old Chinese architecture & row houses, with boutique coffee shops & restaurants

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The heart of Phuket old town is distinctly Chinese, with only occasional flashes of Thai Buddhist temples to remind us that this is Thailand. The town was built as a commercial centre in the mid 1800s by Chinese immigrants who had flooded in to join the booming tin mining industry. At the time the Thai administrative capital was located further north at Talang.  The prosperity of the Chinese enclave, however, saw this town boom, first overshadowing then replacing the old Thai admin centre as the provincial capital. 

The inner streets of old Chinese row houses have survived, as have many of the grand old mansions that the wealthy Chinese mining tycoons constructed in a blend of European and Chinese styles that became known as 'Sino-Portuguese'.  European architects were imported to oversee the design and construction of these elaborate mansions, most of which incorporated elements both Chinese and European.

Over the past generation descendants of the Chinese immigrants have found a new pride in their heritage and have had the best streets of row houses declared protected zones.  Many owners have renovated their ancestral homes, while increasing numbers have been turned into trendy boutique hotels, restaurants, galleries etc, giving an entirely new life to the inner heart of the Town. 

The authorities began the much-needed removal of the ugly burden of electrical and other wires from the streets in 2012, and by the time you visit many more streets in this historical district should be cleared of this blight.

walking Phuket Town is the only way to see the details

Walking the streets is the only way to appreciate all that is here.  Krabi Road is a great starting point, for at the west side there is a remarkable old Sino-Portuguese mansion in huge grounds, called Pracha Mansion.  It's marked on maps, and there is a sign telling visitors they may enter this ornately decorate ochre coloured building for a small fee to see the rosewood furniture with mother-of-pearl inlay, the family portraits, porcelain and other personal items over 100 years old that suggest the house is still alive today.  There's a guest book that includes flourishing praise from people like movie-maker Oliver Stone and others who have used the house as a movie set (to ensure entry call 076 211 281 in advance). 

From Pracha Mansion head down Krabi Road to see the finest examples of row house facades.  Here the boutique shops, hotels and restaurants in row old houses begin.  Continue down Talang Road and you will find some of the places photographed here, including China Inn where one can stop for a meal or snack.  Our photographs also display some of the new street art that has begun to give the once-rundown old streets some colour and modern zest.

Back on Yaowarad Road, the artist photographed here can be seen working daily in her studio, welcoming everyone passing on the street.  A few small cafes along here offer fresh coffee and bakery items.  A few of the new boutique shops and restaurants have been opened by foreigners of varying backgrounds, adding a little international spice to the old Town.

old hotels, restaurants in Phang Nga Road, Ratsada Road, Phuket

Phang Nga Road, parallel to Talang on the south side, has a number of buildings in the Sino-Portuguese style, including Phuket's oldest and most famous accommodation, the On On Hotel.  When this writer first arrived in Phuket in 1967 this was the choice of places to stay – and the only hotel I was aware of in Phuket at the time.  More recently the On On made a small statement in Hollywood as the backpacker's lodge in the movie The Beach.  Mae Porn Restaurant, on a corner across from the On On, has been feeding great curries to Thais and travellers since before anyone can remember (including this writer, many times).  Phang Nga Road also has a bank and a police station staring each other down – with the latter built in the late 1800s to protect the bank during an uprising by crowds of agitated Chinese tin labourers.

The next parallel street South, Ratsada, has more modern, and less interesting buildings.  However the Thavorn Hotel holds a great collection of historical photos and quirky old memorabilia from the tin mining days.  Visitors are welcome to its lobby to see old furniture, machinery, instruments, and all manner of objects related to the tin mining days.  On entering the hotel you feel as if you stumbled upon an unnamed museum rather thn a hotel. Historical family and World War II photos are also included, along with some strange objects.

The owners of the four Phuket hotels with the Thavorn name are descended from a Chinese tin mining tycoon given the Thai name Thavornwongwong.  This is one of about 15 Phuket Chinese families who have become Thai citizens, taken on long Thai names and are credited with dominating the economy of Phuket for many generations.

While this walking tour will already have revealed any number of interesting little coffee bars and restaurants to end the visit in, we suggest making the final stop on the top of Khao Rang, the little hill right in the centre of the town.  At the very peak you'll find a green oasis of quiet, great views of Phuket Town and the Tunk-Ka Cafe, one of the best Thai restaurants on the island.

If you're lucky on Khao Rang, you might meet the resident troupe of monkeys - or crab-eating macaques to be correct. While these macaques live on a hilltop far from the sea, they are most commonly found along the shorelines, as their name suggests. It is unusual to see monkeys swimming in the ocean, but this species really does love the water, and play in it much like humans.

by John Everingham