Beyond the silky white beaches, blue waters and lively nightlife for which Thailand’s Phuket is known, is the historic Old Phuket Town, an area that features rows of colourful Sino-Portuguese buildings, ornate and beautifully preserved ‘shophouses’, quaint cafés and restaurants, impromptu museums, Buddhist and Chinese temples.
The History of Phuket
Phuket has a rich history of tin-mining which saw Siamese, Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, and sea gipsies participating in the trade of the precious metal. From this a unique community was known as the ‘Baba’ with their own way of life, language, dress and cuisine grew. The core of this community was formed by early unions between Hokkien tin-miners and Siamese women. This distinctive Baba heritage can be seen in Old Phuket Town.
By the 18th century, much of the island’s tin mining was carried out by Hokkien Chinese who were instrumental in building the old part of the city. In the early-20th century, major European mining companies were invited in and public infrastructure such as roads, canals and a particular building style developed from this. Two styles, in particular, stand out: the shop-house in Sino-Portuguese style, and the big mansion in Sino-Colonial style once occupied by Phuket’s tin barons of 100 years’ ago.
Phuket Old Town Highlights
Phuket Old Town is compact enough to tour on foot with the main streets Thalang, Phang Nga, Krabi, Dibuk and Yoawarat.
Phuket Walking Street, also-known-as Lardyai, which means ‘big market’ in southern Thai dialect, is a weekly Sunday evening market hosted on the beautifully renovated Thalang Road, right in the middle of the historical Sino-Portuguese district of Phuket Town. Thalang is a 350m-long commercial and cosmopolitan street which hosts a mix of Baba, Thai Muslim and Indian shops. The Phuket Walking Street market allows visitors to discover some typical southern Thai culinary specialities as well as local handicraft and gift stalls.
Phuket Old Town has always been a commercial hub, and nowadays, Thalang Road still hosts many shops selling fabrics, tools, clothes and traditional medicines. The oldest drugstore in Phuket is located here between coffee shops, restaurants and bars. Thalang Road was one of the first Phuket Old Town streets along which electric cables were buried in 2012, in an effort to revive its vintage splendour.
The Amulet Market in Phuket Old Town is found in a tiny alley off Rassada Road. Each of the long row of stalls displays hundreds of amulets and Buddha images. In Thailand, amulets were first made in temples and handed out to followers of the Buddha’s teachings to provide them with a constant reminder of the Buddha’s values, or to commemorate highly respected monks after their death. These days, amulets blessed by well-regarded Buddhist monks still hold value and Thais of all ages and in all levels of society believe that wearing a Buddha amulet around the neck can protect them from harm and, in some cases, will bring them good fortune.
The road directly to the north of Thalang Road is Dibuk Road. ‘Dibuk’ is Thai for ‘tin’. This road features textile and arts shops and a French restaurant called the Dibuk. Further south lies Phang Nga Road where you will find an old accommodation Phuket establishment, The Memory at On On Hotel.
The Shrine of the Serene Light is a beautiful old Chinese shrine which was formerly only accessible through a hard to locate alley. The entrance has now been widened and made significantly grander, making it one of the most popular shrines in Phuket. Founded in 1891 by the Hokkien Chinese descendants of the Tan Luan Jae family, the Shrine of the Serene Light, also known as Sang Tham Shrine, shows its heritage in distinctive architectural design, with a terracotta-tiled roof and single-story construction.
Don’t miss the Blue Elephant Governor’s Mansion and Cooking School housed in the 105-year-old Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion in the heart of Old Phuket. Famous around the world for its gold and fine china Thai Royal food, Blue Elephant has branches in London, Dubai and Brussels. In Old Phuket, you find the most beautiful of them all. The restaurant follows the principles of Feng Shui and is located in green and lush grounds.
The Nguan Choon Tong Herb Shop was opened in 1917 by the grandfather of the current proprietor. It’s a family business run by the Bumrungwong family who also own the restaurants on either side of the shop. On one side is Wilai restaurant, the other side is Kopitiam.
Soi Romanee is a small street where time seems to have stood still. Most of the shophouse facades look like dragon’s face and are said to represent a time when the area was the center of night entertainment. Note the colourful shutters and vintage motorbikes parked outside the plant potted entrances. The archways under the shophouses connect the buildings and traditionally the lower floors housed the store, with the family living above.
The Thavorn Hotel Museum on Rassada Road was built in the 60s by the Thavorn family who are credited with the first full-service hotel in Phuket, before the area became the focus of thousands of tourists. Seeing the potential for Thailand’s largest island they believed that if they built it, the people would come. At the time the infrastructure was not yet there though, nor the airport, and despite the family’s pioneering spirit the hotel was never a success. Today walking into the dark lobby is like stepping into a museum. There’s a fascinating collection of memorabilia in the lobby and in the adjoining ground floor there are strongboxes, ancient-looking typewriters, antique postboxes as well as photos from past eras to admire.
China Inn is a vintage furniture store, the front cafe sitting area and the Feng-shui inspired backyard are beautifully maintained with Chinese lacquer work, fabrics and old fans filling the air. The owners took three years to refurbish and restore this ancient shophouse to its former glory. Don’t miss the Drawing Room, a workshop art gallery where several local artists showcase their work. A mix of modern and vintage with Vespas and collage paintings found side by side, it is worth a visit and chance to chat to the artists.
Phuket was the first Asian city to be given the City of Gastronomy title by UNESCO and there are many authentic restaurants and food stalls in Phuket Old Town to try. For an exceptional meal, visit Tu Kab Khao Restaurant Phuket opposite The Memory at On On Hotel on Phang Nga Road.
The whole of Old Phuket Town can be enjoyed on foot, either independently or with a professional guide. As you explore, look out for the street art and murals that add further character to the area.
** Photos are partly mine and some are supplied by the Thailand Authority of Tourism.