It’s known as one of Asia’s favourite beach resorts, but there’s more to Phuket than sun sand and sipping daiquiris by the pool. Its old town- resplendent with rickety old Chinese shop fronts and grand colonial-style mansions- is one of Thailand’s best kept secrets. You can it all in on a walking tour.
It’s known as one of Asia’s favourite beach resorts, but there’s more to Phuket than sun sand and sipping daiquiris by the pool. Striking tin in the early 1900’s- at the time considered as precious as gold- the small island on the Andaman Sea attracted a flurry of Chinese fossickers from Fujian and the British Straits settlement of Penang, all hoping to find their fortunes. Many did, marrying with local Thai women they established a unique community known as the Baba people- a blend of Thai, Malay and Chinese cultures- and genteel village riddled with Sino-Portuguese style shop-fronts and grand colonial mansions.
Art&Culture have recently put out a walking map taking in the sites, sounds and flavours of the old town. It’s aptly named Phuket Town Treasure Map. We put it to the test.
I start my walk on Soi Romanee where I pick up a map brochure from the Art&Culture Office. A quaint lane lined with old Sino-Portuguese style shopfronts- restored in pink on one side, crumbling and rustic on the other- Soi Romanee used to be the red light district for tin mine workers drowning their home sick sorrows (Romanee meaning ‘naughty with the ladies’). These days the scene is pretty tame, the only mischief coming from a late night jam session at the music bar, Glastnost (14 Soi Romanee, 081 1939846).
Heading south, I turn onto the picturesque Thalang Road, Phuket’s answer to Wall Street during the town’s halcyon days. Thalang Road’s most striking feature is the ngoh-kaa-kee (five foot way) archways joining shop fronts to protect pedestrians from the sun and notorious monsoonal rains.
My first stop is for coffee at the lovingly restored China Inn Café (20 Thalang Road; 076 356239). A Sino-Portuguese shop-front turned restaurant and antique shop, the café offers a unique glimpse into the design of the Phuket’s old houses; deceivingly small from the street, but stretching back more than 80 meters, with a central courtyard for natural air-conditioning. Half of the house is stocked with antiques from Burma, Thailand, China and Malaysia; all the cultures that have influenced Phuket.
Taking a short cut, I nip through Wilai (14 Thalang Road), a classical Baba restaurant that is consistently full- through the kitchen, past the toilet and storage boxes to the Temple of Serene Light. Built in 1889, the small but tranquil temple is only accessible through Wilais or a small lane on Phang Nga Road and easily missed- even by locals. Look for the trails and tribulations of Xi-Yin-Gui, a folk hero who later became a God, as told on the temple walls.
Continuing on, I turn left onto Phang Na Road and past the rickety On On Hotel (19 Phang-nga Road, 076 211154). Built as a hotel in 1929, it still retains a lot of its original features, including dreary rooms, grumpy staff and creaky floorboards. The hotel hit Hollywood stardom when it featured as the Khao Saen Road backpackers den in the 1997 movie staring Leonardo DiCaprio, The Beach.
The stores that line the main streets of Thalang, Phang Na, Rassada and Yaowarai are chock-a-block with the works of flamboyant young artists, antiques, souvenirs, furniture and textiles from Indonesia right through to Laos. Gaze at Somkait Kaewnok’s obscure take on Thailand’s long-necked women at Sarasil (121 Phang-nga Road), or shop for Moroccan home furnishings at Sharms (83-85 Yaowarat Road).
Traipsing onto Rassada Road, I drop into the lobby of the Thavorn Hotel (74 Rassada Road; 24 hours)– which is a little musty but oozing with atmosphere with low hung wooden ceilings and marble floors. Here a museum reminisces on the island’s tin mining hey days. There is mining equipment, opium smoking beds and pillows, toys, even an impressive shell fossil found on the Andaman coast and said to be more than a million years old.
A blend of Chinese meridian point pressure and yoga, Thailand is renowned for its traditional Thai Massage. At LeeLa (44 Rassada Road; open 11 am – 10 pm) I change into a pair of silky soft pyjamas and in a dimly lit room awash with the smell of monkey balm, willingly succumb to a 60 minutes of stretching and kneeing.
So relaxed I’m almost asleep, its time to recharge the batteries with lunch. Looping back to Thavorn Road, I opt to eat where the locals eat and take a table at Wilai. Although not the classiest eatery in town, it is the best example of the Thai-Nonya-Hokkien fusion cuisine that has become synonymous with Phuket. I ask for the two most popular dishes: yehu engchay, a plate of lightly boiled vegetables and squid served with fermented soya bean sauce and tawchaew-lon, yellow curry with silken tofu and chicken.
Moving on, I head west to the old colonial style mansions of the Tan family, otherwise known to locals as “The big houses of the red hairs”. At Chin Pracha House (98 Krabi Road; 076 21128; Open daily) I meet with the lovely Mrs. Buranaporn “Mia” Tandavanits, whose grandfather- a wealthy merchant and tin miner- built the house in 1903. Packed with intricate lattice, Italian tiles, Dutch fencing and an array of Penang-made mother-of-pearl furniture, it was once the fanciest house on the island.
Phuket town is riddled with British and Portuguese colonial style mansions and bungalows. Chin Pracha is the only one open for sightseers to visit but others can be seen from the outside. They include: the Governors Residence on Thepkasatri Road (which served as the “American Embassy” in Roland Joffe’s 1984 film, The Killing Fields); the Thai Airways office on Ranong Road and the Phuket Government’s office (also in The Killing Fields) on Damrong Road.
Mia insists on showing me her temple, the Jui Tui Shrine (Soi Phutorn) and prophesize my fortune to boot. Dedicated to the vegetarian god, Kiu Wong In, the Jui Tui Shrine is famous for its oracles and people come from far and wide to consult bundles of sticks.
I go first, shaking a canister labelled “fate” (there is also one for health, for study, for men- and so on) for what seems like minutes until finally the number 36 drops to the floor. To make sure this is the number the gods want me to have, I then have to throw a pair of wooden blocks. If they fall one up, one down, I can proceed. Both down or up and it’s back to the canister of sticks. The sticks come up trumps and Mai picks out an oracle for the number 36. “Very lucky, will not have any bad health, a long life, but” she says, looking at me with more than a hint of sorrow, “you will never become rich”.
Mia is more competent than me and with three shakes of the fate canister a stick bounds to the floor. But she doesn’t like what the oracle has to say so leaves it- and its fate- in the temple.
I take my oracle, with a big pinch of salt, and head off to the Fresh Market (Ranong Road). A pandemonium of bustling, bargaining and gossiping, the Thai talaat is usually the heart and soul of any community. Phuket town’s is no exception. Shuffling through rows of smoked fish and plump locally grown vegetables, I have come for local mangosteens (mankut in Thai), tartly sweet delights that are currently in season and a bargain for 10 Thai Baht a kilo.
To finish the walk, I take a hike to the top of Rang Hill, the tallest point in the town. With sweeping views over the island’s rolling hills and spectacular coastline, it’s a prime sunset spot; filled with couples snuggling on benches and cheeky monkeys scattering through the forest. Its almost time for sunset, so I grab a table at Rang Hill’s famously eccentric Tunk-ka Café (Rang Hill, Korsimbee Road; 11 am-11 pm) order a bottle of Phuket Beer and get ready to watch the light show.
The Phuket Town Treasure Map can be picked up from at a number of businesses in town, from the Art&Culture office (16 Soi Romanee; 076 222856) or from their website: www.ArtAndCultureAsia.com
Expect to walk around 2-3 kilometers, depending on your route.