As most know, the island of Phuket is famous worldwide for its beaches, its worldliness, and its daytime and nighttime hangouts. However, not everyone knows that in the center of Phuket Town, the provincial capital, there is a small treasure chest which, though it doesn’t contain any treasures, certainly holds gems of a fair value. We are talking about the historic part of Phuket Town, known as Old Phuket. The area is not huge, in fact it is small enough to be explored in half a day, but it’s exciting enough and equally full of hints that will surprise the curious visitor.
Walking around the city is a nice chance to visit lesser-known Thai temples, Chinese shrines, some beautiful old buildings, small and colourful shops mostly in Sino-Portuguese style, some very good local cuisine restaurants and many cafes with a fresh and, to use a term that has recently been used, ‘instagrammable’ style. Not to mention a flourishing here and there of wall paintings, examples of a ‘street art’ that is increasingly gaining ground also in Phuket Town, and which decorates and beautifies its streets.
It is a walk in an ambiance that is both modern and youthful, but also a little vintage; where it is nice to get lost even just by sitting down for a coffee and wandering with your gaze, or browsing the stalls on market days. Here, photography and videos enthusiasts can find infinite subjects and infinite angles for their shooting by just lingering among the colours of the products and the expressions of people’s faces which remain, always and everywhere, the most characteristic element.
So let’s take our time in the visit of these streets that have made the history of Phuket Town, streets that have been lived in for years and that carry a sense of abandonment due to the wear and tear of time, and often to the impossibility of its inhabitants to give them a freshen up. In recent times, it has been the will of the local government, perhaps with the help of some sponsors, to bring back to the historical sights of the people with restoration strokes. Nowadays, residents or visitors pass through, a ‘new’ Old Phuket that can show itself to the world proud of its beauty.
We wander here and there and get lost in the dream of a past time in which every door, every tile and every gate had its own story to tell. Stories of people, of its inhabitants, stories that today we can only imagine: Chinese traders and Portuguese buyers who certainly also carried out their exchanges in these streets, once alleys, once perhaps dusty or, in the rainy season, muddy.
We will start from Phang Nga Road, where we will visit the most picturesque corners of Old Phuket together. However, since we reached our starting point at lunchtime, let’s also say a few words about the restaurant where we ate ex
cellent Chinese cuisine. The Lhong Khao is a restaurant run by young people, simply but tastefully furnished and located on Phuket Road, a few meters from the intersection with Phang Nga Road. It was definitely worth it.
And here we are, starting our tour from the corner of Phang Nga Road at the junction with Phuket Road, where on one corner we find the iconic Clock Tower. This tower apparently once housed a police office, and currently houses the Peranakanittat Museum; in the opposite corner is the building of the old Standard Chartered Bank, which has also been converted into a museum.
Apart from these two buildings, which are the favorite background for the self-portraits of dozens and dozens of social network users, Phang Nga Road has three main points of attraction: the On On Hotel, the Amulet Market and the Serene Light Shrine. The On On Hotel, whose current full name would be ‘The memory at On On Hotel’, has its own history and its past as a movie star. In the famous movie ‘The Beach’, in fact, it becomes the film-set of the Bangkok hotel where the protagonist hears about the beach for the first time.
Before the movie, the On On Hotel was in pretty bad shape, perfectly representing the seedy, cheap place it ‘played’ and, in reality, costing just 200 THB a night. With the popularity also came the time for the restoration which was carried out in 2013, and which gave the hotel a necessary cleaning while trying to keep its original characteristics unchanged. A glance thrown into the entrance effectively shows a corner that seems to have kept the old characters, giving it, in my opinion, almost an aura of romanticism.
In front of the On On Hotel is the surprise stop you don’t expect, the one where you cast your gaze inside and immediately catch something that attracts you: it is the Drawing Room Coffee and Gallery that stole my eye for that fake messy style in which it is furnished. It looks like one of the many Chinese shops where if you are looking for something you will find it. In fact, inside you will find coffee and a few other drinks, but you also wander among cactuses, photos, drawings, various trinkets, a white Lambretta and a yellowish automatic vespa that actually is not old at all. The coffee is made with a particularly elaborate machine much older than an old moka, so if it is true that coffee is a pleasure for the palate, seeing it being prepared with that sort of alembic becomes a pleasure for the eye.
After the coffee break we return to the itinerary that I had set at the beginning. Adjacent to the On On Hotel we find the Sangtham Shrine, the Sanctuary of the Serene Light. The sanctuary is hidden at the back of a building, and the locals, the only ones who know of its existence, have tried to keep it secret so as not to create too much traffic around it. Over time, a great deal of renovation work has also been done here while trying to leave the sanctuary itself as intact as possible, and it is now considered a point of considerable interest.
