A must-do in Phuket is a walk in the old part of Phuket City, around Thalang, Dibuk and Krabi roads. The beautiful architecture along these roads will take you back to the charm of a century ago. According to Pranee Sakulpitpatana, a lecturer at Phuket Rajabhat University and one of the island’s premier historians, the architecture is a reflection of European influence on the island. Europeans, including the Portuguese and the British, had been interested in Phuket’s tin wealth since the 16th century.
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In the 18th century, much of the island’s tin mining was carried out by Hokkien Chinese who became the big players in building the old part of the city. In the early 20th century, under Governor Phraya Rassada Nupradit, major European mining companies were invited in, and the major public infrastructure such as roads and canals was built. No one knows exactly when the first building in this style was constructed, but old photographs from the reign of King Rama V (1853-1910) show that it was already well established by then. Two styles of building in particular stand out: the shop-house (Sino-Portuguese style) and the big mansion (Sino-Colonial style).
Sino-Portuguese Shophouses of Phuket
The shop-house was a place for a family to both live and do business, using the front of the building for trading and the remainder, including the upper floor, as a private home. Shop-houses are usually found built in rows, giving rise to the Hokkien Chinese term tiam choo, meaning a row of shop-houses. The floor plans of all these shop-houses are very similar: five metres wide but as much as 50 metres long, creating a very spacious living space for an entire family. Across the front of each, along the edge of the street, is an arcade, offering shade and shelter to the public. Behind this, the house is usually divided into four parts.
There is a living room for general purposes and for receiving guests, followed by a space, open to the sky, with a well. At the rear is the kitchen. Upstairs is the family’s private area and bedrooms. In the old days, the central open area was often the heart of the house. It was here that you would find the women of the house chatting while cooking or doing the washing. It was also, in a sense, the lungs of the house, allowing air to flow through, even in the hottest month, April, when temperatures in Phuket can rise to 38 degrees C. Also contributing to the cool atmosphere were the thick, solidly-built walls.
Sino-Portuguese Mansions in Phuket
Another type of distinctive architecture is what the Hokkien Chinese call the angmor lao. It translates literally as “the big house of the red-hairs” - or European Mansion. After amassing wealth from tin mining or as merchants, many Chinese immigrants began building such mansions for their families, featuring a capacious portico, a terrace on the upper floor and a courtyard in the middle.
Some of the larger ones have two or three courtyards. As with the shop-houses, the courtyard was the site of the family well, from which servants would carry water into the master’s private bathroom. The servants, naturally, would bathe and do all the washing around the well.
Baan Chinpracha, at 98 Krabi Road in Phuket, is a fine example of a Sino-Colonial mansion and is just a few doors away from the famous Blue Elephant Restaurant. Visitors not only will have a sneak peek of how a wealthy Phuket family used to live many decades ago but they can meet its owner too. Jaroonrat 'Daeng' Tandavanitj and her late husband, Pracha Tandavanitj, inherited this elegant building from his father, who in turn was the eldest son of the original owner, Phra Pitak Chinpracha, who built it in 1903.
- Opening Hours: From 09:00-16:30. Closed on Sundays.
- Location: 98 Krabi Road. It’s only a few doors from the Blue Elephant Restaurant
- Tel: +66 (0)76 211 167 and +66 (0)76 211 281
Baan Klung Jinda Restaurant
Baan Klung Jinda , at the intersection of Yaowarat Road and Mae Luan Road. This was originally built, 108 years ago, as the official residence of the town treasurer, in which role it served for many decades. It then fell into disuse until about five years ago, when a local businessman leased it and converted it into a high-end Thai restaurant. Apart from extensive renovation of the original building, he added a new wing.
- Opening Hours: Every day except Sunday lunch is served between 11 am and 2 pm while dinner is from 5 to 11 pm
- Tel: 076-221777
China Inn Cafe
China Inn Café & Restaurant is a beautifully restored example of what people can do with a rundown old building if they possess dedication, patience and an unswervable vision. The restaurant stands in the heart of Phuket’s old town; a place brimming with history and tradition. This is where Phuket’s heart of commerce beat over 100 years ago when tin was in great demand and Chinese labourers flooded in from both north and south to fill the labour shortage on the island.
- Address: 20 Thalang Road, Phuket Old Town
- Tel: 076 356 239
Phuket Provincial Hall
Built at the beginning of the 20th century, this large building holds the offices of the province’s highest official, the Provincial Governor, but is open to the public apart from on special occasions. There are more than 50 pictures of old Phuket on display around the building.
- Tel: 076-216118
Phuket Philatelic Museum
Located inside an 80-year-old building on Montri Road, the stamp museum looks amazing from the outside and the interior is under development but still open for the public at no entrance fee. At the moment, there are three sections inside: The first part exhibits posters explaining how the Thai Postal Service has developed since its start during the reign of forward-thinking King Rama V.
The second room houses a good amount of old (some antique) equipment and machines such as telegraph tickers, telephones, and parcel-weighing machines. The last section is a souvenir room where sets of Thai stamps are on sale, along with other items. When the project is completed they expect to have over 700 sets (totaling more than 1,000 stamps) of real vintage and interesting Thai stamps on display. All information will be in both English and Thai. Currently most information on display is in Thai only.
- Opening Hours: Every day apart from Sundays, Mondays and public holidays, from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm.
- Tel: 076-211020
Thai Hua Museum
Thai Hua Museum in Phuket Phuket Town Attractions EditMove Page Introductory Text Delete Thai Hua Museum on Krabi Road is one of the best looking and well-maintained Sino-Portuguese buildings in Phuket. This recently renovated building was at one stage a Chinese-language school. These days it is used as a museum, exhibition space and an occasional function hall. In 2008, the Thai Hua Museum was given an award in the category of constitutional and public buildings by the Siam Architect Association under the King’s patronage for its outstanding role in conserving architectural arts.
- Opening Hours: Daily from 09:00 – 17:00
- Location: 28 Krabi Road, Phuket Old Town
- Tel: +66 (0)76 211 224
The Memory at On On Hotel
Located along Phang Nga Road in Phuket Old Town and formerly known as On On Hotel (in Chinese, ‘un un’ means ‘happiness for all visitors’), The Memory at On On Hotel went through a complete renovation in 2012 and 2013. On On was the first hotel to open on the island in 1929 and witnessed the island’s tin-mining era. By way of contrast, in 2013, there are over 1,000 hotels in Phuket… In 1929, the main industry in Phuket was tin mining. The area of Kathu, a few kilometres west from Phuket Town was one gigantic tin mine, with hundreds of Chinese migrants digging to excavate the metal. In Phuket Town, Ta Pan Hin was the port from where the tin was exported to all around the world, mostly aboard European ships. The grandfather of the current owner, a tin baron and trader, had the idea to set up accommodation for other traders coming to Phuket Town. The first On On Hotel had five rooms which cost approximately 80 satang (not even one baht) a night!
The best time to enjoy a wander around Phuket’s historical streets is from 8:30 am onward. There are many coffee shops serving local breakfast as early as 5 am, which affords visitors the opportunity to go for a fine filling meal with the locals. Most shops close at around 18 or 18:30 and most are shut on Sundays.
You might want to try some restaurants in the neighbourhood for lunch as well; they serve unique local dishes that you won’t usually find in your hotel.
Wear your most comfortable walking shoes and don’t forget your hat and sunglasses. Don’t carry too much stuff with you, but bring a camera - it’s a must.