Here’s how to experience the real heritage and culture of Thailand’s most popular holiday island. No debauchery required.
Many a visitor to Phuket will leave convinced that it’s little more than a hedonist’s paradise, where the day’s beach side thong parade gives way to a night of Bacchanalian excess along Patong’s Soi Bangla.
And who could blame them? Many tourists come to the so-called “Pearl of the Andaman” precisely to throw away their moral compass, shed their clothing and indulge in the kind of questionable evening behavior that would never be possible — or acceptable –- back home.
But anyone willing to peel their butt from their beach chair can still get to know the real Phuket and its unique culinary and historical story. You just have to head to the old quarter of Phuket Town, which dates from the end of the 19th century.
Chinese dragons and tin fortunes
Phuket Heritage Trails (PHT), which specializes in walking tours of the Old Town, is one of the best ways to get a full view of the area.
Run by Phuket native Kritchaya “Chaya” Na Takuathung, a former newspaper reporter and hotel PR woman now devoted to introducing visitors to the living history of her home, PHT tours start from the modern and rather garish dragon statue that stands next to the local tourism office.
In our first history lesson of the day, Chaya explains that the Thai-Chinese believe that Phuket island, because of its distinctive shape, is a dragon arisen from the Andaman Sea. From here we head west onto Thalang Road, one of the oldest thoroughfares on the island.
As she goes on to tell us, Phuket Town’s fortune was made on the back of tin mining, a once hugely lucrative industry that led to the creation of a major trade network throughout the region.
Chinese immigrants flocked here by the thousand hoping to make their fortune. The more successful built the colorful shophouses that still border Thalang Road today.
The Chinese mixed with Phuket’s existing community of ethnic Thai Chao Lay, the sea gypsies who still eke out a living in small fishing villages around the island, and Malays, which is reflected in the diversity of today’s Old Town residents.
Get thee to a nunnery — and eat some roti on the way
Among the descendents of the original Old Town inhabitants is Abdul, who runs the popular roti shop that bears his name, where the tour stops for breakfast.
Generations of backpackers are familiar with the distinctive roti dough as the wrapping for banana pancakes, but this flaky “bread” is best devoured with a bowl of curry. At Abdul’s you can choose between fish, chicken and beef. They also make an excellent teh tarik, or pulled tea, a sweet, steaming mug of goodness.
Stomachs full, we’re off to check out the many batik shops along Thalang Road. Often run by ethnic Malays and Indians, the shops sell this distinctive cloth at great value, to some a better souvenir than the imitation T-shirts, Australian beer coolers and fall-apart flip-flops you’ll find in Patong.
Chaya’s fascinating explanation of history continues with stops at Chinese temples, crumbling mansions, cultural museums and a nunnery, before heading up nearby Rang Hill for a view of Phuket Town and beyond.
Our tour finishes with lunch at the Lock Tien food court on the corner of Yaowarat and Dibuk, where Chaya ordered us a feast of distinctive Phuketian delights.
The meal was filled with wonderful and unique flavors, traits that could just as equally be applied to Phuket Town as a whole.
For more information on Phuket Heritage Trails, see www.facebook.com/Phuketheritage. Chaya can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or +66 851 589 788. Tours cost from 1,800-2,100 baht per person, and are inclusive of hotel pick-up and drop-off, all museum entry fees and meal costs.
By Simon Ostheimer
Growing up in colonial Hong Kong, Simon Ostheimer always felt more at home in Asia than anywhere else. He is now in Phuket where he is Managing Editor of The Phuket News.