When you think of Phuket, what springs to mind? Is it sun and sea, bars and street food? It’s unlikely to be colonial architecture, vegetarian festivals, and Chinese shophouses, right? In Phuket’s Old Town, this is exactly what you’ll find so, on a day when the seaside cabana isn’t calling, wander the streets of Phuket Old Town.
In the southwestern corner of the island, inland from the coast, Phuket Old Town is easy to get to, but you may need to allow some time. Phuket’s traffic has become excessive, due to road and tunnel construction creating lane closures and inclement weather causing road damage. With a little planning, this won’t detract from your adventure.
A good time to arrive is mid to late afternoon. Most of the tour buses have departed, but Museums and Temples are still open. Shopping is an all day affair in most of the stores, although some don’t open until later to pick up the evening trade. The Old Town comes alive in the evening, with many bars opening around 6pm.
Thailand, meaning “land of the free”, is the only South East Asian country to have never been colonised. Portugal, France, and Britain, however, have certainly had their fingers in Phuket’s resources; pearls, ivory, gems and timber. When the tin mining boom commenced, Chinese immigrants followed. Phuket Town’s architecture has been stamped by all these nationalities.
Most of the streets are one-way and parking is at a premium, so walking Old Town is the easiest way to get around. In Thai, “dibuk” means tin and Dibuk Road begins this walking tour. Lined with Chinese shophouses, Dibuk Road is one of the only 2 way streets in the old town area. Coffee shops, bars, and restaurants intersperse textile and art shops. French/ Thai Restaurant Dibuk has been trading here for 15 years.
Kill 2 birds with one stone by strolling Thalang Road on a Sunday afternoon. The street becomes a walking street from about 4pm with the weekly Lard Yai or big market. Restoration of Thalang Road’s buildings and burying the infamous Thai power lines under the ground create an authentic feel from the past.
The market caters to travelers and locals alike and represents the broader ethnic groups of Chinese, Indian, and Thai Muslims. Suffice to say the range of eats is fabulous and the juxtaposition of a burger flipper tuk-tuk is kinda cute too. This is essentially a food and souvenir market, but you ‘ll also find young designers making their debut.
One of the oldest of the Old Town streets was once also the location of the oldest profession. A busy red light district catering to Chinese tin miners, Soi Romanee today is quite a contrast. After a facelift where the shop houses have been colourfully restored, couples flock here for their pre-wedding photos.
Romanee in Thai loosely means ‘beautiful, adorable or favourite’ but add Soi (alley) and it becomes closer to “naughty with the ladies”. Guest houses, ice cream shops, bars, and boutiques replace the brothels these days but it’s still a place to visit at night. Soi Romanee gets going around 6pm.
Blue Elephant Restaurant & Cooking School:
One of the most impressive of the Sino-Portuguese mansions is on Krabi Road and houses the Blue Elephant Thai Restaurant. The size of the building and the expansive grounds indicate the great wealth of the original tin baron owner. Blue Elephant can be found in 7 countries with 8 restaurants serving Royal Thai cuisine.
There are many opportunities in Thailand to learn to cook Thai cuisine, but not many where ancient recipes are shared. Blue Elephant Cooking School’s Ancient Thai Cuisine cooking course begins at the wet market to collect local ingredients. 10 recipes, some long forgotten, are then prepared and shared. Catering to professional and amateur chefs alike, this course comes highly recommended.
9 Gods Festival:
The Chinese Vegetarian Festival or 9 Gods Festival is held in the 9th month of the lunar calendar. This is specifically a Phuket event not shared in the rest of Thailand. The festival is celebrated across the island, but with 8 impressive temples in Phuket Old Town, it is the best place to observe this somewhat unusual festival.
The story goes that a touring Chinese Opera troupe came down with malaria so they prayed to the 9 Emporer Gods to purify their bodies and stuck to a purely vegetarian diet. They recovered and so the festival to celebrate the Gods began. The temples are filled with personal items, fruit, flowers and other offerings to the shrines.
Participants in a trance, acting as mediums for the Gods, fire walk, climb ladders of blades and pierce their bodies as sacrifices. There are some rules too. Pregnant or menstruating women should not attend. Meat, alcohol, and sex should be avoided, oh and wear white. If you’ve planned Phuket, and this all sounds a bit macabre, then perhaps avoid September/ October.
There are eats aplenty in Old Town and a couple come highly recommended by hospitality guru Khun Yai. These are simple local eateries, clean, but without frills and very little English is spoken. From the pic below your tuk-tuk driver can find them for you and perhaps if you sponsor him for a meal, he can order for you too.
Somewhere a little easier to navigate is Natural Restaurant (Thamachat) on Soi Phuthorn. A multi-level establishment with an impressive rooftop orchid display, Natural has the feel of a tree house with collections of bizarre “stuff”. Irons line a balustrade, cherubs bathe in a fountain and sculptures “wai” at every turn.