It’s famed as one of Asia’s most popular holiday destinations. But there’s more to Phuket than just sun and sand. Its rickety old town, peppered with splendid colonial and Sino-Portuguese architecture, is in the midst of a revival.

 

 

“This town feels like Singapore did 30 years ago”, a lady at the table next to me tells her lunch companions one monsoonal afternoon at the China Inn Cafe. In a courtyard tucked into the back courtyard of a Sino-Portuguese shop-front, the cafe opens onto Thalang Road, the commercial heart of Phuket during the island’s halcyon days of the mid 1800’s to early 1900’s when tin mining made it one of Asia’s most prosperous towns. Lined with two story Sino-Portuguese shop fronts- differing only in colour and the intricacy of their awnings- today Thalang Road, together with neighbouring streets, is in the midst of a cultural and architectural revival.

Genteel and laid back, Phuket’s old town was built by Chinese fossikers who came to try their luck on the island’s tin mines. Known locally as Baba- (shortened from Baba-Nonya which was used to describe people of Chinese origin who settled in SE Asia) many of them married local Thai women and stayed to build a rich and storied community. Most of the tin has since been exhausted; the little remaining virtually worthless given the metal’s current prices. But the original town- a small patchwork of streets framed by a sprawling and energetic new city- remains. That this enclave has survived the fabricated sameness typifying many of Thailand’s provincial capitals is a minor miracle; the fact it’s being restored is a revelation.

“Almost everybody living in Phuket’s old town is from non-Thai motherland”, local historian Pranee Sakulpipat tells me. “Mainly our ancestors came from Fujian Province in mainland China. But my neighbours are also Bangladeshi, Indian and Muslims from southern Thailand, all who came for tin mining and stayed. We live like layered cake”.

Sakulpipat and I are lunching at Wilai, a local restaurant near the China Inn Cafe on Thalang Road. It isn’t the classiest diner in town- with plastic furniture and an open air kitchen alive with nose tickling aromas of fried chilli – but certainly one of the most popular, and Sakulpipat tells me, the best place to eat Baba food. “Baba food is just like Baba people: quite peculiar”, grins Sakulpipat. “We look Chinese and follow Chinese customs, but can’t speak Chinese. Instead we speak Thai and have Thai manners”.

We order yehu engchay, a plate of lightly boiled vegetables and squid served with a fermented soya bean sauce that’s far too intense for my foreign palate, followed by a sensational yellow curry with silken tofu called tawchaew-lon, and char guay tiou, a spicier version of pad thai tossed with fresh molluscs. The chef tells me all are cooked in traditional Fujian style, but with Thai flavours: shrimp paste, turmeric, chilli and lemongrass.

Calm and collected, the rustic old town is a far cry from the hedonism of nearby Patong Beach, the island’s rambunctious- and most popular- stretch of sand. It is estimated that less than 3% of visitors to Phuket actually slide off their deck chairs and head into the old town. Running off the back of the island’s recent tourism boom- which saw visitor numbers for 2007 almost double pre-tsunami figures- some residents are now hoping to change this.

“There is a lot of potential to make Phuket town’s old quarters into a heritage centre for tourism”, Dr. Prasit Kosiripong, the Chairman of the recently founded Old Phuket Foundation tells me later that afternoon. Dr. Prasit, the former Mayor of Phuket who was instrumental in the island’s success as a holiday destination, has big plans for the little town, including an open-air shuttle bus to ferry tourists around between sites, four museums and strict regulations on modifying buildings.

“Many business people come to Phuket for short term money gains, but the preservation of heritage requires both long term thinkers and stayers”, says the spritely doctor who grew up in the old town. “We are hoping to activate people’s awareness about Baba culture while building a stage for tourism”.

It looks like it may be already happening. The last two years have witnessed a string of bohemian galleries, bars, shops and hotels transform the Sino-Portuguese shop-fronts, including tapas bar Siam Indigo, Moroccan home ware shop Sharms and Shanghai furniture chain Casada Pagoda. Following the success of her boutique hotel, A Taste of Phuket’s (which, sadly, has taken a slide downhill since) up-and-coming designer Malida Vaidyanuvatti recently opened X (16), a sleek minimalist bar with lipstick-red leather stools and oversized murals on the walls. Unable to meet rent demands in Patong, a bunch of young flamboyant artists have now set up studios on Phang Nga Road. “The old town has spirit”, one tells me.

