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Phuket is often called Thailand’s melting pot. But perhaps the island is better described as a Thai soup; each ingredient is distinct in itself, yet contributes to a rich cultural blend. People that settle on this Andaman island retain their traditional flavours – Indian merchants visited to trade, yet left hints of Hinduism. The Chinese and Europeans came here for tin, then tourism, and they too have become part of the mix. Meanwhile, the Thais welcomed everyone. The result is a rich global heritage, which is encapsulated in the eclectic architecture of old Phuket Town.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Phuket’s rich tin deposits acted like a magnet to the world’s trading nations. First came the Hokkien Chinese bringing their tools and traditions, and they were followed by European mining companies from Portugal, Holland and France who King Rama V the Great invited to help develop the industry. These visitors made money and turned Phuket into a little home away from home. Because Portugal and China were the most influential of the immigrants, Phuket’s old town blends the architectural styles of the two cultures.
Old Phuket Town can be easily explored in a morning. Many of the old shop-houses have been converted into galleries and cafes, so there’s always somewhere to stop for a snack and drink. But start your tour by visiting the Thai Hua Museum on Krabi Road. The Museum, a handsome building with a façade in the Sino-Portuguese style, used to be a Chinese language school, but now houses exhibitions about Phuket’s history and the lives of the Chinese immigrant community. Chinese workers came to the island from the southern Chinese provinces of Fujian, Fuzhou, or Malaysia’s Penang and intermarried with the locals starting dynasties that have lasted until the present day.
The exhibitions are thoughtfully arranged with excellent information in English. You can read about the tin and opium trade and discover what foods people ate and costumes they wore. The Museum is also a mine of information about the buildings of old Phuket, so you can learn about the streets and buildings waiting to be explored.
There are three main types of buildings in old Phuket: the vast and ornate Sino-colonial mansions, owned by tin oligarchs who made it big; the Sino-Portuguese shop-houses that line the streets of the old city centre and the handsome public buildings; such as, the government offices and schools.
The old shop-houses are the most fascinating, and because so many of them are still family homes, or businesses; such as, print works and hardware shops, they are a living link with the past.
These shop-houses are all connected by a front veranda which gives pedestrians shelter from the elements. But if it’s not raining, do step out and look up. The upper facades of the buildings are home to all manner of creatures moulded in the stucco. You can see everything from local turtles to fantastical phoenixes.
Step through the impressive Chinese doors of these shop-houses and you find that while the buildings are narrow, they can stretch back over 50 metres or more. Business was done in the front rooms and family life took place in the back where you find the living rooms, kitchens and even wells for water. To take a peek inside, go to the visitor information centre on Thalang Road, where you can explore the shop-house layout upstairs and down.
The amazing Sino-colonial mansions are not so easily entered and many have to be admired from the outside. But the beautiful and airy Ban Chinpracha, on Krabi Road, which dates from 1903, is one that’s open to the public. If it looks familiar, it’s because the interior is often used for films and television shows. There are some lovely Italian floor tiles that show how Phuket’s wealthy took advantage of the island’s position as a trading centre to bring in luxury goods from around the world.
If you want a taste of luxury yourself, book a table at the nearby Blue Elephant Restaurant, housed in the Old Governor’s mansion. It was once the most sumptuous residence on the island and has now been lovingly restored with teak fittings and colourful tiles.
Not everyone’s wallet will stretch to the Blue Elephant but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the cultural casserole of old Phuket. In the evening, the town comes alive with food stalls and bars selling dishes and drinks to suit all tastes. So dig in and enjoy this uniquely Thai blend.
International Public Relations Division
Tourism Authority of Thailand
Tel: +66 (0) 2250 5500 ext. 4545-48