Historical Indonesian Communities of Bangkok

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IO – The fourth and current Thai kingdom known as the Rattanakosin Kingdom was founded in 1782 with the establishment of Rattanakosin as the capital city. Rattanakosin means the Jewel of Indra and it was to be a replica of the Hindu mythical city of Sudarsana abode of the thirty-three deities ruled by the Hindu god Indra and located at the summit of Mount Meru. Rattanakosin together with the town of Thonburi became present day Bangkok.

Due to Bangkok’s strategic location at the mouth of the Chao Praya river which opens on to the Gulf of Siam it became an important trading centre with people coming not only from all over Southeast Asia but from all over the world. What many Indonesians do not realize is that historically there have been several Indonesian communities living in and around Bangkok for several centuries.

Indonesian fishermen mainly from Borneo and the Sulu Archipelago began to arrive in the first half of the 18th century. Island Southeast Asia has always had Malay speaking seafaring people with a wanderlust that led them to explore the coast of mainland Southeast Asia. In the beginning of the 18th century such fishermen arrived in the Gulf of Siam and sailed up the Chao Phaya river where they settled in two villages.

Ban U or Boatyard Village is one of these settlements which is located along Bangkok’s eastern riverbank not far from the Bang Rak area where what has been described as rather seedy Western merchants and seamen used to live. The Chao Phraya Estuary had abundant fish and the fishermen sold their catch to the Westerners. Ban U grew after the creation of the Bang Rak Market where the fishermen’s wives had fish stalls. Later many shipyards and marine work shops were set up along the nearby river stretch and many of the fishermen began working as lighters. Slowly their livelihood changed into land instead of sea-based work and in 1919 the village mosque was rebuilt 100 meters inland in 1919.

The second village was called Ban Khaek Lang or Muslim Village Downstream and came into existence when Indonesian seafarers came from a Thai fishing village called Trat near the Thai border with Cambodia and settled on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river in the reign of Rama III in the 19th century. After the signing of the Bowring Treaty many Indian Muslim merchants settled not far from the village and used to go to the village mosque for their prayers. Some intermarried with the village women. When they sponsored the renovation of the village mosque King Mongkut or Rama IV is said to have suggested that it be named Suwanabhumi Mosque. Later the name of the village was changed to Ban Swanabhumi. Some identify Sumatra as the Suwarnabhumi or land of gold of ancient Indian texts.

The Dutch are extremely good at agriculture and horticulture. With dykes, canals and polders they won their small country from the sea and turned it into the market garden of Europe. Perhaps their scarcity of land forces them to be such excellent agriculturalists and botanists. An example of their mastery of plants and markets is the tulip which originated in places between North China and Southern Europe was introduced to European markets in the 16th century. By the 17th century the Netherlands had become the world’s major tulip producer. Today they export plants, flowers and fruit all over Europe. It was no different when they colonized Indonesia which they rapidly turned into one of the most successful agricultural lands in the world exporting rice, tea, coffee, palm oil, rubber, sugar, indigo, cotton, jute, pineapple, nutmeg, cloves – to mention just a few of the agricultural commodities.

The Bogor Botanical Gardens were the first botanical gardens in Southeast Asia and had not only vast plant collections from all over the world but was also an important research centre for plantation crops that were exported all over the globe. Beside the botanical gardens the Dutch had agricultural and horticultural stations all over Java where they conducted agricultural research and education. They had extremely well-run and productive plantations in Indonesia making it one of the most agriculturally productive countries in the world at the time. They were even able to grow peaches in the highlands of Java of which the Resident of Tosari gave King Chulalongkorn or Rama V a basketful.

King Chulalongkorn liked Java very much and once said of it, “Besides Bangkok there is nowhere else as good and as friendly as Java.” He travelled three times to Java in 1871 to study the technological advances there, especially the railway and then again in 1896 to recover his loss of spirits and health after he was forced to cede several areas in Thailand to the French and finally in 1901 because as he said, “There were still so many things to see in Java.”

Prof Hamam Supriadi, a Javanese at Thammasat University in Bangkok says, “King Chulalangkorn was fascinated by Java’s agricultural and horticultural wealth. He was enchanted by the Bogor Botanical Gardens and had a great admiration for the Dutch plantations, parks and botanical gardens. He wanted to bring some Dutch landscape engineers and Indonesian gardeners to Thailand to work for him. The Grand Palace had just been built and he had them create the green in front of it with its tamarind trees as well as the allee of tamarind trees on the road leading from the Grand Palace to the parliament and government offices. The seedlings for these tamarind trees were brought from Indonesia and to this day the Thais call them Javanese tamarinds.

He also brought labourers from Java who together with the Dutch engineers built canals for he felt that the Dutch and Indonesians were far better at irrigation methods and management than the Thais. Some were horse and stable hands for he also very much admired the horses bred on Java and brought many horses with him and all the grass they needed during the sea voyage from Java to Thailand. He kept on these horse and stable hands in Thailand.

King Chulalangkorn brought two ships full of labourers, gardeners and horse and stable hands to Thailand from Java. He brought hundreds of Javanese to Thailand to work for him. He gave them the choice of settling permanently in Thailand or of returning to Java once the work they were brought for was finished. Those who stayed on were allowed to continue to live in Thailand. Some married the so called Thai Malays from Thailand.”

