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The Crescent Moon in Northern Thailand

The Crescent Moon in Northern Thailand

Muslims of Chiang Mai and the North


By Andrew Forbes and David Henley


The Muslim population of Chiang Mai is not particularly large - according to the 1980 census it comprised a mere 2.5% of the city's overall total - but it is successful, diverse, and (at least in the main Muslim neighbourhoods) very noticeable.

Four main areas of Muslim settlement are readily identifiable by their mosques, halal restaurants, men sporting prayer caps and women wearing head veils. Two of these areas (Chang Pheuak and South Changklan) are predominantly Bengali, or South Asian in character, whilst two others (Baan Haw and Sanphakoi) are predominantly Yunnanese.


There are no specifically Muslim areas located within the old city walls, but just to the north, on Chotana Road beyond Chang Pheuak Gate, lies an old Bengali Muslim neighbourhood centred on the green-and-white Al-Nur Mosque. Historically, the first established Muslim community in Chiang Mai was probably Bengali. Cattle traders operating out of Moulmein who had originally migrated to Burma from the Chittagong area of Bangladesh, these Bengal Muslims are first reported to have settled in Chiang Mai as early as 1830.

The Muslim community expanded during the course of the 19th century with the arrival from Yunnan of Hui Muslim refugees from the failed "Panthay Rebellion" of Tu Wen-hsiu. These Yunnanese Muslims, known locally as in neighbouring Laos as "Chin-Haw", settled in and around upper Changklan Road in an area still known as "Ban Haw". The chief Yunnanese mosque, on Charoenprathet Soi 1, is today Chiang Mai's most important Jama' Masjid, or Congregational Mosque.

Towards the end of the 19th century, following the Pahang Rising of 1891-95, a group of Malay Muslims was deported to Chiang Mai by the Siamese government. These Malay Muslims eventually assimilated with the Bengali Muslims of the Chang Pheuak area, but not before they had introduced peninsular cuisine in the form of satay and peanut sauce, salad khaek, etc., to this far northern city.

Following their various arrivals in Chiang Mai during the 19th century, the Bengali, Yunnanese and Malay Muslims intermarried to a certain degree. In addition, all groups took local Thai wives and raised their children as Muslims in a convenient and fair exchange - Muslim religion for North Thai cultural characteristics.

From a purely Islamic point of view there was no problem with this mélange. Although representing three separate and distinct traditions in the spread of Islam in Asia - Yunnanese Islam being of the overland "Silk Road" variety, whilst Islam reached the Malays by the maritime dhow trade, and Bengal by direct conquest - all three groups settling in Chiang Mai belonged to the mainstream Sunni variant of Islam. True, the Yunnanese and the Bengalis both belonged to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, whilst the Malays followed the teachings of Imam al-Shafi'i. Yet these were (and are) minor distinctions, which in no way prevent intermarriage, worship together, and shared values - particularly when intermarriage with the local Thai community and the resulting adoption of North Thai cultural values are taken into account.

Today Ban Chang Pheuak consists of about 75 households clustered around Masjid al-Nur, all of whom profess the Muslim faith, a shared ancestry, and involvement at some time in their lives in the cattle trade. In addition to Chang Pheuak, a secondary area of "South Asian" and Malay Muslim settlement also developed in and around lower Changklan, well away from the Yunnanese of Ban Haw, in the area opposite the post office near the junction of Changklan and Chiang Mai Land roads. Here the local Muslim community has established a mosque, madrassa (religious school) and an institute for higher Islamic Studies. Nearby are several Muslim restaurants specialising (as befits the North Thai - Malay mix) in khao soi and satay dishes.

The Bengali Muslim community at Chang Pheuak and the more recent South Asian population of Changklan might, should they so wish, more accurately sub-divide their ancestry into Bengali, Pathan, Punjabi and Sindhi origins. However, they are not really concerned by this matter, and often employ the term "khaek" - a generic (and somewhat disrespectful) Thai term for South Asians and Arabs as a whole. Thus the visitor enquiring after the whereabouts of the mosque may well be met with incomprehension when asking for the masjid. "Wat khaek", by contrast, is well understood by everyone.

Traditionally, both because of their preferred calling as cattle traders and the religious obligation to slaughter animals for food according to prescribed halal rites, Chiang Mai's Bengalis and other South Asians have tended to be associated with the meat business. This has, of course, been a very fortuitous relationship, as most Northern Thai Buddhists have no scruples about eating meat, but few would be prepared to kill the animals such a diet entails. Although originally centred around Masjid al-Nur and the Chang Pheuak community, the meat production business was gradually transferred to the lower Changklan area as a result of the development of Chotana and the loss of grazing land in the area.

Partly as a result of this development, the newer Changklan Muslim area gradually became noticeably wealthier than the older Ban Chang Pheuak. Today nearly all halal butchering in the city is carried out by Changklan Muslims, though a casual visit to nearly any meat section in a city market will reveal a crescent moon above at least one stall.


