Inside Asia's little-known Islamic neighbourhoods

From Yangon to Hyderabad, these are the stories behind five of Asia's most interesting Muslim communities

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In Yangon, an Islamic emperor rests in the basement of a historic mosque. In Bangkok, the city’s oldest Muslim neighbourhood is revealed by a new train line. In Hyderabad, the remains of a grand Islamic kingdom loom above the city. In Phnom Penh, a Muslim community has grown around a giant mosque donated by the UAE's Alserkal family. And in Singapore, an area with streets named Baghdad and Kandahar is the city’s oldest neighbourhood.

Myanmar, Thailand, India, Cambodia and Singapore may be majority Buddhist or Hindu, but each one is home to beautiful Muslim neighbourhoods with engrossing histories. Here are the stories behind five of Asia’s lesser-known Islamic communities.

Yangon, Myanmar

Bahadur Shah Zafar II was the last Muslim emperor of India. This powerful man played a key role in a defining moment in the country's history, yet his remains do not rest in a commanding tomb in Delhi or Kolkata, like many of his fellow Indian emperors. Instead, his resting place is hidden beneath a small mosque in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar.

Just 700 metres south of the giant, gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon’s main tourist attraction, lies the Zi Wa Ka Street mosque. This attractive green-and-gold building is the heartbeat of a small Muslim community in a nation that is nearly 90 per cent Buddhist.

That mosque is becoming an offbeat tourist attraction because of its famous resident, Zafar II. In the mid-1800s he led the Islamic Mughal Dynasty, which controlled large parts of India from the early 1500s until 1857, when this empire came unstuck after nearly 20 years under the leadership of Zafar II.

After the British conquered his stronghold, Delhi, Zafar II fled. But he was soon caught, convicted of treason and banished to the British outpost of Yangon. He died there in prison in 1862. Now the mighty Zafar II sleeps in a little mausoleum in Yangon, a city where very few people know exactly who he once was.

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok’s underground and skytrain networks have expanded greatly in the past three years. In the process, they’ve unveiled little-visited parts of the city. Previously, Bangkok’s sleepy suburbs on the western side of the Chao Phraya River received next to no tourists because the city’s frozen traffic made them inaccessible from the downtown area.

But now travellers can easily visit Bangkok’s oldest Muslim neighbourhood by stopping at Itsaraphap station on the new Blue Line of the MRT underground network. This historic area is called Bangkok Yai. Back in the mid-1600s, more than a century before Bangkok became the Thai capital, Malay Muslims gathered here, next to one of the city’s largest canals.

This community expanded over the following decades, thanks to income from spice and textile trading. Then, in 1682, it became the site of what is now the oldest mosque in Bangkok, called Ton Son. Tourists visiting Bangkok Yai can admire the green domes of the building, attend a prayer at the nearby Bang Luang mosque, or just wander the back streets of this friendly neighbourhood, savouring its Thai-Malay halal food.

Hyderabad, India

Hyderabad is one of the most overlooked travel destinations in Asia. Its underappreciated appeal stems largely from two remarkable, ancient Islamic sites. Grouped together in a Muslim neighbourhood in the city’s west, are the remains of a commanding kingdom as well as a giant necropolis, which is home to the tombs of an Islamic dynasty that controlled this region in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Qutb Shahis family presided over the Kingdom of Golconda. For more than 70 years, their headquarters were at Golconda Fort, which they abandoned in 1591 because of a plague, leading to the establishment of the city of Hyderabad.

Fortunately, this fort is in fine condition and has become an engrossing tourist attraction. Strewn across a hill are dozens of timeworn structures, from palaces to halls, mosques, porticos, pavilions and mansions. From the fort’s crest you can see the nearby necropolis, a cluster of 75 grand tombs and monuments that recently underwent an impressive, 10-year restoration.


Singapore is one of the most religiously diverse countries in Asia, with large Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, Hindu and Muslim communities. But for many generations before it was colonised by Britain, in 1819, Singapore was ruled by Islamic leaders of Malay and Indonesian descent.

That helps to explain why the Muslim neighbourhood of Kampong Glam is the oldest surviving suburb in this city state. The signage will make it clear when you’ve arrived in this charming area, with streets names such as Arab, Muscat, Baghdad, Kandahar and Sultan.

This community is centred around two historic structures – the dazzling Sultan Masjid and the large Malay Heritage Centre, housed inside what was once the palace of an Islamic dynasty. The heritage centre explains Singapore’s Malay and Islamic history and cultures.

The Sultan Masjid, meanwhile, beguiles with its gilded domes and graceful Indo-Saracenic architecture. Directly behind it is one of Singapore’s prettiest walking streets. Lined with halal restaurants, cafes, gift shops and art galleries, this pedestrian mall alone is worth the visit to Kampong Glam.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In stark comparison to Singapore, Cambodia is dominated by one religion – about 98 per cent of its citizens are Buddhists. Meanwhile, about 1 per cent of its population is Muslim. In the capital city of Phnom Penh, the largest Islamic community is focused around the huge Alserkal mosque.

Embellished by lofty minarets, giant domes, whitewashed walls and hypnotic Arabesque patterns, this majestic mosque was built in 2014 as a gift from the UAE. It replaced a smaller mosque constructed in the 1960s by the UAE’s Alserkal family.

This mosque is the chief meeting place for the city’s Cham Muslims. These are descendants of Champa, an Indochinese Islamic kingdom that lasted from the 2nd to the 17th century AD in what is now southern Vietnam. Alserkal mosque is in the northern part of downtown Phnom Penh, a short distance from major tourist attractions such as Wat Phnom temple and Central Market.

Updated: February 18, 2022, 6:17 PM