Originally, there were two villages connected with the Javanese brought over by King Chulalongkorn. One is Ban Toek Din which means the Powder Mill Village. It is named after Toek Din or the Powder Mill which was once the government’s main munitions production plant located about 200 meters from the Javanese village. The original villagers were the Javanese gardeners brought over after King Rama V’s visit to Java in 1896 in order to improve the grounds of the Grand Palace, Saranrom Palace and Saranrom Gardens. They also planted the tamrind trees around the Royal Esplanade and along Rachadamnoen Avenue which is nearly 4 kilometres long. However, during the reigns of Rama VI and Rama VII the kingdom experienced financial problems and there could no longer be royal patronage in such public development projects. Consequently, the government no longer hired so many of Ban Toek Din’s gardeners. Many moved away and those who remained usually worked as food hawkers or servants.

The second village is known as Ban Khaek Bang Kraboe or Muslim Village near the Buffalo Village or just Ban Khaek Kraboe. It is located two kilometres north of the Dusit Palace and was created by the Javanese who moved to Thailand as a consequence of King Chulalongkorn’s visit to Java in 1901. The Javanese gardeners worked in the Dusit Palace gardens, the Sunantha Gardens and several other palaces and villas built at the time in the Dusit district.

Later when the Thai monarchy experienced financial difficulties during the reign of King Rama VI they too were discharged as royal gardeners and many were hired by the Siamese Tramway Company. The tram ran from Samsen Road near Bang Kraboe past the Dusit Palace to the Front Palace ferry landing. In 1950 this shut down and the Javanese villagers became mostly food hawkers, pedicab or taxi drivers or worked at car repair shops. It has become a small hamlet with a tiny mosque.

During the economic difficulties in the reign of King Rama VI who ruled between 1910 and1925 the Javanese royal gardeners from the villages of Ban Toek Din and Ban Khaek Kraboe had to be dismissed. To help the villagers who of course, experienced financial problems they were offered a piece of undeveloped royal land along lower New Road from the Kruay Canal to the Khwang Canal. There they created two new villages, Ban Kruay and Ban Khwang which each had their own mosque and cemetery.

In the 20th century people from these two villages established new Javanese quarters in Bangkok’s rather well-to-do districts of Sathorn, Silom and Withayu where some work as gardeners or servants. The people who originally came from the two villages have two mosques, the Darul Abidin Mosque and the Bayan Mosque that are located only about 100 meters from each other.

Some of the ancestors of Indonesian descendants living in Bangkok however arrived after fleeing the Netherlands Indies for political reasons. In Ban Rong Nam Khaeng the Javanese quarters located in the Sathorn district of Bangkok Imam Rangson Bin Kamson often leads the prayers at the mosque popularly known as Masjid Jawa. He revealed, “My grandfather originally came from Kendal in Central Java about 90 years ago. His name was Hasan which became Kamson in Thailand and he helped collect funds to build this mosque. My grandmother’s name was Fatimah Binti Abdullah and her grandfather came from Sumatra. So, her father already owned a house and land in Thailand. My grandparents spoke Javanese to each other.

My grandfather left Kendal for political reasons in the late 1920s. the Dutch were very repressive and it was hard to find work or food. There was an earlier group from Kendal who had probably settled during the reign of King Rama V. So, my grandfather’s group already had contacts to help them when they arrived. Sometimes Indonesians were on their way to Mecca and stopped on the way back and simply stayed on. I visited Kendal in 2018 but could not find any relatives there anymore. I also visited Aceh. I loved the big mosque and the people were so friendly. I am a Thai and have lived under three Thai kings namely, Rama VIII, Rama IX and Rama X. I have received a lot from Thailand and support diversity and tolerance.”

Another inhabitant whose ancestors arrived because of political difficulties with the Dutch is Rambhan Dahlan who lives in a sweet old fashioned house and whose grandfather was Kyai Haji Ahmad Dahlan who established the Muhammadiyah organization in 1912 which now has 50 million followers. Her father Irfan Dahlan arrived before the Second Wolrd War because he had been involved in the struggle for independence. He was studying in Lahore and later settled in Thailand.

The Buginese were engaged in several wars with the Dutch and many fled after they lost. The first group arrived in the 17th century at the kingdom of Ayutthaya however, they eventually fought against the Kingdom in 1686 when the rebellion was ruthlessly put down. In 1905 when many Buginese rebels were exiled to Riau some escaped to Bangkok. They established Ban Makassan, a village in a marsh on the eastern outskirts of Bangkok. In the second half of the 20th century the marsh was drained and slowly revitalized.

Prof Hamam Supriadi remarks of the Thais of Indonesian descent in Bangkok, “They still keep some Indonesian traditions such as the kendurian selapanan which is held 7 months after the bride becomes pregnant. Then, there is the Tahlil Tiga Hari which is held after a person dies. About 60 years ago there was still a wayang tradition where performances were held during circumcision ceremonies. They still wear batik for Idul Fitri when they continue to serve traditional Javanese cuisine such as serundeng, sayur lodeh, kueh lapis, babat wingko (from Semarang, Bawean and Pekalongan). The men still like to wear batik shirts and pecis. About 15 years ago the women still wore kebayas with batik sarongs. Finally, marriages are still held in the Islamic tradition and in Buddhist Thailand where religion is for goodness (kebaikkan) it is not a problem if a person is Muslim or a Christian.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)