Tucked away down a narrow alley off Charoen Krung 36 — re-christened “Rue de Brest” in 2013, in honour of the French port where Siamese emissaries disembarked in 1686 to visit King Louis XIV —Haroon Mosque is one of Bangkok’s oldest places of Muslim worship. It is also the heart of a spirited neighbourhood that’s home to more than 500 residents, most of them followers of Islam, whose forebears immigrated to the city from southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
At the west end of Rue de Brest, the historic French Ambassador’s Residence overlooks the Chao Phraya River, while Silom Road skyscrapers loom over the neighbourhood to the east. Meanwhile, the venerable Mandarin Oriental can be found one soi to the south in Charoen Krung 38.
Oral histories say Bangkok’s first mosque was built near Wat Arun on the Thonburi side of the river around400 years ago, most likely by a transplanted Persian community. Nothing remains of the original structure, but century-old Tonson Mosque stands in its place.
The city’s second mosque came about after a devout Muslim named Toh Haroon Bafadel immigrated to Thailand from his home town of Pontianak, Indonesia, around 1820. With the help of other immigrants in the area, he completed a one-story wooden mosque in 1828, in a blend of Javanese and Ayuthaya styles, and served as its first imam. He was succeeded by his son Haji Muhammed Yusup, and after more Muslims moved into the neighbourhood, the original mosque was replaced with a larger and more substantial building with brick walls in1934. Some of the wood salvaged from the old building was used in the construction of a second story, which today is the most beautiful section of the mosque, with its arched windows topped with delicately carved ventilators.
Non-Muslims aren’t permitted to enter Haroon Mosque, but visitors are welcome to admire the building from the outside, relax amid the trees and benches of the community park in back, or wander the adjacent alleys to track down Muslim culinary treats.
The best time visit the Haroon Mosque neighbourhood is on a Friday, when Muslims from near and far gather for morning and midday prayers. Haroon’s current imam delivers the Friday sermon in English as well as Thai, a relative anomaly which draws a huge number of non-Thai worshippers. Another Friday attraction is the food vendors who fill the adjacent alleyways from early morning until early afternoon, offering everything from rich Muslim curries to rose-scented rice pudding, combining influences from southern Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
My favourite graze on a Friday morning is a humble table topped with two huge curry pots and managed by an elderly Thai Muslim couple. The two curries, available for takeaway only, change from week to week. The kaeng janda, a deep red masala filled with chicken and long chunks of Asian eggplant, is easily one of the best curries I’ve ever tasted, in any country. I’m also crazy about a thick and very spicy yoghurt-based kurma made with large pieces of bone-in chicken and boiled chicken eggs. The couple refers to it as kaeng hindoo.
A little further up the soi, toward Charoen Krung, is a humble one-story house serving tasty biryani — khao mok in Thai — in both chicken and mutton versions. Most of the supply is reserved for post-prayer donations to mosque devotees, but if there is any left over, the owners are happy to sell takeaways. If you’re Muslim and have finished praying in the mosque, you can have it for free. Elsewhere, look for samosas (pastry triangles filled with spiced chicken and potato) and head-ripping southern-style fish curry.
Near the entrance to the alley leading to the mosque is a small sundries stall where the owner makes excellent kopi (southern Thai-style coffee) using fresh-ground beans from the south and drawing hot water from a type of steel boiler rarely seen in Bangkok these days. Close to the mosque, a small shop sells simple and fancy haji caps, Arab-style prayer robes, and various other accoutrements of Muslim religious life.
The biggest day of the year for Haroon Mosque is the end of the annual Ramadan fast during the 10th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The number of devotees easily doubles, and the assortment of foods multiplies to meet the demand.
For a sit-down meal, head to Home Cuisine Islamic Restaurant (0 2630 8766) on Rue de Brest, and take in its1970s-style dining room decorated in green suede and leather. The 100-percent halal menu covers everything from traditional Thai green curry to mutton masala.