted to get to know our neighbourhood better. So off we went, meeting locals, visiting restaurants, sampling street food and wandering around the area, familiarising ourselves with a different cityscape, one that featured a meandering river rather than a looming mountain.

As it turns, out we are now neighbours with the smallest Muslim community in Chiang Mai, with a special history that dates back decades. The folks who live here (called ‘Jin Haw’ in Thai) are predominantly descendants of traders from the Yunnan province of China, with a small number from Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the 19th century, these traders trekked from Yunnan to the mountainous markets of Northern Thailand, Burma, and Laos to trade cottons, silks and medicines, but more notably, tobacco and opium. It’s believed that some of these traders, decades later, assisted drug warlords such as the notorious Khun Sa of Burma in the transport of these goods to Europe and North America. Allegedly, the wife of Khun Sa’s former lieutenant still resides in Wat Gate.

Chiang Mai fell along this migration network. Many traders would pass by, but some saw the city as a good place to settle. It was especially popular among Yunnanese Muslims who were looking to flee the Chinese Civil War and the ensuing establishment of Communist rule in the 1940s. One famous settler was Yong Fuanan, the Chinese immigrant and wealthy trader who founded the aforementioned green and white mosque, called Attaqwa, in 1970.

Today, the Attaqwa mosque, located on Nawatgate Road, serves as the epicentre of the Muslim Sanpakoi community of Wat Gate. It’s one of seven Chinese mosques in Chiang Mai, and the site of the city’s first-ever Muslim school. There are also three other Muslim communities in Chiang Mai, including Chang Puak, Chang Klan Road and Ban Haw. In Chiang Mai, there are about 40,000 Muslim residents and 17 mosques in total. In all of Thailand, Muslims make up 4.6% of the population, making it the country’s largest religious minority.

If one were to take a stroll in the Wat Gate neighbourhood, particularly on a Friday during lunchtime, you’d see men gathered on the floor at the Attaqwa mosque, participating in the most revered of prayers. The men would be kneeling and praying, sometimes shoulder to shoulder, as the imam delivered his sermon. If you looked to the back of the mosque, you’d see a closed room. That’s where the elder women congregate during prayers, dressed in head-to-toe niqab. Younger women seem to worship in yet another room.

Take a step outside the mosque and you might be beckoned by a woman clad in a long black headscarf. At her food stall, she sells chicken skewers and sausages, all Halal, and some of the best ones you’ll find in the area for 15 baht a piece. These sausages are not like the fermented sausages you see in the markets, the ones with nearly indigestible casings and enough grease to create a makeshift mirror. No, these ones are quite perfect.

What are Halal sausages? To find out, we walked a bit further down the soi outside the mosque, and turned into another soi on the right where we found the Ubeda Halal food store. Its Muslim owner, Kannika Suwanmalee, is a short, soft-spoken woman who wears eyeglasses adorned with colourful beaded strings. Kannika makes, packages and sells frozen Halal foods, including a variety of northern Thai sausages, marinated beef, eggplant dips and beef cracklings. She told us the way to make Halal sausages is very simple: She uses the same ingredients as any ordinary Thai sausage, but replaces the pork with chicken and the pork casings with beef. It’s a family recipe she’s used for more than 40 years.

Six years ago, Kannika’s Ubeda food line joined the One Tambon, One Product (OTOP) project, which helps promote unique local specialties like handicrafts, garments and jewellery from various districts. Since getting the OTOP certificate, Kannika has learned how to package and market her Halal foods better. She gets a mix of Muslim and non-Muslim consumers who come to her directly to buy the products. But since most items are sold frozen, you’ll only be lucky enough to sample sausages in-store if you happen to walk in on one of Kannika’s famous sausage days.

Heading back towards the mosque, you’ll come across the Attaqwa School, attended by about 150 students from grades seven to 12. The curriculum is quite different from the curriculum of other schools in the city: teachings are held in Arabic and standards are quite high since all nine teachers have been certified from either the Al-Azhar University in Egypt or the Madinah Islamic University in Saudi Arabia. The school even provides scholarships to students interested in pursuing post-secondary education abroad, as well as drop-in sessions on any given Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for anyone interested in learning about Islam.

One afternoon, we met with the Muslim leader of the community, Naichumpol Srisombat. I half-expected to meet a wrinkly, hunched grandfather type in a white prayer cap and a flowing white head-to-toe tunic. Instead, I met an energetic and social middle-aged man in dark wash jeans, back pockets bulging from his wallets and keys. He had two cell phone holsters strapped to his leather belt and a grey collared shirt that was tucked in front but not in back. There was a cool effortlessness about him that made him seem more like your best friend’s dad than a revered religious leader. Everyone calls him Uncle Pol, and he’s kind of like the human grapevine around the community. He knows all the goings on and who’s who of the community, and tells me that the Thai Muslims here work in various fields. Some are government officers, some are teachers and others engineers. One is currently the head of the Department of Peace Studies at Payap University. Another used to be a member of the House of Parliament.

Of course, Uncle Pol also knows where to find the best Halal eats in the area. The khao soy just a block away from the mosque is the absolute best khao soy in the city, he claims. But heads up, it’s closed on Fridays.

As for the state of the community: “We can say we are the strongest and strictest Muslim community in Chiang Mai,” says Uncle Pol. “We cooperate with other mosques in Chiang Mai. We help each other, for example when we want to arrange a big event or even help pay for the water or electric bills.”

For Muslim expats who have recently arrived in Chiang Mai, Uncle Pol says the community has an open arms policy, allowing newcomers to register with the mosque and take advantage of the many benefits, such as monetary support during a family illness or death.

There’s a lot one can learn from a stroll through a neighbourhood. In a city that is overwhelmingly Buddhist, it’s encouraging to see harmonious living between different religious groups. In fact, it’s a nonissue, according to Uncle Pol, who says that living in Chiang Mai as a Muslim has never been easier. He’s never experienced any problems being a religious minority, nor has he ever had a hard time keeping his strict Halal diet, despite Thailand’s penchant for pork.

As I walked back to the Citylife office, there was something about the combination of a sunny stroll and pleasant conversations with community members that left me with a warm fuzzy feeling in my stomach. Maybe it was knowing that Citylife has found a really nice place to call home. Or maybe it was just all that incredible food I ate.