The Sino Portuguese Phuket Old Town is often neglected by visiting tourists who flock to Thailand’s largest island 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. Don’t miss it next time you visit and make sure to make time for a walking tour of Phuket Old Town.
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.
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. 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.
Slightly retrace your steps back to The Memory at On On Hotel, made famous by the opening scenes from the movie The Beach. This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Two more stops warrant a visit. One is the Thavorn Hotel Museum and the other one the Drawing Room at the opposite end.
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.