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The Sino Portuguese Phuket Old Town is often neglected by tourists who flock to Thailand’s largest island of Phuket in search of the three “S”: sand, sun and sea. And that is a shame, for this heritage rich area is easily explored on foot and it is filled with enough cafes to save you from the heat.
So take a break from the many beaches in Thailand and make sure to go on a walking tour of the best things to see in Phuket Old Town, no matter if you’re coming for a chilled villa stay, a weekend road trip or a bachelor party. Phuket’s Old Town is by far one of the best things to see on a trip to Phuket.
Brief History of Phuket Old Town (with map)
Phuket was a famous tin-mining center before it became Thailand’s most popular island. Traders from Europe, China, Arabia and Asia all gathered to exchange spices and goods for tin and rubber which the island exported.
The Hokkien Chinese brought with them the shophouse architecture so famous of other Chinese-influence cities like Penang in Malaysia or Singapore, and that style blended with the European architecture of the time to produce colourful and beautiful buildings that today line the main streets of old Phuket Town and make it such a pretty town.
Map of the best things to see in Phuket Old Town
In order to make your visit to Phuket Old Town easier, I have marked all the best places to see on a map and organised them chronologically and logically in the next section, so you can follow my waking tour and see everything without the need for a guide.
However, if you prefer one so that you can learn more about the history and get pick up and drop off from your hotel, below are some great tour ideas.
Walking tour of Phuket Old Town – Best places to see
Below is a list of the places to visit in Phuket Old Town. They are organised as an itinerary and should take you no more than half a day. I suggest you start around 11am so you include lunch (because Blue Elephant serves unique Royal cuisine) but if it’s too hot and you do not want to walk around in the heat, you can also go in the evening. Phuket Old Town night market is a great place to stop at if you visit when it’s on.
Start off your walking tour of Phuket Old Town with a cool drink at White Chalk. This cute cafe filled with llama teddy bears serves all sorts of homemade drinks and it is a good place to start off with a fresh mind and a cold drink to take away.
Their take-away sodas, if slightly sweet, are great to help you fight Phuket’s heat. From there, wander down to Pud Jor Shrine. Phuket Old Town has a lot of Chinese shrines but this one is particularly important because it enshrines the statue of Guanyin Goddess (Pud Jor), an important deity in Mahayana Buddhism.
The Memory at On On Hotel
Slightly retrace your steps back to The Memory at On On Hotel, made famous by the opening scenes from the movie The Beach. Not one of the most luxurious hotels in Phuket, but it is a perfect visit to bring back the past. The historical hostel is filled with artefacts from the tin mining booming years. The moment you enter the lobby area you are transported to an era gone by.
Opened in 1929, this is Phuket’s oldest hotel and one of the most affordable. You can book a private room for USD35 or a bed in their dorms for much less. The ground floor has a silk and textile shop that would make for great souvenirs. On On Hotel was owned by a famous tin merchant and this was the hotel where Chinese traders used to stay so you can feel what it must have been like back then.
Continue towards China Inn. This vintage furniture store, the front cafe sitting area and the Feng-shui inspired backyard are beautifully maintained with Chinese lacquerwork, fabrics and old fans filling the air. The owners took three years to refurbish and restore this ancient shophouse to its former glory.
Stay for coffee to take it all and have another break if the heat of the day has got to you.
Thai Hua Museum
Down the street is Thai Hua Museum, a beautiful colonial building. Thai Hua opened in 1917 as the first Chinese language school in Phuket and today is a center of old Sino Portuguese culture.
You can find out more about the many mansions of Old Phuket, the people who built them and the time before tourism. It is a sort of history museum where one can better appreciate Phuket’s Sino past.
Phra Pitak Chinpracha and the Blue Elephant
End the morning with a serving of Royal Thai cuisine at the Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion. The Blue Elephant Governor’s Mansion and Cooking School is housed in this 105 year old mansion in the heart of Old Phuket.
Famous around the world for its gold and fine china Thai food, Blue Elephant has branches in London, Dubai and Brussels where it first started. In Old Phuket, we can find the most beautiful of them all. The restaurant follows the principles of Feng Shui and is located in green and lush grounds.
If you have time, stay for a cooking class too. Else, just come in for lunch, their daily set menus are beautifully presented, pompously served and enjoyed in the regal dark wood and blue colonial room with elegant silverware and elephant decorated tableware.
While we’re talking about food, did you know that Phuket was the first Asian city to given the title “City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO? So here is a list of other authentic restaurants and food stalls in Phuket Old Town that you should definitely try.
Best eateries in Phuket Old Town
• Tunk-Ka Cafe. For authentic Thai food complimented with a spectacular view atop Khao Rang, this is the place to go. Their specialities include the moo hong or southern Thai stewed pork belly and the steamed fish covered in lemon juice with chillies. The ambience and setting is also quite romantic and magical amid the greenery, particularly at night.
• Mee Ao Ke. Don’t expect fine dining at Mee Ao Ke, this is as local as it comes. But do expect a burst of flavor with their Hokkien noodles done simply and perfectly. The egg noodles, mixed with soy and sweet sauce and sugar is topped with veggies, fishballs, shredded pork, and a soft-boiled egg. Delicious every time and definitely one of the best eateries in Phuket Old Town.
