Discover the hidden treasures of Phuket Old Town in Thailand
A trip to Phuket in southern Thailand – and its popular tourist mecca Patong – can be a wonderful holiday of sandy beaches, island hopping and delicious food. But it’s good to know about a few hidden inner-city treasures that are just a short bus trip away. Welcome to Phuket Old Town.
Within this small haven, which extends over about 20 city blocks, you can experience graceful architecture, a market selling exotic fresh fruit and vegetables and mysterious shrines at the end of little lanes.
A small Phuket Treasure Map is freely available, and using this as a guide, it’s easy to set off from the old clock tower building to discover the mansions and other hidden places in various stages of decrepitude or renovated glory.
Many of the buildings now house small, owner-run cafés where you can enjoy freshly brewed tea or coffee and make use of the free Wi-Fi. Others have been transformed into shops, offering handmade products ranging from ceramics and printed textiles to intricate basket ware and jewellery.
If some buildings seem vaguely familiar, then you’re probably a mature movie buff. An early 20th-century mansion was Phnom Penh’s American embassy in the movie The Killing Fields, while the Phuket Provincial Offices, the distinctive architecture of which includes 99 doors, was the French Embassy of Cambodia. And the chic black and white interior of the On On hotel is where the opening scenes of The Beach were filmed.
On the old town’s small streets, discover richly decorated Sino-Colonial buildings and mansions built by Phuket tin-mining moguls. While Phuket is generally associated with tourism, a visit to the Thai Hua Museum on Krabi Road, reveals that historically, its wealth comes from tin mining.
The Thai Hua Museum was once a Chinese language school and is one of the best-looking and well-maintained Sino-Colonial buildings in Phuket. The museum offers more than a dozen interesting exhibition rooms and short films in Thai and Chinese with English subtitles.
The Sam San shrine, also worth a visit, is dedicated to the goddess of the sea.
Ceremonies are held here to bless newly launched boats and you may be beckoned by locals and presented with a little paper boat to ceremoniously burn in a fire. Another spectacular site is the Shrine of Serene Light. Recently renovated, it’s pristine white walls are adorned with illustrations of tigers, dragons, plants and birds perched on gilded tree branches. Matching them in visual splendour, but combining Chinese with European Neo-Classical and Renaissance styles, are the buildings constructed between the 1890s and the 1930s throughout the Old Town.
The upper floors sport glorious tripartite French windows with pastel-coloured louvered shutters, arches, keystones and pilasters set against white or brilliantly coloured backgrounds.
On a visit to Phuket’s Old Town in June, you may well see striking pink fabric roses and tulle garlands pinned onto the walls of the old houses and shopfronts This is in preparation of the annual wedding festival and the grand parade down the main street showcasing traditional dress and customs.
With a clash of cymbals and a few loud sirens, the parade begins and beautiful women with elaborate headdresses and baskets of flowers sashay down the street to the music of ancient instruments.
A few dragon-costumed figures prance around, while men walk carefully to the beat of drums in their upturned shoes, holding elaborate triple-tiered parasols.
But before you leave this enchanting part of Phuket, take a walk down Soi Romanee, one of the Old Town’s prettiest streets where flower-adorned shrines are fixed to the walls and shrubs cascade from the balconies. It’s even more romantic at night with Chinese lanterns throwing shadows against the lush scene.
Planning your trip
GETTING THERE: Cathay Pacific flies daily from Johannesburg to Phuket via Hong Kong, but there are various options are available on several airlines.
WHEN TO GO: The best time to visit Phuket is from December to March during the cool monsoon season when it isn’t so humid. The average temperature is between 24°C–32°C.
VISAS: South Africans don’t need a visa for a stay of one month or less.
MORE INFORMATION: Visit tourismthailand.org, phuket.net, phuket.com for essential tips such as only paying for local tours once you’re in Thailand.