Jun 28, 2012|
The nearly completed work of burying all the electric and phone cables in Phuket Town’s old quarter is just one sign that much has changed there in recent years. The old communities of Chinese descent—mostly Hokkien—are not just beautifying their distinctive Sino-Portuguese shop houses, or organizing the occasional walking street fair. They’re are also rediscovering their Baba Nonya roots, a rich culture in Phuket and Penang where Chinese heritage, colonial influence and indigenous traditions combine. This heady mix is attracting an ever-growing number of galleries and cafes to the picturesque town center. So put on your walking shoes and get ready for fiery Southern Thai cuisine, Hokkien delicacies, Sino-Portuguese architecture, stimulating galleries and a solid dose of Baba Nonya nostalgia.
The historic town center’s most beautiful streets are all within walking distance of each other: Dibuk, Thalang, Phang Nga, Yaowarat. To make sure you hit all the highlights, get a hold of the excellent Phuket Town Treasure Map, either at the (1)Tourist Information Center on Thalang Rd. or at the Tai Hua Museum (see below).
Nearly every shophouse in the area is worth its salt but the (2)On On Hotel and (3)Promthep Clock Tower are the two main sites you’ve seen in countless TV ads. Another star is (4)Soi Rommanee connecting Thalang Rd. and Dibuk Rd., a former red light district, which is now the most popular street for snap-happy tourists drawn to the colorful and tightly packed shophouses. There’s a little flea market there every Saturday night. Just make sure you get there before 10pm.
Phuket Island (formerly known as Jungceylon) has long been a port of call for foreign trading vessels. From the 16th century on, the island was mined for its tin, and there remain plenty of reminders of the presence of the French, Portuguese and British, as well as Chinese, Malaysian and Indian influences. Phuket’s shophouses and villas, dating from the 1860s, bear close resemblance to those of British colonial Penang, and there’s a definite convergence of Eastern and Western styles.
The best way to start your journey through time is at (5)Phuket Thai Hua Museum (Krabi Rd., open Tue–Sun 11am-7pm. 076-211-224, www.thaihuamuseum.com) which transforms the oldest school building in Phuket (dating back to the 1930s) into a two-story exhibition detailing the island’s Chinese ancestry, Phuket Town’s growth to prosperity and the school itself.
If you need a caffeine boost after walking around then sip traditional coffee among the locals at (6)Kopi de Phuket (61 Phuket Rd., 076-212-225, open daily 10am-9pm www.kopidephuket.com). The place has a Chinese tavern-feel on the ground floor and resembles a Chinese tea house on the second. They also have a smaller café at the On On Hotel, the oldest hotel in town.
For something more Western, join the queue of expats at (7)Gallery Cafe (106 Rasada Rd., 076-211-775, open daily 8am-6pm) www.gallerycafe-phuket.com) where they serve everything from full English breakfa sts to fast dinner options like pasta. Other charming coffee shops vibe can be found at (8)Mac-chiato House (48 Thalang Rd., 076-215-701, open daily 9am-9pm) which serves homemade coffee and cakes. It’s set in the type of long and narrow old shophouse (some 20-30 meters deep), with a garden out the back, that’s particularly typical of Phuket Town. Another cute choice is (24)Pirrera Cafe Bar (39,1 Dibuk Rd. 085-782-4406), an old building on the corner of Dibuk, which retains all of its original charm. And if this is your first visit, look up the longstanding (9)China Inn (20 Thaland Rd.) and (10)Dibuk Restaurant (69 Dibuk Rd.), too; both are lovely architectural specimens.