This new buzz isn’t exactly new. For the last ten years the island’s most sought after tables have been in the old town at Ka Jok See Restrauant, a place dazzling with antique wood furniture, Rajasthani fabrics and big pots of fresh long stemmed roses. After some negotiations I was lucky enough to score a table for Wednesday night. The owner, Lek (who only goes by one name), goes to lengths to make sure everyone dining in his restaurant is compatible on some sort of level. This isn’t, after all, any ordinary restaurant. Instead think dinner party cum raucous dance party and darling of the jet set crowd; Kate Moss celebrated her birthday here, the Rolling Stones dropped by to bust some moves on the dance floor.

Although most people don’t come to Ka Jok See for the food, it certainly deserving of it; my smoked eggplant salad with shrimp was perfectly nutty, the shrimp crisp and tender, the vinegar dressing sweet and feisty. Complimentary mojitos were passed around by 8-30 pm and dancing starts before 9; after 10 the floor is cleared and the table of Thai movie stars and fashionistas opposite (many still with their sun glasses on) have lost their cool demeanours and are taking turns dancing, topless, on the tables.

That night wandering back to my hotel I come across a small Muslim-run hookah cafe. At a glance it seems out of place, but after I consider my day- lunching on Chinese infused Baba food, lighting incense at a Taoist temple, shopping for batik sarongs in an Indian-owned shop and boogying with the cool crowd at a Thai restaurant- anything fits.

Despite Koysiripong’s good intentions with the shuttle bus, the best way to see Phuket’s old town is on foot. The next day, armed with the free Phuket Old Town Treasure Map, which highlights the architectural and cultural gems, I set out on a tour.

I start on Soi Romanee, the former red light district (Romanee means “naughty with the ladies”) and favoured destination for tin miners drowning their home sick sorrows. The first street to undergo renovations, these days the scene is somewhat tamer, the only late night mischief coming from jam sessions at the jazz bar Glastnost.

My next stop is the Temple of Serene Light, a serene late 19th century Chinese temple accessible by a small alley on Phang Nga Road (the temple is so well hidden that apparently locals don’t even know where it is). Completely restored in the mid 1990’s, the temple retells the trials and tribulations of Xi Yin Gui- a Chinese folk hero who later became a deity- on its walls. Outside tables overflow with offerings from devotees hoping to speed up their luck: cake for prosperity, sticky rice for unity, bananas for customers, oranges for wealth and a jug of oil to add more sparks into life.

Here I have planned to meet with Mrs. Buranaporn “Mia” Tandavanits- the progeny of one of Phuket’s wealthiest and most influential tin miners, Pratipak Chinpracha, who built Chin Pracha House, here before heading off to see her father’s mansion.

Of all the buildings in Phuket’s old town, Chin Pracha House is the most renowned. Built in 1903 the house sits proud on verdant lawns lined with Dutch fencing, its eaves laced with lattice, floors laid with Italian tiles, and every corner, rich mother-of-pearl furniture. Chin Pracha Mansion is also open to the public; the patriarch insisted that after his death, the house should become a legacy to Baba culture. Inside Mia and her mother, now in her 80’s, guide me through old pictures on the walls, most of them taken in the first half of 1900’s.

“A lot of the old town still looks the same” says Mia who was educated at a private British school in Penang where her father had businesses. Dubbed as Phuket’s sister city, in those days it was easier to get to Penang, a short boat trip down the coast, than Bangkok, several days journey across mountains.

Famished, Mia insists on taking us to her favourite restaurant, an outlet of the Black Canyon chain at a gargantuan Tesco Lotus warehouse on the edge of Phuket Town. It’s the first time in a week that I have left the old town and the crowds of shoppers scurrying under fluorescent lights while music blares from every shop and ice wafts off industrial sized air conditioners makes me feel dizzy.