Whilst Yunnanese Muslim traders have been travelling to north Thailand for many centuries, and a small settled presence has existed in Chiang Mai from at least the middle of the 19th century, in recent years this presence has grown considerably due to political unrest in the Sino-Burmese borderlands. In part this was occasioned by the Japanese (and related, if largely forgotten, Thai) invasions of the Shan States in World War II.

The Japanese, inveterately anti-Chinese to the point of ignoring the basic economic realities of imperialism, attacked and destroyed the affluent Panthay community at Panglong, dispersing the settlement's Yunnanese Muslim inhabitants throughout the Shan States and beyond. Some displaced Panthays settled at Tachilek on Burma's frontier with northernmost Thailand; others crossed into Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces, where they built mosques at Mae Sai, Chiang Rai, Fang and other lesser towns.

Subsequent political disturbances added to this trend. In 1949 the victorious communist forces of Mao Tse-tung drove elements of three KMT armies across the Yunnanese frontier into Burma. Of the three senior KMT commanders, one was Muslim, as were many of the soldiers. Following years of warlordism and failed attempts to undermine the communist regime in Yunnan, many of these ageing soldiers settled in Thailand where they became businessmen, the more successful moving to Chiang Mai where they assimilated into the local "Haw" community.

Many such Yunnanese - Muslim as well as non-Muslim - have relatives, friends and former comrades scattered throughout Laos, Thailand, Burma and Yunnan, so that the imam of, say, Taunggyi in the Shan States is well-known to the imam of Chiang Mai's Charoenprathet Mosque. The same is true of Muslim leaders and businessmen in Fang, Mae Sai, Tachilek and even Yunnan itself. The community is rich, influential, confident and - despite earlier involvement in some rather dubious cross-border trading and KMT enterprises - increasingly respectable and respected.

Within Chiang Mai, the oldest and best-established Yunnanese community is certainly Ban Haw. Here, in an area centred around Charoenprathet Soi 6 and the Anusarn Market, may be found numerous "Chin-Haw" households, both Muslim and Buddhist. As a general rule, the Muslim Yunnanese live mainly to the north, clustered around the large mosque distinguished by a red-and-gold sign in Thai, Chinese and Arabic. By contrast the non-Muslim Yunnanese tend to live further south, around Anusarn Market. The non-Muslims are more recent arrivals, and much of the land on which they live is rented from their longer-established Muslim Yunnanese fellows.

Relations between Muslim and non-Muslim Yunnanese, and with the surrounding Thai Buddhist community, are good - though by-and-large eating together is restricted to non-Muslim visits to Muslim restaurants. Prohibitions against pork and other haram (forbidden) foodstuffs keep the Muslims at home, just as in China itself! Sections of the original Ban Haw community have spread out to establish themselves on Loi Kroa Road, Sri Dornchai, and by the fruit market in Talad Muang Mai, north of the Mae Ping Post Office.

Whilst relations between Muslim Yunnanese and non-Muslim Yunnanese in Chiang Mai, and especially in Ban Haw, remain good, it should be noted that in recent years (particularly following sustained KMT settlement in northern Thailand), the longer established Muslim Haw have shown some reservations. In particular, they are anxious to stress their links with the wider Chiang Mai Muslim community as a whole, as well as to distance themselves from recent non-Muslim Chinese migrants from Burma who may be associated in the public mind with the KMT, opium smuggling, and other illegal activities.

Chiang Mai's fourth major Muslim community, comprising a mixed Thai-South Asian- Yunnanese population but certainly dominated by the latter, is to be found to the east of the Ping River in and around Sanpakhoi. In the sois just behind the Bain Compound, and in the shadow of the tall and unattractive Floral Chiang Mai Condominium, may be found the Attaqwa Mosque and the associated Chitpakdee or Attaqwa School.

Here classes are given in Arabic and Islamic knowledge ('ilm) to children of all Muslim backgrounds in Chiang Mai and the surrounding provinces. Much of the land around the Attaqwa Muslim community is owned by Thai Muslims of Chinese origin, and the Yunnanese links are very evident both in the "Chinese-Arabic" stylised script of the mihrab (prayer niche) in the mosque, and in the photographs and certificates posted on the walls of the school.

Despite these reminders of the diverse ethnic origins of Chiang Mai's Muslims, it should not be forgotten that all Muslims holding Thai nationality consider themselves to be Thai first and foremost in mundane concerns, Muslim first and foremost in matters spiritual. The minaret of the Attaqwa Mosque provides a fine example of this cultural synthesis which seems to work very well indeed. Suspended from the inside of the green, star-and-crescent topped dome there hangs a northern Thai gong, used to call the faithful of Chiang Mai to prayer. As a symbol of Islam in Northern Thailand, this must surely be hard to beat!


Text by Andrew Forbes and David Henley

© CPA Media, May 2016