Digging Deep into the Roots of Phuket
Behind the Tourist Scenes Lies a Town Still Clanking with the Sounds of Centuries-old Traditions
Words: Sirin Wongpanit
Photos: Permboon Wongpanit
No matter the time, the occasion or the historical chapter, Phuket has always been famous for its clear waters. Thailand’s largest island was once so remote from the capital that it was considered an autonomous territory, and before becoming a top tourist destination, it was a buzzing hub for trade along the Malay Peninsula.
Back in the day, ocean trade routes linked Phuket with Penang and Singapore – active ports that opened into international waters. Phuket was the first city where international phone calls could be made to Penang, at a time when even the capital, Bangkok, did not have proper telephone services.
Phuket also kept up with international trends, like branded goods, the latest in fashion accessories, household goods, technology, education and so on, through its close relationships with developed neighbours. And you catch glimpses everywhere of this old-time trading culture when walking the streets of the town.
Old Phuket Town is a real living museum, which is rare in a world that is engulfed by fast-moving trends. However, thanks to the efforts of the current generation of settlers, the Phuket of their ancestors is a sight to behold, live, feel, learn and enjoy.
If you want to immerse yourself in the real vibes of centuries-old Anglo-Chinese settlements, start your journey on Thalang Road. Admire its beautifully restored colonial-style shophouses as you wander around, and look in on stores that have been run by the same families for generations. Woo Gallery, for instance, was once a shop specialising in imported timepieces but has now been turned into a beautiful boutique hotel and gallery, showing off the owners’ personal collection of rare watches, sewing machines, typewriters, crystal chandeliers and table sets, to name a few – all reflecting the strong ties Phuket had with nearby seafaring capitals.
From Thalang Road, venture to Krabi Road where you will find another cluster of old colonial shophouses and, if you’re feeling hungry, opt for something exotically traditional such as high tea at i46 Shophouse Old Town. Here you will be served up old-fashioned sweet snacks and old-school soy milk. For Phuket natives, this meal is a delicious trip down memory lane to happy childhood treats.
Another tradition Phuket folks cherish is the rare art of blacksmithing, which has now been replaced by technology that does the job cheaply and more conveniently. However, there is still one old-fashioned blacksmith left on Dibuk Road, who still sets fire to his forge every morning after paying respect to the gods of his trade. This traditional blacksmith appears to be thriving despite the fast changing times, though how long he will be around remains to be seen.
You can choose to explore Old Phuket Town on your own or opt for a guided tour provided by locals, which may also include an authentic Peranakan meal and a live Guzheng serenade – all beautifully staged by local perfomers.
For more information, visit facebook.com/oldphukettowncbt