Slowing Down in Old Phuket Town
Slowing Down in Old Phuket Town
WRITER: Elwin Chan PHOTOS BY: Alvin Toh
Slowing Down in Old Phuket Town 11. February 2020, by Elwin Chan, Photos by Alvin Toh
In Phuket’s historic Old Town, a di­fferent world presents itself. A surprising counterpoint to the city’s internationally renowned beach scene, Phuket Town is a world unto its own, filled with history, culture, and rich culinary heritage.

Located in southern Thailand, about 860 kilometres from Bangkok, Phuket measures 48 kilometres long and 21 kilometres wide, making it Thailand’s largest island. The land is mostly forested and mountainous, surrounded by the warm waters of the Andaman Sea. With sunny white beaches and abundant sea life, the tropical paradise attracts pleasure seekers from all over the world. Yet, it was a very different reason that drew early migrants to Phuket—they had come looking for tin.

As far back as the early 1800s, Phuket’s lucrative tin mines attracted immigrants from China, Penang, Malacca, and other parts of Southeast Asia. As with the European and Arab traders, the Chinese pioneers brought with them their customs, food, art, and religion, adding to the mishmash of culture that has made Phuket so wonderfully rich.

Most of this unique culture can be observed and experienced in Phuket Town, where the early migrants settled. These voyagers had built grand mansions, lively markets, and intricate temples that reminded them of their homelands. Take a walk around Phuket Town today, and you can still see reminders of this glorious past—century-old temples take their place alongside beautifully constructed Sino-Portuguese shophouses, many of which have been converted to hostels, cafes, family-style restaurants, and even ice-cream parlours. It is worthwhile wandering into some of these narrow and long shophouses. In times gone by, traders used the front of these ornate shophouses to go about their businesses, and the back of the building to house their families. There is usually an open-air courtyard inside too, to allow for ventilation in the humid tropical heat.

Historic Phuket Town is filled with culture and colonial architecture.
Roads are closed to traffic to let visitors wander around freely.
Thalong Road in Phuket Town becomes an outdoor market every Sunday.
Intricately handcrafted souvenirs at the Sunday Walking Street.
Intricately handcrafted souvenirs at the Sunday Walking Street.

The main drag of Phuket Town is Thalong Road, which cuts the town centre from east to west. Today, it remains the historical heart of old Phuket, with rows of beautifully restored shophouses on both sides of the road. Walking along Thalong Road is just like stepping back in time. The old world charm is palpable.

On Sundays, Thalong Road takes on a di­fferent air. The road is closed o­ff to traffic from 4pm to 10pm, giving space to over 150 stalls to set up their business right on the road. These stalls sell everything from handmade souvenirs to local street snacks and desserts like coconut ice-cream, fried chicken, fishball, fried quail egg, and even horseshoe crab salad. But perhaps what makes this Sunday Walking Street most special is its creative energy. Here, you will see young Thai artists putting up street performances, and creative types showcasing their novel designs and ideas. (Even though it poured when we were there, the industrious stall owners were still peddling their wares!)

Besides Thalong Road, there are also little lanes called sois that lead to even more curious and interesting finds. The best way to explore these sois is to wander around. But don’t miss Soi Romanee. This narrow street is laden with a colourful history. If the walls of the shophouses lining Soi Romanee could talk, they would tell you stories of a time when the area was a well-known red light district. This was where tin miners came looking for other pleasures. Today, atmospheric Soi Romanee is one of Phuket Town’s most photographed streets.

To enjoy a panoramic view of Phuket Town, head to Khao Rang (see our review of Tunk-Ka Cafe, a picturesque spot among the canopy where you can relax and have a sumptuous meal). Rising just 140 metres above sea level, Khao Rang is short ride away by car, and provides a wonderful view of Phuket Town, the tranquil o­shore islands, Chalong Bay, and even the Big Buddha, one of Phuket’s most iconic landmarks covered in glorious white Burmese marble and measuring 45 metres tall. There is also a statue of Ratsada Korsimbi Na Ranong on Khao Rang itself. Ratsada was a governor of Phuket who modernised the tin mining industry, helping to shape Phuket Town and the rest of the island.

On the culinary front, Phuket has come a long way too. It was the first Asian city to be named by UNESCO as a City of Gastronomy. To give you a flavour of what this world kitchen has to offer, we take you to some of the most well-loved food places. It’s an insider’s guide to the timeless tastes of old Phuket.

Local snacks like fried quail egg, fishball, and coconut ice-cream are available too.
There’s nothing like ice-cream to cool you down on a hot day in the tropics.