On the other side of the same street is the Amulets Market, a covered alley where some sellers of amulets are stationed, and where enthusiasts come mostly on weekends to exchange or buy them. It’s clear it would take an expert to understand their local significance. Some pieces considered rare have a very high value which can be determined by their age, origins and the monk who offered them or to whom they are dedicated. The whole place reminds me a bit, allowing the obvious differences, of some streets in the center of Milan years back, where on some Sundays a stamp market was set up. I was just a boy, and my uncle Gianni, a passionate stamp collector, took me there sometimes, and managed to pass on his passion to me.
Before turning left onto Yaowarat Road, I decide it’s time to go and face one of the old memories of the Phuket where I lived last century (last century sounds strange, doesn’t it? Actually we are talking about only twenty-five years ago ). I look for Ka Jok See, a restaurant where I used to eat my two favorite Thai dishes – prawns coated in a nest of fried spaghettini and chicken cooked in pandanus leaves, dishes that I adore but that are not easily found in Krabi. I cannot find Ka Jook See, so the chance of immersing myself in a moment of nostalgia for a disappeared Phuket vanishes. I will later discover that the restaurant still exists and that my search was too casual. Disappointed, more by myself than by the circumstance, I continue my walk knowing that another nostalgic moment is waiting for me a little further on.
Yaowarat Road flows between its colourful houses and its shops, and among the many curious tourists from every country who crowd it. It flows past the Hog’s Head Pub and its front door, positioned diagonally rather than perpendicular to the floor. It flows past shops, restaurants and cafes that seem to chase each other along the street, until it reaches the intersection with Thalang Road, which is particularly fascinating on Sundays during the Walking Street Market.
Everyday life, apart from the traffic, leads me to a small café at the intersection, the Chino Cafe Gallery, where, if not for the coffee, one can stop and admire some excellent photographs taken by Phuket photographers and arranged in a sort of gallery on the first floor of the building. We stopped for a visit and we were particularly impressed by a child of Chinese origin who rearranged a Rubik’s cube simply by disassembling it and then reassembling it, piece by piece, with the colours in the exact position. Brilliant little Chinese boy who has already figured out how to solve life’s problems without straining and without going mad. I cross the street when a sign catches my eye: it is the Sin & Lee sign, the other trip to the memory lane of my personal Old Phuket.
Sin & Lee was a small Chinese grocery store that represented the hope of eating a plate of pasta in my early years in Phuket. In fact, it was there that I found spaghetti, canned tomatoes and a few other ingredients (very few) for Italian cuisine. Today Sin & Lee has passed on to the new generation of owners who, a neighbour told me, currently deal with something else: in fact, the sign speaks of prints. This is indeed understandable, as next to our Old Phuket, a Phuket 2.0 has developed where you can find a bit of everything. Perhaps that small Chinese shop no longer had a reason to exist and ended up adapting to the change too.
We continue among Muslim textile shops and tool shops whose owners continue their trade and their work as if nothing had ever happened and as if there had never been a ‘yesterday’ in Phuket, nor will there be a ‘tomorrow’, but only a today imbued with the same everyday-life as always. Two local restaurants stand out: the Kopitiam by Wilai and, a little further on, the much more famous China Inn Cafe, superbly furnished in Chinese style.
Soi Romanee is a left-hand side street considered by many to be Old Phuket‘s most glamorous street, perhaps due to its dark and somewhat infamous past. Soi Romanee was in fact the red light street of Phuket town where brothels, opium dens, gambling houses and other similar entertainments were located. For a long time the road was then left in a state of neglect, becoming a kind of ghost of the past, with houses and shops increasingly turning into ruins, giving the road a further gloomy tone that was well-suited to times gone by. Then over time, a certain interest in the whole area has awakened. Someone started to understand the potential that Soi Romanee could have and, little by little, house by house, Soi Romanee came back to life and colour. First with a few small cafés and some offices, then a couple of elegant guesthouses.
The beginning of Soi Romanee near Thalang Road has been fully restored; however, towards the end, almost at the intersection with Dibuk Road, looking up you will still find some frontispieces that bear the signs of the past. At the end of the road, and entering Dibuk Road, you find yourself in front of a local temple: Wat Mongkol Nimit. It has little tourist value but it’s particularly revered by the locals.
My tour ends here. A journey, as always, between the passing times and my memories, between a black and white Phuket, with the chiaroscuro of the stains on the walls caused by age and, recently, by exhaust fumes of cars, and a colourful Phuket, with the fresh and sharp colours of the facades here yellow, here pink, here blue. A city that, adapting to the times, has replaced the old craftsmen who find less and less space here in the centre with more attractive activities. A clickable social city that, although it offers a much cleaner image of itself, has lost a piece of its poetry, traceable only in those very few corners that leave us a slight testimony of a past that will not return.
Images by Guglielmo Zanchi