After enjoying all this old stone, take your art appreciation to another level at Phuket Town’s countless galleries, many of which are tucked away in century-old buildings. First stop at (11)Art Room (29 Yaowarat Rd. 087-273-2413), a gallery-plus-school which sells contemporary and traditional art by students at affordable prices. For a little more ambiance, head to (12)Phuket 346 (15 Soi Romanee, Taland Rd., 076-258-108). This 100-year-old two-story building is not only a gallery, but a funky guesthouse with cafe and bar, where you can relax among the playful contemporary works. Things are also pretty fun over at (13)Wua Studio (95 Phang Nga Rd., 076-258-208), which was founded by Mr. Zen, an advertising executive who quit his job to pursue his passion for minimalist art pieces. For something more traditional, try(14)Sirasil (121 Phang Nha Rd., 076-224-532), (15)iMon Art Gallery (29/2 Phang Nga Rd., 086-961-8968) or (16)Pab Khien Thai Art Gallery (3 Tabkrasattree Rd., 089-908-6769).
(17)Suay Restaurant (50/2 Takuapa Rd., 087-888-6990 open Tue-Sun 5pm-10pm www.suayrestaurant.com) serves up creative Thai fare at low prices courtesy of Chef Tammasak Chootong, formerly a chef at Banyan Tree Hotels. Try the guay tiew lod salmon khao soy (steamed salmon in rice noodles served with yellow curry, B159) and tum BBQ ma kue yao (grilled long eggplant salad with crab meat, B89). Dessert is a must, too, namely the mango sticky rice spring roll and black sesame ice-cream for just B99. Southern cuisine meets Sino-Portuguese décor at (18)Raya Restaurant (48 Dibuk Rd., 076-218-155, open daily 10am-11pm). The century-old building’s original mosaic tiled floor and walls adorned with 50s tea and coffee postergirls and pictures of Thai monarchs will take your mind off the somewhat hefty prices. The line-up of traditional Phuket dishes include moo hong (steamed pork with pepper and garlic, B250), gaeng nue poo bai cha ploo (crab meat with curry and coconut milk, B400-600), pad pak mieng goong sieb (stir fried mieng leaves with dried prawns, B200-300) and pad sataw kapi goong (stir fried sataw with shrimps, B250-350). For a lighter meal, consider (19)Kopitiam (18 Thalang Rd., 083-606-776, open Mon-Sat 11am-10pm) where they serve pocket-friendly traditional dishes like mee Hokkien (Phuket-style noodles) and bak kut teh (pork bone herbal soup).
If street food is more your thing, you’ve come to the right place. Start with the famous (20)Mee Ton Poh (214/7 Phuket Rd., 076-216-293, open daily 10am-6pm), a popular haunt for those who can’t get enough of signature dishes like pad mee Hokkien (B35-40). Next head to Yaowarat Rd. and search Soi Sun Uthit for the hard-to-spot Ji Peng stall where you can get delicious mee hun (fried noodle served with pork bone soup) for B30. Right next to it is a stall that serves Phuket’s famous dessert, o-aew (herbal jelly in red syrup), which is a recommended follow-up to your meal. If you’re still not quite full, then o-tao (stir fried oysters with eggs and crispy pork skin) is another traditional Phuket dish, and makes for a great snack. Head to Takuapa Rd., where (21)Ji Pien (Soi Phoophol 7, Takuapa Rd., 084-062-1232, open daily 5pm-11pm) have been selling this famous dish for nearly 40 years. Don’t forget to try their yummy kanom jeen, too.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the rich heritage of the area, parts of old Yaowarat and Dibuk Roads are real hotspots come nightfall. Savvy young entrepreneurs have revamped the old shophouses and turned them into chill bars where you can enjoy live music among the local cool set. (22)Sanaeha (83-85 Yaowarat Rd., 076-218-515) looks romantic in the early evening with its big chandelier, but late on it gets packed with young partygoers. It’s a similar case at (23) Ploenchit (22-24 Dibuk Rd., 081-536-1377), where you definitely need to make a reservation on Fri and Sat nights. If you’re hungry after dancing well into the night, head to Ko Benz (163 Krabi Rd., 084-060-7799) for the most renowned tom luerd moo (pig’s blood in clear soup) in town. They’re open from 7pm-3pm, so there’s no need to go to bed hungry.