Sip milky iced tea while listening to melodic jazz from a street café. Haggle over homemade batik at a Malay fabric shop. Sample traditional Hokkien Chinese cuisine for less than three dollars and admire historic buildings dating back a century. Just a few reasons, says Leigh-Anne Hunter, to ditch the beach for a day and wander through Phuket’s fascinating, but little-seen old quarter…
“Town? I hear you gasp. I was planning on sunbathing.” Phuket’s beaches certainly live up to their postcard-perfect reputations, but after a few days of reclining in a deckchair watching pink-skinned beachcombers, it’s all a little, as the Thais say, ‘same same’.
With its historic buildings and cosmopolitan culture, the island’s hidden old quarter has a distinctive charm and old-world flavour that will give you something more to tell your friends about than just your even tan. It’s also a more affordable option for accommodation and dining, and less touristy than the beach areas, giving you an insight into daily Thai life (don’t be surprised if you get an invitation to share a meal with your Thai neighbours).
Just one of Phuket’s friendly residents
Unfortunately, many tourists only see this cultural gem from the inside of a tuk tuk en route to the celebrated Patong, and miss out on this undiscovered corner of the Andaman. Make sure you aren’t one of them! Hire a tricycle to chaperone you through the shop-lined streets of the Old Quarter. Not the standard, rickety tricycles, mind you – some have been modernised and fitted with comfy leather seats, sound-speakers and champagne coolers!
But the best way to explore this area is on foot. Get yourself a free copy of the Phuket Town Treasure Map at the Thailand Tourism Authority (TAT) on Thalang road. The easy 2km-walking trail, which covers the six roads and two lanes (sois) that comprise the Old Quarter, can easily be covered in half a day. But you might find (as I did) that you want to linger for longer. Get a few twilight snapshots of the colourful Sino-Portuguese shop-houses with their intricate designs, shuttered windows and cool balconies on picturesque Soi Romanee – a red light district in the late 19th century. Or, pop in for a Chang beer at Siam Indigo, the swanky bar on Phang Nga road. At night, red Chinese lanterns light arched walkways, creating a magical atmosphere.
China Inn cafe in Phuket’s old quarter
A glimpse into the past…
Lighting up a Malboro cigarette and smoothing strands of silver hair, 72-year-old Thanaboon Sarulthep recalls how he started working on the tin mines at the young age of 15. The precious ore drew thousands of Chinese immigrants – like Thanaboon’s father – to the shores of peninsular Siam, as it was then known. Many, married Thai locals, introducing their Hokkien cuisine and culture to Phuket. The tin supply gradually ceased, but in its place arose another profitable commodity known as tourism. “We are lucky,” says Thanaboon, who runs Airfield Café, an eatery on Phang Nga road.
Tin mines have been transformed into luxury resorts like Phuket Laguna, but remnants of the island’s mining heyday before tourism are still visible for those who are prepared to look. Amassing their fortunes from mining concessions, some Chinese families established successful family dynasties on the island, building grand mansions (known as angmor-lao) that still remain today. So historically significant is this corner of Phuket that the government passed an act declaring it a conservation zone and many of the buildings are now being restored. I loved the colonial ambience of these time-weathered estates with their ornately carved wooden doors, tree-lined grounds and arched doorways. Built in 1903 (or 2447 in the Buddhist calendar), Baan Chinpracha is the only Sino-Colonial mansion in Phuket open to the public.
If dusty memorabilia is your thing, visit the old Thavorn hotel on Rasada road. The owner suffered near bankruptcy when he built the hotel in the 1960’s, citing a huge tourism boom. But his prediction was premature and his peers criticised his lack of foresight (if only they knew what was to come!) Thirty baht (about $1 US dollar) will gain you access to the hotel’s museum and its main attraction, the ancient elevator. Once the talk of the town, the elevator attracted visitors for their first-ever ride (you still can, if you dare!) If that’s not enough for you, Thai Hua museum on Thalang road exhibits ‘Baba’ arts and culture – the term used to describe people of mixed Thai and Chinese descent (many of these ‘Babas’ are now in their seventies!).
However, you don’t need to visit a museum to discover the Old Quarter’s diverse cultural heritage. Just step into one of the many shop-houses and, between sips of cha (tea), chat to the owner to get a personal account. Mrs Tunsakun, a local resident, showed me the framed photos that covered a wall of her teahouse, depicting three generations of her family. Walking through the Old Quarter, you observe so much more than you’d ever see from inside a tour bus. Many families live above their shops, hence the term ‘shop-house’, so family and spiritual life take place in the public eye. Incense burns in a neon-lit Buddhist shrine in a noodle shop. I especially loved the spirit houses built for ancestors, some with their own mini furniture and mini BMWs!
The shop-houses of the old quarter
The Portuguese didn’t just introduce chili peppers to Thai culture when they landed here three hundred years ago, taking advantage of the island’s proximity to trade routes between China and India. They also brought a new architectural style. Its fusion with the Chinese aesthetic created the Sino-Portuguese buildings that mark this area as one of the most photogenic in Phuket.
