Visiting Phuket Town for a true “taste” of history
Although it can’t lure tourists with white sand beaches, loads of culturally curious travellers have been drawn to Phuket Town’s well-preserved historic district, making it a major tourism attraction. Thankfully, the preservation and restoration projects launched in the mid-2000s have kept many of the century-old tiam choo (Hokkien for “shop house”) intact. Designed in the typical Sino-Portuguese architectural style also seen in Penang, Melaka and Singapore, these colorful shophouses line several downtown roads (Thalang Road is home to many of them, as is Soi Romanee). And as this historic neighbourhood continues to grow in popularity, an array of art galleries, cafes, guesthouses and restaurants are flourishing in the wake of the town’s unavoidable, but not entirely unwelcome gentrification.
However, despite the influx of trendy cafés, Old Phuket Town is still a great place to go to find authentic local cuisine, including delicacies such as ba-mee moo (chewy egg noodles served with fragrant smoked pork), khanom jeen topped with a choice of naam yaa (spicy fish curry) or kaeng khiaw-waan (sweet green curry), moo hong (braised pork, served with rice) and mee hokkien (a seafood and noodle dish). For something a bit more contemporary, like some hearty Western fare, try The Gallery Café by Pinky (19 Yaowarat Rd), or sample some unique Asian-Western fusion dishes in the beautiful ambience of Eleven Two & Co. (112 Thalang Rd), a hip café that doubles as a souvenir shop.
Visitors can discover links to the past at historic sites such as Raya House, a Colonial-era mansion that has been preserved as authentically as possible—and is also home to a fabulous restaurant—and the Phra Phitak Chinpracha Mansion, built in 1903, which reopened a few years ago as the Blue Elephant cooking school and restaurant. Meanwhile the Thai Hua Museum—a recently renovated Sino-Portuguese building, dating back to 1911—is a great place to learn about Phuket’s history and the Phuket-China connection. Admission is B200.
Also of note are the many intriguing temples in town, including the Shrine of the Serene Light, a beautiful old Chinese Taoist shrine, founded in 1891 by Hokkien Chinese. Or, for a touch of modern history, check in to the newly refurbished On On Hotel (19 Phang-Nga Rd). This longtime bare-bones, dingy backpacker dive was prominently featured in the film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but a recent revamp has transformed it into a classy, contemporary midrange guesthouse, where stylish private rooms now offer rain showers, flat screen TVs, and Wi-Fi.
But to really get an “overview” of Phuket Town, make the trek up Khao Rang Hill, located 3km northwest of the town center. Its summit offers views out over the town, while the adjacent landscaped park offers a children’s playground, three restaurants and bars, a fitness park, and a panoramic terrace (built in 2014).