Phuket plays host to a wonderful mix of nationalities who have chosen to live here: it has Thais, Chinese, Malays, Indians and Nepalese, a young and growing Eurasian community and a unique mix of Hokkien Chinese and Thais called 'Baba'.
The Baba community's heritage can be seen in Phuket's Old Town in its architecture, commerce, dress and way of life. The core of the Old Town essentially is made up of five roads and several 'sois' (small streets), these are Rasada Rd, Phang Nga Rd, Thalang Rd, Dibuk Rd, and Krabi Rd. This quarter teems with history and after years of neglect is currently being renovated.
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One hundred years ago, Thalang Rd was a hive of activity as tin mine workers would head there to buy essentials, sell tin ore and indulge themselves in less-than-exemplary activities. Theirs was a hard life and the comforts of alcohol, opium, women, and the chance to win some extra cash through gambling provided a heady contrast to the drudgery of tin prospecting.
There were fewer roads in Phuket in those days and people got around via a series of canals. As the area was rich in tin, anywhere that wasn't the absolute centre of 'Tongkah' - as Phuket Town was known then - was mined. After the tin was extracted buildings were erected on the debris as the town gradually expanded, leaving the Old Town as the historical heart of the settlement.
A lot has been written about Phuket Old Town's distinctive architectural style but it's worth a good look at Phuket's recent history to gain a focused perspective on why it looks that way. Phuket's strong commercial, educational and cultural links with Penang resulted in a direct influence on the settlement. Tin ore was taken to Penang to be smelted as it was easier than transporting it to Bangkok, and the children of the rich were sent to school there for the same reason.
It was only after WWII that stronger links with Bangkok ensured more of a Thai architectural influence on the town. Up until then the architecture was what is often termed as 'Sino-Portuguese' but in fact any Portuguese influence had long since disappeared and the British colonial architecture of Penang was in fact the muse for Phuket's Old Town. The term 'Sino-Colonial' has recently been suggested and this would seem to be more accurate. In fact, rich tin mine barons brought architects, carpenters, artisans and even building materials from British-constructed Penang to build and decorate their opulent mansions and to fashion their intricate shophouse fronts. To best explore this interesting area one should go on foot. Due to one-way systems and lack of parking in the Old Town it is not always easy to get around in a car.
Phang Nga Road
Turn right here down Yaowarat Rd and right again into Phang Nga Rd. On your left you will see the South Wind secondhand bookstore and just after that an alleyway with Chinese characters at the entrance.
This leads to the Shrine of the Serene Light. Built in 1889, the garden is indeed a serene place to rest your legs before exploring the colourful interior. On the left of the garden is a large polished marble plaque with the names of the donors who helped set the temple up - along with how much they donated. On exiting the alley, diagonally opposite, you will see a good example of imaginative renovation in the form of Siam Indigo, a restaurant that has taken typical Chinese shophouses and joined them together to create a spacious eatery which artfully mixes the old with the new.
Less artful but perhaps more atmospheric is the Memory at On On Hotel, a few metres down on the left. The On On is a Phuket institution and played the part of a Bangkok flophouse in the movie, 'The Beach'. It has now been renovated but in the past, despite spartan rooms, questionable toilet facilities and the grumpiest staff on the island, people kept coming back for more. Built in Sino-Colonial hotel style, it features a dramatic entrance archway and the sort of fan-wafted lobby that typifies Hollywood's idea of the Far East.
Carrying down the road you cannot help but notice shop after shop selling gardening equipment. Similarly themed Thai businesses tend to operate in clusters but just why gardening and agricultural hardware vendors have gathered on Phang Nga Rd and its environs is a mystery.
The road is lined with tailors, sweetshops, art galleries and a business with the enigmatic declaration above its door, 'Individual Travelling of Accurate Conduct'. Here, we start to see Phuket's undeniable Chinese heritage in the shape of an old-fashioned cobbler shop, a Chinese noodle shop and, right at the end of the road, a defunct bank facing a police station. These are two relics of Phuket's sometimes volatile past.
One hundred years ago, dissatisfied Chinese tin mine workers threatened to sack the bank and relieve it of its money, so mine owners insisted on a police station being erected opposite as a guarantee of their money's security.
Thalang Road and Soi Rommanee
Turn left at the end of this block into Phuket Rd and pass what looks like a rundown tenement on the opposite side - this is, in fact, a hotel of questionable repute - then turn left into Thalang Rd and head west. You are now smack-bang in the heart of Phuket's Old Town on a street teeming with history and atmosphere. Here, a system of archways begins. These are dubbed 'five-footways' and most are linked, affording an easy stroll along the road out of the sun and the rain but some are blocked and still others are cluttered with shop merchandise. Still, the mix of colours and uniform design along with the eclectic blend of commerce makes for an impressive combination.
The names of the shops and businesses say it all: Sin & Lee, Sin Yoo Chang. At number 16, Nguan Choon Tong -'Phuket's Oldest Herbs Shop' mixes Chinese and Western herbs and supplies many of Phuket's spas. Throughout this area there's a distinct odour of fresh paint and some of these buildings are positively gleaming after their renovation. One good example is at 20 Thalang Rd. This is China Inn, an erstwhile foreign money exchange and remittance agency. Renovated at great cost, it is now an upscale café and restaurant.