Arched walkways are used to connect shop-houses and protect people from the harsh sun
With their shuttered windows and intricate Doric stucco, these rows of candy-coloured shop-houses make you feel like you’ve stepped into another time. Take a walk along Thalang or Dibuk roads to see the many shop-houses still used as art galleries, antique shops, boutiques, eateries, bakeries, haberdasheries stocked full of odds and ends, printing presses, guesthouses, batik silk shops, and shops selling amulets, (to ward off evil) to name a few. Many of these are family-run businesses that have been around for generations, like the aromatic Guan Choon Tong. ‘The oldest herb shop in Phuket’ a sign proclaims. Now 85, Mr. Bamrongwong dozes on a stool in the corner while his son assists customers, grinding and weighing medicinal herbs like chestnut, sweet fennel and cardamom – all hidden in a hundred little drawers with Chinese labels.
A diverse cultural heritage
The old quarter is full of hidden treasures, thanks to its rich cultural history. One of these is The Shrine of Serene Light. Blink and you might miss this special place on Phangna road, which lacks the commercialism of some of Thailand’s temples. Dedicated to Toong Soun Tai Sai, a Chinese God renowned for his strength and fighting skills, the shrine dates back about 110 years.
Do as the locals do and shake sticks to get your lucky number and read your fortune (you’ll need someone to translate for you.) Follow the passageway through the temple, which takes you to a popular Chinese eatery on Thalang road (I loved all the secret passageways!) This shrine is one of three temples in the area.
If you’re here in October, make your way to Jui Tui shrine, where you can watch ‘warriors’ in traditional costume walk on hot coals for the Vegetarian Festival. The nine days of the festival are intense, with roads blocked off for the event and hundreds of vegetarian food stalls, drumming and loud fireworks. Be sure to dodge the firecrackers people throw on the road! Watch the processions where warriors – apparently possessed by Chinese spirits – skewer their cheeks with knives, rifles, flags, needles, sun umbrellas and pretty much anything!
The festival calendar is always packed with events in the Old Quarter. Thai people love to party, celebrating New Year thrice annually, which would explain why you see Happy New Year signs everywhere all year round! Get ferried down the canal Venecian-style and enjoy the colourful street processions during Chinese New Year with its amazing street art, Busque performers and Miss Thailand beauty contests. Be prepared to get soaked during Songkran (Thai New Year) in April, when everyone arms themselves with buckets of water and water pistols to cool down during the hottest season of the year. There’s so much to do and see in Phuket’s old quarter – you may even forget about the beaches!
An entertainer at the Chinese New Year festival
1. Getting there and away
From the airport, catch a bus to Phuket Town for 100 baht. From Ranong road in town it’s easy to catch a songthaew (open-backed bus) or tuk-tuk to any of the beaches from around 7am. Just be sure not to miss the last songthaew back in the late afternoon. Or you can rent a motorbike… put a poodle in the basket and cram on as many people as possible, if you want to go Thai style!
Phuket’s legacy as a trading center, attracting Malays, Arabs, Europeans and Indians, gives it a distinct cosmopolitan feel and a diverse cuisine to suit any palate. Try delicious kanom jeen, a local Hokkien noodle dish, moo hong (pork stew), or one of the many spicy Malay dishes. Trendy Kopi de Phuket on Phuket road is a great option – try their mango fruit shakes! If you’re after Western food, La Romantica, run by a bona fide Italian family, serve “to-die-for” pizzas. Enjoy the aroma of coffee and freshly baked bread at Siam Bakery on Yaowarat road. With its gilded front door and abundant greenery, the exquisite China Inn Café on Thalang road is also well worth a visit. And if street food is your things, grab a fresh fruit or coconut-filled pancake from one of the many mobile food carts (restaurants on wheels) or visit the fresh market on Ranong road next to the bus stop, which sells everything from fried cockroaches to dried squid.
Food is delicious, affordable and widely available – from mobile food carts to fruit and veg markets and restaurants serving Thai, Chinese and Western fare. You definitely won’t go hungry!
On On Hotel on Phang Nga road, made famous by the film, The Beach, is popular with backpackers. Its dark, colonial interior and ancient staircase are reminiscent of another era. Thalang Guesthouse is another affordable option in the heart of the Old Quarter. On Rasada road, Phuket Center Apartments offers affordable rates for monthly rentals. Many guesthouses offer internet access and there are many internet and wifi cafes in town.
BE(WEAR)! Thais in town are more conservative, so save your leather thong for the beaches! Also be cautious of tuk tuks overcharging you to get back to the beaches (always bargain) and take note that prices go up for transport in the evenings.
This article was written by Travel writer, Leigh-Anne Hunter. Leigh-Anne and her husband, Wayne, took a gap year to live and work in Thailand. She is now a features writer for a national newspaper in South Africa.