Culture and cuisine comes alive during a stroll through historic Phuket Town
Although it can’t lure tourists with white sand beaches, loads of culturally curious travellers have been drawn to the well-preserved historic district of Phuket Town, making it a major tourism attraction in its own right. 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. 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.
Thalang Road is the highly colourful, main historical artery of the old town, with lots of colourful shophouses—designed in the typical Sino-Portuguese architectural style also seen in Penang, Melaka, and Singapore—many of which have been restored in recent years. A lot of them sell textiles, such as sarongs and traditional fabrics, as well as souvenirs and crafts. After shopping, take a well-deserved coffee break on Thalang Road at Coffs & Burgh, Kopitiam or Old Phuket Coffee, or rest and read at Bookhemian, a bookshop-gallery-café that attracts the city’s hip youth clientele. Finally, be sure to sample some unique Asian-Western fusion dishes and yummy desserts in the beautiful ambience of Eleven Two & Co, a hip café that doubles as a souvenir shop. This street also plays host to a lively night market on Sunday evenings.
Soi Romanee and Dibuk Road are also home to some of the city’s most significant Sino-Portuguese style edifices, including a grand building now occupied by the Chartered Bank. Meanwhile, the Thai Hua Museum, built in 1911, is a great place to learn about Phuket’s history and the Phuket-China connection (admission is B200). Visitors can also discover links to the past at historic sites such as Raya House, a colonial-era mansion that has been preserved as authentically as possible—it’s also home to the Raya Restaurant—and the Phra Phitak Chinpracha Mansion, built in 1903, which reopened a few years ago as the Blue Elephant cooking school and restaurant. Or, for more casual contemporary dining, try Dibuka (on Dibuk Road), which serves up a tasty Tom Yam pizza, or some hearty Western fare at The Gallery Café by Pinky on Yaowarat Road. And speaking of art, Phang Nga Road has several galleries and artists’ workshops, including The Wua Art Gallery, and the Mon Art Gallery.
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, book a room at the newly refurbished On On Hotel (19 Phang Nga Road). Open since 1927, this longtime bare-bones, dingy backpacker dive was prominently featured in the film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but a revamp in 2012 transformed it into a classy, contemporary midrange guesthouse, where stylish private rooms now offer rain showers, flat screen TVs, and Wi-Fi.