Oddities abound here: PN Sports sells Adidas running shoes, tennis rackets alongside electric guitars and drum sets; the corner bridal shop has photos of happy Chinese couples dressed up in their wedding finery with a picture of a Thai-Western couple in pride of place. Women gaze out of darkened tailor shops, all the while working ancient Singer sewing machines. For this quarter of town think noodles, think textiles, think tiny printing shops, think surprise.
At this end of the street there are two roti shops, a Chinese clinic, along with a shop devoted entirely to the sale of white shirts, a bicycle shop and the usual sprinkle of textile outlets. Further up on the right is Soi Rommanee. This back lane has an interesting past - it used to be the red light, or 'pleasure' district where Chinese labourers would go to let off steam. In fact, the word 'romanee' translates roughly as 'naughty with the ladies'. Nowadays the soi is an example of what the area has potential for as the houses and cafes are colour coded and the street is full of character (a reconditioned 1960's Ford Consul adds a welcome touch).
Back on Thalang Rd, a big policeman on a little motorbike blows his whistle as he bangs on illegally parked car roofs. Several shop doors open and sheepishly smiling men run out, start their car engines, and when the policeman rounds the end of the road, turn them off and go back indoors again.
Take a right turn out of Thalang Rd and cross over to turn left into Dibuk Rd. This road features some dazzling examples of well-renovated Chinese-style houses and has a wider throughway which handles two-way traffic, unlike the narrow one-way Old Town system. The relative wideness of the road allows for better photographic opportunities. At the end of Dibuk you will come to a T-junction with Satun Rd. Diagonally opposite you is Pheteow noodle shop. This place is crowded every week lunchtime with the many office workers who have discovered just how well Pheteow prepares its dishes.
Backtrack to Yaowarat Rd. and head back towards Thalang Rd. At the junction there's a Chinese open-air garden-like eatery selling slow boiled sweet pork. A very popular spot, the 'moo hong' is a brisk seller, even among the sweet vendors along the next soi, Soon Utis Lane.
Even though there are absolutely no customers in sight, the sweet vendors are laughing and joking amongst themselves - school will be out in ten minutes' time and they'll be busy enough then. Carry on and turn right into Krabi Rd.
Fifty metres in on the right there's an ancient-looking secondhand bookstore and after that the Thai Hua Museum. Once a Chinese language school, nowadays it is used as a museum and an exhibition space. This beautiful building is set back from the road in its own garden. A few shophouses down, an entire shop front is obliterated under several tons of green coconuts.
Three doors later and you can buy as much watermelon as you want and after that comes a mixed fruit shop. Next to that is the Old Town Guest House - this must be the most charming location to base from when exploring the area.
On the left-hand side of the road is a narrow alleyway that leads to the new downtown fresh market. Carry on east up Krabi Rd and cross Satun Rd, still heading east and you will see a beautiful mansion. This is Phra Phitak Chyn Pracha Mansion, the most celebrated 'angmor-lao' ('red-haired' or 'foreign') residence in Phuket Town.
Its original owner, Phra Phitak, a Chinese tin baron, was of course far from being a redhead but he was nevertheless a foreigner, hence these mansions' moniker. Further up and also on the right there is another beautiful mansion called the Chyn Pracha house and you can have a look around this residence for a small donation.
Even further along and also on the right is the Sam San shrine, built in 1853. Here, ceremonies are held to bless newly launched vessels as the shrine is dedicated to the Goddess of the sea. A statue of the goddess Matsu was brought to Phuket from Fujian in China after the 2004 tsunami and this shrine is her 'home'.
Return towards Yaowarat Rd towards the alleyway on your right and turn down it. This leads to an unnamed soi on which you will find a fresh market. Recently the long-standing fresh market was torn down and a two-storey market with a parking underneath has been erected and this location is where many of the traders and market stall owners brought their business during its construction with some staying on.
Take a right turn at the end of this soi at Ranong Rd and walk up to a Y-Junction. Here, you will find a colourful Chinese shrine called Jui Tui. This shrine is dedicated to the vegetarian Chinese-Taoist God, Kui Wong In and is the centre of activities during Phuket's annual Vegetarian Festival.
This is also where people use bamboo blocks to obtain advice from the shrine's oracle. Ask a 'yes or no' question then throw the blocks gently in the air. If both blocks land on the same side the answer is 'no'. If one lands up and the other down the answer is 'yes'. A small donation to the shrine is appreciated.
Next to the Jui Tui shrine is Pud Jow ('God Talks') Chinese Taoist Temple. Built 200 years ago and renovated after a fire 100 years ago, it is the oldest of its sort in Phuket.
Phuket Fountain Circle
Now, simply turn back where you came from and walk past the fountain at the end of Ranong Rd and you will find yourself back on Rasada Rd. Walk to the end and you will be where you started your tour of Phuket's Old Town.