“Times certainly have changed”, giggles Mia, taking my arm and leading me into the crowd.

Guide to Phuket Town

When to Go

Phuket’s climate is warm all year round, although March to May can get uncomfortably hot and June to October besieged by monsoonal rains. The best time to visit is September through to March, when temperatures hover around 76 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) and the island is at its most festive. Phuket old town’s most dramatic event, the Vegetarian Festival, takes place on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month according to the Chinese calendar (late September or early October) and lasts for 10 days. During the festival- dating back to the late 1800’s- locals abscond from eating animal products, and young men pierce their cheeks with spears, swords and other metal objects, and accompanied by banging drums, clanging cymbals and thunderous fireworks, take to the streets in a bazaar and bloody parade of purification and atonement.

Every February, the Old Town Cultural Festival (which corresponds to Chinese New Year) celebrates Baba culture with films, food and local customs.

How to get there

Thai Airways has daily flights from Bangkok; Malaysian Airlines from Kuala Lumpur; Silk Air and Singapore Airlines from Singapore; Dragon Airlines from Hong Kong.

Where to stay

Sino House
Chinese chic with oversized Oriental-inspired murals above the beds and antiques in the lobby.
1 Montree Road; 076 232494; www.sinohousephuket.com; Doubles from $40, including breakfast.

Taste of Phuket
Two converted townhouses in the heart of the old town. The 12 grotty rooms have seen better days, however.
16-18 Rassada Road; 076 222812; www.thetastephuket.com; Doubles from $80, including breakfast.

Where to Eat

Ka Jok See
26 Takuapa Road; 076 217903; Bookings essential; Dinner for two, with wine $65

Siam Indigo
Thai inspired tapas and cocktails in stylishly rustic surrounds.
8 Phang Nga Road; 076 256697; www.siamindigo.com; Dinner for two, $40

Salvatore’s
Country Italian serving only what’s fresh from the market, with attached pizzeria.
15/17 Rasada Road; 076 225958; www.salvatorestaurant.com; Dinner for two, with wine, $70

Dibuk Bar and Grill
French run bistro with rabbit and wild boar in red wine.
93 Dibuk Road; 076 218425; Lunch for two, with wine, $50

China Inn
20 Thalang Road; 076 356239; Lunch for two, $20

Wilai
14 Thalang Road, 076 222875; Lunch for two, $5

XV1 (16)
14 Takaupa Road; 081 6660335; Drinks for two $10

Glastnost
14 Soi Romanee; 081 1939846; Drinks for two, $10

Green Leaf (no sign in English)
Shisha pipes: apple, mixed fruit and cuppa-chino with smoked Malaysian tea.
143 Thalang Road; Shisha pipe and tea for two, $7

Where to Shop

Soul of Asia
Thai and Chinese antiques and artists, including Andy Warhol prints and Gao Xiao Wu’s jubilant statues.
37-39 Rassada Road; 081 7872155; www.soulofasia.com

Himalayan Arts and Crafts
Affordable Tibetan and Nepalese antiques, rugs and brick-a-brack.
48 Yaowarat Road

Sharms
Moroccan furniture and household attire: Red and black poufs; mosaic water fountains.
83/85 Yaowarat Road; 076 218515

Oriental Closet
Thai and Burmese antiques in old wooden house.
99 Dibuk Road; 022 58059

Casa Pagoda
Chinese chests and heavy retro print couches.
42 Dibuk road, 076 215415; www.casapagoda.com

Classic Barn
Thai print fabrics meddled with rich local woods and leather.
10-12 Yaowarat Road; 076 256021

Galleries and Studios

Sarasil Gallery
Somkait Kaewnok’s obscure take on Thailand’s long-necked women.
121 Phang-nga Road; 076 224532

Art Home
Amnat Boonsanit’s terracotta pot paintings.
113 Phang-nga Road; 076 224866

What to do

Chin Pracha House
98 Krabi Road; 07621128; Open daily

Temple of Serene Light
Phang Nga Road

This article appeared in a 2008 issue of Travel + Leisure South-east Asia Magazine.