A day in Old Phuket Town
18 October 2017
The province of Phuket is well-known for its parties and gorgeous white-sand beaches, but its capital city, which contains a fabulous historical neighborhood, remains overlooked by visitors.
With a map put out by the tourism authority of thailand suggesting different itineraries to discover the island of Phuket, we took off on our bikes to unearth its treasures. Starting with Phuket Town, whose old city is full of charm, inviting you to take a walk-through time and space. Featuring Chinese-Portuguese architecture that is unique in Thailand, it is reminiscent of the old British colonial cities such as Malacca, Penang and even Singapore. First, a little history: in the 11th century, Phuket was then referred to as “Junk Ceylon” and was only populated by tribes of sea gypsies and Mon nomads. Its current name comes from the word “bukit,” which means “hill”, and was given to it by the Malays, while the production of tin and commercial exchanges were developed between Penang and the Europeans. In the 18th century, this growth would lead to an influx of immigrants from China, some passing through Penang. They were mostly Hokkiens, originally from the province of Fujian, who were fleeing famine caused by climatic disasters or the terror of the central power. During this period of prosperity, the city of Phuket had to get organized to deal with the sudden growth of a population, and quickly set up small homes, places of worship, schools and shops.
Our visit began in Thalang Road. The highly colorful, main historical artery of old Phuket Town lets you see lots of shophouses and century-old Chinese-Portuguese buildings, many of which have been restored in recent years. Most shops sell textiles, so it is a real slice of heaven for those who love sarongs and traditional fabrics. The shop Ranida attracted our attention with is abundance of souvenirs and crafts spilling forth. It has been beautifully restored and is spread out quite far back, like the other buildings. Initially, the front part of these shophouses used to be used for commercial activities, and the area reserved for living was located in the back, as well as the women’s quarter. A sort of patio lighted by a natural skylight, usually separated these spaces.
The best way to admire a house in its entirety is to go and have a tea at Coffs & Burgh. Decorated with vintage photos and objects, it transports us into an early 20th-century atmosphere, which can also be found at The Old Phuket Coffee. A little farther on is Bookhemian, a bookshop-gallery-café that attracts the hip youth of Phuket…
The little restaurants on the street, including Kopitiam, the most famous of them, tantalizes hungry passers-by to discover the delicious Hokkien cuisine. The old Chinese herbalist neighbor Fui Choon Tong, on the other hand, sells rare, extinct or forgotten plants.
During the Vegetarian Festival (Tesakan Kin Gé), the city can be seen in a different light. This year, the festivities will be taking place from October 20 to 28. This is an opportunity for lots of Thais, who are mostly of Chinese heritage, to take up a vegetarian diet during the period, which is meant to purify the body and mind.
Even though, being vegetarian or vegan in Thailand might seem a bit difficult, with these useful phrases, you’ll be able to get delicious curries, papaya salads and other local specialties.
The first phrase to memorize is “Chan/Phom kin gé” (ฉัน/ผม กินเจ): I’m vegetarian. “Gé” (เจ) is a word of Chinese origin that means “vegetarian,” but by its strictest definition, it means that you exclude all animal-derived foods such as eggs, milk, honey, in addition to garlic and onions. Actually, you could rather translate it to “vegan”. Although this word may be restrictive to some, it has the advantage of being very easy to memorize and pronounce. For those who do eat dairy products, the most important word is “mang-sà-wí-rát” (มังสวิรัต). This word is added to the end of the name of the dish, for example: “Phad thai mang-sà-wí-rát”.
Some of our favorite restaurants include the famous Blue Elephant on Krabi Road and Tu Kab Khao on Phang Nga Road, which serves meals in a chic décor (if you can ignore the giant lobster out front!), of fusion cuisine combining Western and Thai flavors. In an atmosphere of the island’s mining past, the restaurant Dibuka on Dibuk Road charmed our taste-buds, especially with their Tom Yam pizza.
The intergenerational transmission of ancient recipes within families and communities has led to the formation of a remarkable gastronomical heritage drove UNESCO to recognize the city of Phuket as one of the most creative cities in this respect in 2015. At the same time, the “So Phuket” association launched a campaign called “F.A.T. Phuket” (for “Food, Art, old Town”). For the occasion it asked several street artists to decorate the facades of the city. As it happens, the corner formed by two artworks by Alex Face and Rukkit, is where you can enter into Soi Romanee. It’s hard to stroll through this gorgeous little alleyway, which has become a favorite spot for photographers, and imagine its steamy past as the old street of the “four pleasures”: wine, women, opium and gambling.
We then hesitated between going on down Dibuk Road, which has some of the most significant “Chinese-Portuguese” style buildings, such as the Town Hall, the Provincial Tribunal, Nakorn Luang Bank and the Governor’s House, and turning around to go up Thalang and take Krabi Road, where you can visit the Thai Hua Museum and Chin Pracha Mansion. Built over 100 years ago by Phra Pitak Chinpracha, who made his fortune in tin, it is one of the first houses to use Chinese-Portuguese colonial architecture. Five generations later, his family still lives here. Their knowledge of the history of the island, the Peranakan culture, the clothing style of the Baba and Yaya, which they happily share with tourists, makes this visit particularly interesting.
With lots of vegetarian restaurants, Ranong Road is considered by locals as a street of merit. The street is bustling at all hours with its market and the local buses that serve Patong, Kamala, Kathu, Rawai and Chalong.
We continue on down Rassada Road, where the Thavorn Hotel takes us to a completely different era. Built in 1961, the island’s first 5-star hotel is the property of the Thavornwongwongse family, who wanted to develop mass tourism at a time when Phuket still enjoyed having very few visitors. Since then, the family has built other hotels, such as the Thavorn Palm Beach Resort in Karon and the Thavorn Beach Village in Nakalay to the north of Patong, which have been more successful than their predecessor. According to the website, the hotel never did actually attract the crowds, but it has remained a symbol of the city’s development. The museum it houses, which is unfortunately poorly maintained, features photographs, cinema posters and vinyl record covers from the sixties.
Our visit ends with Phang Nga Road, a more “arty” street as shown by the presence of various galleries and artists’ workshops. The Wua Art Gallery, where Danai Usama a.k.a. Zen is exhibited, and even Mon Art Gallery, where you can admire engravings by Monthian Yangthong, are some of the most remarkable.
Several antique and craft shops will be of interest to those who like souvenirs and one-of-a-kind pieces. Jobs and Things specializes in jewelry, clothing, fabric and driftwood items. Those who love the Peranakan culture who want to buy traditional garments and shoes made from sarongs should head to the shop in the On On Hotel, Grandma Closet.
We decided to turn in at the On On Hotel for the night. Open since 1927, it was the first hotel in Phuket to take in merchants and people passing through. For many years, it has changed little, as can be seen in the movie The Beach filmed in 2000. In the story, Richard, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, actually stays in the On On, located on Khao San Road, in a dingy room with cockroaches. Ignoring the details and plot holes, the feature film still contributed to the aura of the place. However, we’d have to wait until 2012 before it was completely renovated. Today, the rooms are more modern and more luxurious, while retaining the old-fashioned charm of the original building for a trip to Phuket’s past.
Now entering its second youth, the old city has lots of things to win over locals and tourists alike, including the Night Market on Sunday evenings on Thalang Road, the Indy Market on Dibuk Road, the yoga classes that take place every day at 6pm in the park of the 72nd Birthday of Queen Sirikit, the numerous restaurants and bars that put on jazz concerts, such as the BeBop, and the list goes on…