Phuket plays host to a wonderful mix of nationalities who have chosen to live here: 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 ‘soi’ (small streets), these are Rasada Rd, Phang Nga Rd, Thalang Rd, Dibuk Rd, and Krabi Rd.
Phang Nga Road
Turn right 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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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’.
Take a right turn at the end of this soi at Ranong Rd and walk up to a 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’.
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.