• Boonrat Dim Sum. Why not opt for a traditional Thai breakfast when eating in Phuket Old Town? Grab a delectable basket of dim sum in a century’s old establishment and taste the original recipe of this establishment that was opened in 1917. You’ll taste the authentic flavors brought in from Guangzhou all those years ago. Be sure to try the pork, shrimp or deep-fried crap dumplings.
• Tu Kab Khao. Bringing his mother’s flavors to a new generation, Khun Kim adds a slight nostalgia to his yummy traditional southern Thai cuisine. The location, a 130 year-old Sino-Portuguese, and the old pictures of Phuket Old Town add to the sentimentality. The melt-in-your mouth moo hong is out of this world, and is only one of the fantastic menu items.
• Andaman Fishball Noodle. If you like fishballs and noodles, then Andaman Fishball Noodle is a no-brainer. Diners choose from either a clear or tom yum broth and then select their choice of noodles (rice, glass, seaweed and brown rice) and then add the local yellowtail-based fish balls. This is a local and foreign favorite and similar to Korea’s favourite street food odeng guk, but with noodles.
Best dessert in Phuket Old Town
• Coffs & Burgh. The prettiest cafe on the Thalang Road strip not only has some strong coffee and delicious sweets, but is perfect for a dose of nostalgia. Friendly service, adorable family heirlooms and centuries-old antiques all situated in a trendy restored shophouse.
• Torry’s Daily. More than just your standard ice-cream shop, brother and sister team Torry and Fern Wongwattanakit bring you reinventions of their childhood snacks. Expect natural ice-cream with no preservatives in flavours ranging from corn milk and avocado to pumpkin and coconut. Must-tries include o-aew made with red bean and jelly and apong, a local-style crepe with coconut milk, and then pan-fried on a wok over hot charcoal – served with a dash of ice-cream.
• Keng-Tin. This sweet shop in Phuket Old Town is not to be missed. It has been going since 1942, so you know they’re brilliant at what they do. If you try nothing else, dig into the tau sar piah, a famous pastry also found in Malaysia with a flaky exterior and either sweet or savoury paste inside. Other options include the Pung-Pia (White Flaky Puff), Phuket Taro Sesame Puff and Black Pepper Cookies.
Soi Romanee is a small street where time seems to have stood still. Minus the brothels, the opium dens and the gambling life that made it famous at the time. Most of the shophouses’ facades look like a dragon’s face. The two windows are their eyes and the door the mouth. This representation alludes to a time when the area was the center of night entertainment. Look up for the colourful shutters, the vintage motorbikes parked outside plant potted entrances and the sinuous facades.
Today, locals go about their life, the buildings and shophouses are pastel coloured and there is peace in the air. It is quaint, in the way old hutongs in Beijing or peaceful towns in the countryside can be. Observe the archways under the shophouses entrances connecting the continuous buildings. Traditionally, the lower floors housed the store whereas the family used to live above.
Not much is happening today but some of the buildings have been restored and, next to new hipster coffeeshops, you can also find the descendants of Chinese migrants watching the day go by from plastic stools. It is an Instagram-worthy street and also a peaceful reminder that places change, evolve and what was once grim and scandalous may one day be tame and prudish.
Thavorn Hotel Museum and the Drawing Room
Thavorn Hotel Museum is a must-stop for those who want to understand how Phuket looked like before. The hotel was built in the 60s so it is not as old at On On Hotel but it is a vintage example of the town’s tin mining past.
The Thavorn family can be credited with betting on the tourism boom that later benefited Phuket. They built a full-service hotel in Phuket before the area became the focus of thousands of tourists. The owner saw the potential for Thailand’s largest island and followed the popular “build it and they will come” motto. However, he was too early for his time and the hotel never took off as anticipated.
The infrastructure was not yet there and the airport was not built until a few years later, delaying the influx of tourists. The family is quick to admit that, despite its pioneering spirit, the hotel was never a success. Walking into the dark wooden lobby is like stepping into a museum.
Old pictures line the walls, vintage furniture fills the space and newspaper clips testify to the family’s success in the tin industry. It is worth a stop for a reminder that timing is everything.
Your last stop for the day should be the Drawing Room, a workshop cum art gallery where several local artists showcase their work and create their pieces. It is a mix of modern hip and pastel vintage. Vespas and collage paintings sit side by side with wall-long pieces of art. It is worth a stroll and a chat with the artists. Here is where art and inspiration just happen, in a messy, chaotic and artful display of creativity.
On your way to Phuket Old Town, why not head to Chalong Bay Rum Distillery for a relaxing signature cocktail or a tour?
For even more Phuket inspiration, check these posts out…
- The Boathouse Phuket: One of Phuket’s oldest hotels right on the beach
- 9 places to watch the sunset in Phuket from beaches to hotels
- 5 secret and hidden beaches in Phuket without the tourists
- 7 Heavenly moments at Paresa Resort Phuket
- A fabulously sophisticated and classy night at Ka Jok See Phuket
- Sri Panwa Review – Phuket’s luxury-cool, hip and stylish resort