Two Muslim Communities

Ban Krua

On Saturday, Theresa and I visited the Ban Krua Muslim community here in Bangkok. Unlike the Muslims in Southern Thailand who can trace their origins to Malaysia or Java (Indonesia), the 10,000 or so residents of this community are descendents of immigrants from Khmer (Cambodia.)

During the Burmese-Siamese War of 1785-1786 (one has to date the wars between the Burmese and Siamese because there are so many of them), the Khmer Muslims fought alongside King Rama I to help defeat the Burmese. For their efforts, Rama I gave them a parcel of land in Bangkok that is on the north side of the Saen Saab canal. The Khmer immigrants passed their traditional silk weaving skills down from generation to generation and this community played an integral role in the post-WWII establishment of the Thai silk industry.

Jim Thompson is credited with the being the major force behind the revitalization of the Thai silk industry. Thompson was an architect in NYC before the war, became a commissioned officer after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and then a member of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA) during the war. He came to Thailand after the Japanese surrender to run the local OSS office.

In 1948, Thompson co-founded the Thai Silk Company, in some sense following in the footsteps of his father who was a successful textile manufacturer back in the U.S. Thompson’s keys to success were not his manufacturing ability but rather his designs, his marketing, and, most importantly, his organizational skills. He successfully organized and coordinated a cottage-industry of local weavers to produce high-quality products with consistent colors and patterns. The weavers that he used to build his business were the local Muslims from Ban Krua. Up until Thompson’s mysterious disappearance in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967, the local Muslim weavers produced all the silk and silk products that his company sold worldwide. Today, Jim Thompson manufacturers all its silk and products in a factory in Korat (in Northeastern Thailand).

Thompson House across Klong Saen Saab from Ban Krua

In the late 1950s, Jim Thompson built his own house on the south side of Klong Saen Saab, directly across the canal from the Muslim community that supplied his business. Thompson bought, moved, and reassembled six traditional Thai houses to create his home. The largest home, which became Thompson’s living room, was a house that was given to him by a Muslim weaver from Ban Krua.

Phamai Baan Krua is the sole remaining silk producer in Bangkok’s Muslim community. This company is run by Khun Niphon and it was his mother’s home that ultimately became Thompson’s living room. As you enter Khun Niphon’s store, there is a picture of his parent’s with Jim Thompson as well as other memorabilia, e.g., a letter from Robert Kennedy after a visit to the store in 1962. Today, several women were working at the looms and one needed to stop in order to fix one of the threads on the warp that had broken.

Fixing a Broken Thread

Top of Mosque Peeking Out of the Rooftops

Seat for Iman in Mosque

Unlike other silk stores that cater to a retail business with a large inventory of finished products, Phamai Baan Krua was primarily selling silk fabric (although it did have some finished goods.) If anyone would like us to bring or ship some locally-made silk fabric back to the U.S., shoot me an email and let me know what you would like. One of us will take the short trip to Phamai Baan Krua and let you know what they have and how much it would be.

The image above is the Google Satellite view of Ban Krua — it is the entire mass of buildings north of the canal. As you can see (click back and forth between the Map and Sat settings), the Muslim community has very limited land and it is tightly packed. The homes are on top of each other and there is a veritable maze of paths and walkways that snake through this village. There are three mosques in Ban Krua, and Khun Niphon graciously escorted us to one and gave us a tour. As we crossed over the canal to enter and leave the community, we saw a small herd of goats and a sheep living in a pen directly above the canal. The only open space that we came across during our visit was the local cemetery, but it is difficult to call that space unused or available.

Cemetery in Ban Krua

Three Goats and a Sheep Over the Canal

Koh Panyee

Earlier in the week, I went to a cocktail party hosted by TMB, a local bank that is partly owned by ING. As part of the company’s presentation on how the bank challenges its people and its clients to “Make THE Difference” by “Thinking Differently”, they showed the following video that was made by their ad agency, Leo Burnett Thailand. The video won a Cyber Lions bronze award at the 58th Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity and it is very much worth watching.

Koh Panyee is an island located on the western coast of Southern Thailand in a bay off the Andaman Sea, about 40-50 KM (25-30 miles) north of Phuket. The fishing village, however, was built on stilts by Indonesian fishermen since non-Thais were forbidden to own land. There are now several hundred Muslim families in the village and all their homes and shops are still built on stilts. The picture below is a Google Satellite view of the island; it looks to me like the football field might be at the green arrow in the picture below. When we finally get to Phuket (after the rainy season), I expect that we will take a day trip to visit Koh Panyee — the seafood should be superb.

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Two Muslim Communities

  1. Karen Brown says:

    I loved the video. It was quite inspiring & makes me realize how much we have here in the US – most of which we take for granted since it is the life we have always known. Thank you.

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