Most Thais need little reminder of this geo-political reality--the southern border region of Satun, Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala is predominantly Malay-speaking, Muslim territory, albeit a part of the Thai state. Yet the cultural cross-over zone between Thai and Malay, between Buddhist and Muslim, is a two-way process. As a consequence, many little-known Thai-speaking Buddhist communities exist throughout the northern frontier states of Malaysia.
One reason for this lack of awareness is the relatively small number of Orang Syam, as Malaysia's Thai citizens are called in Malay, living in the area. At the time of the 1970 Census, just under 30,000 Thai-speakers lived in Malaysia, mostly in Kedah, Kelantan, Perak, Penang and Perlis. This is, of course, much less than the 1.5 million plus Malay-speaking population of southern Thailand. But another reason that so little is heard of Malaysia's Thais is that no political or separatist problems exist amongst the Orang Syam. By and large they live happily side-by-side with their Muslim neighbours, as they have for centuries.
Perhaps the best place to visit Malaysia's Thai citizens is the north-eastern state of Kelantan. In this, the most Islamic of all the Malay states, ethnic and religious distinctions between Thai Buddhist and Malay Muslim remain rigidly defined, yet inter-communal relations are remarkably cordial.
At present there are between seven and eight thousand ethnic Thais resident in Kelantan. They are recognised by the Malaysian authorities as Bumiputras--"Sons of the Soil", or indigenous Malaysians, with exactly the same rights as Muslim Malays and considerably more than such "recent" migrants as the Chinese and Indians. It is not clear how Thai people first came to settle in Kelantan, deep in the heart of Muslim Malay territory--but they have certainly been there for many centuries, and it must be remembered that Kelantan was an administrative part of Thailand until ceded to the British in 1909.
The dialect of Thai spoken in Kelantan is called "Tak Bai", after the southernmost coastal town in Narathiwat, just across the Golok River from Malaysia. Tak Bai dialect differs substantially from standard southern Thai and other regional Thai dialects, and it seems certain that the Kelantan Thais are the descendants of an original enclave of Narathiwat settlers established in sparsely-populated Malay territory as long as four centuries ago.
Today the Tak Bai Thais inhabit three main areas of Kelantan State - along a small bend on the south bank of the upper Golok River south-west of the border town of Rantau Panjang; on both sides of the central Lemal River, a small tributary of the Golok to the west of the railway junction of Pasir Mas; and in a wide sweep of territory between the mouth of the Golok River and the predominantly ethnic Chinese town of Wakaf Bharu, in an area centred around the coastal town of Tumpat [see map]. It is this last, Tumpat enclave which is most important - home to 75% of Kelantan's Thais, site of most of the state's twenty or so Buddhist temples, and noteworthy for its number of confident and relatively well-off Kampung Syam, or Siamese villages.
As in Thailand - and, indeed, everywhere that Tai peoples have settled - the Orang Syam of Kelantan are wet-rice paddy farmers, cultivating the fertile soil of the region as generations of their ancestors before them. Life, by and large, is peaceful, rustic and comfortable. Differences between Thai and Malay villages - with two important exceptions - are slight. Local people tend their rice paddies, grow a wide variety of tropical fruits, and fish in the abundant rivers or nearby South China Sea. Thai housing is basically the same as the local Malay - tall, well-made wooden dwellings with tile roofs for the affluent; smaller, inexpensive structures of split bamboo and atap palm roofing for the less well-to-do. Car ownership remains the exception, but nearly all households boast motorcycles, small tractors, refrigerators, radios and televisions. In the case of the latter, the aerials of Thai-speaking households tend to point northwards to pick up Thai broadcasts, just as the aerials of many Malay-speaking households in Narathiwat point southwards, to receive Malaysian television broadcasts.
So, given these essential similarities, what can the two main differences be? The answer can be summed up in three words - "pigs and temples". The Kampung Syam of Kelantan are immediately distinguishable by the presence of Buddhist temples, generally large and very prominent. The presence of seated, standing, and reclining Buddhas - often of considerable size - the curved temple roofs, chao-fa, bai sema, and other indications of Theravada Buddhism so familiar to residents of Thailand, strike a remarkable note in this otherwise austere heartland of Malay Islam. And outside the temples, beneath the stilted houses, grubbing in the ditches and snorting in noisy sleep beneath the coconut palms - yes, babi -- pigs-- the dreaded beast, its flesh haram - forbidden to Muslims as unclean, yet prized above all other common sources of protein by most Thais (and Chinese) alike.
Surely, one familiar with Islam in its Middle Eastern cradle might justifiably think, these are eternal incompatibles: Islam and Buddhism, austere monotheism and eclectic atheism, mutton curry and stir-fried pork - assuredly, these polar opposites cannot co-exist? Not a bit of it! In Kelantan, albeit unexpectedly, they get along just fine.
Malay Muslim tolerance of the Kelantan Thais' fondness for pork is twofold. Firstly, the Thais have been there for a long time - far longer than the Chinese - and their land holdings are extensive. Usually a wide belt of farmland divides Malay kampung from Thai mooban, certainly too far for domesticated pigs to wander. Besides, familiarity - the long acquaintance of the centuries - has happily bred tolerance, rather than contempt. The Thai Buddhists have their own "space", and this is respected by the Malay Muslim majority. Beyond this, there is also the question of babi hutan - forest pigs, often ferocious wild boars, which can be very destructive in farming communities. In Kelantan, hunting is a popular activity amongst young men, and in Thai-speaking communities wild boar is the main quarry. The Malay Muslims honour and understand this, and when babi hutan attack their orchards and invade their rice paddies, they send for local Thai hunters to rid the area of the culprits. Needless to add, the Kelantan Thais are only too happy to oblige, as moo pa, or wild pig, is generally deemed far tastier than the domesticated variety!
Dietary differences aside, there remains the question of religious dissimilarity. Islam, at least in its Arabian homeland, is harsh and unyielding in its condemnation of what it perceives as idolatry. In Kelantan a different reality exists, based on centuries of coexistence, as well as on differing urban and rural perceptions of faith. The Kelantan Thais are a country people, little known to the more orthodox Muslims of the cities and towns, who would indeed be unsettled by the towering Buddhas of rural Tumpat. But to their Muslim neighbours, the temples - known as ketek in Malay - are familiarity itself.
Of course, the local Muslims know that Islam is the only true path, and yet they are strangely ambivalent in their attitude towards Thai Buddhism, which is seen as a relatively prestigious religion - certainly preferable to atheism, and more obviously an organised community faith than that of the Kelantan Chinese. The Malays definitely approve of the Thais as a religious people, and like all non-Thais are impressed by the architecture and style of the Buddhist temples, which are generally recognised as a cultural asset of the region.
Organised and approved religious practice aside, many Kelantan Muslims relate with their Thai neighbours on a closer, folk-religion level. No self-respecting Muslim would ever pray in a Thai temple, but some do occasionally seek assistance and advice from respected Thai abbots. Malays sometimes ask such monks for charms and ritual water, much as they might approach a Muslim spiritual leader with berkat, or special charisma.
In Kelantan there are also Thai bomoh, or medicine-men, closely paralleling their Malay counterparts. Muslims tend to visit these spellbinders secretly, partly because the practice is forbidden by orthodox Islam, and partly because of the personal nature of the help sought - for Thai bomoh are known specialists in the art of love charms and affairs of the heart. Indeed, so well known are the skills of these Thais that accounts of their work sometimes appear in the Malaysian press, whilst the most famous practitioners are in demand all over the country, and even in Singapore!
Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA 2001.