A trip to Thailand – and its popular tourist mecca, Patong – can be a wonderful holiday of sandy beaches, limpid azure seas and delicious, cheap, spicy food. But after several days of persistent touts, monsoon rain and trucks driving up and down the main streets with loudhailers advertising the latest Thai boxing match, it’s good to know about a hidden inner-city treasure that’s just a 30 Baht (about R10) bus trip away – Phuket Old Town.
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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 (sois).
On a visit to my daughter then teaching English in Phuket, I stumbled across this cultural corner and returned several times. I grew more enchanted with each fresh discovery. 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 a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Others have been transformed into shops offering exquisite handmade products ranging from high-end local ceramics and printed textiles to intricate basketware and jewellery. And when you need a break, you can drop into a boutique hotel or stylish little café offering cakes, glossy magazines and free Wi-Fi, or try authentic Thai cuisine from a corner outlet.
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 small streets with lyrical names such as Krabi, Satun, Thaland and Rasada, I discovered richly decorated Sino-Colonial buildings and mansions built by Phuket tin-mining moguls. While nowadays we associate Phuket with tourism, a visit to the Thai Hua Museum on Krabi Road revealed that historically its wealth comes from tin mining. Many of Phuket’s wealthy Chinese business-owning families trace their links to Fujian Province towns such as Fuzhou and Xiamen, which their ancestors left to seek new opportunities.
The Thai Hua Museum – once a Chinese language school – is one of the best-looking and well-maintained Sino-Colonial buildings in Phuket. While an entrance ticket here was the most expensive at 200 Bhat (about R70), the museum offers more than a dozen interesting exhibition rooms and short films in Thai and Chinese with English subtitles. It also features a charming inner courtyard and garden.
On one memorable occasion, I strolled up the pathway to the Sam San shrine, dedicated to the goddess of the sea. Ceremonies are held here to bless newly launched boats, but I didn’t expect to be invited to launch my own. I was beckoned over by a smiling woman who presented me with a bunch of incense sticks. We walked to several altars, where she lit and deposited bundles of the sticks with small incantations. Finally, I was presented with a little paper boat, which was ceremoniously burnt in a fire.
Another spectacular site is the Shrine of Serene Light. Freshly renovated, the pristine white walls are adorned with brilliantly coloured 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 1890 – 1930 throughout the Old Town. The upper floors sport glorious tripartite French windows with pastel-coloured louvred shutters, arches, keystones and pilasters set against white or brilliantly coloured backgrounds.
On our first visit to Old Town, we remarked on the striking pink fabric roses and tulle garlands pinned on the old walls of these houses and shopfronts. This all made sense when on a final Sunday afternoon visit, we learnt that this was the day of the annual wedding festival held in June. There was to be a grand parade down the main street, showcasing traditional dress and customs.
Mothers and grannies fussed over the intricate, floral-bedecked hairstyles and silken dresses of little girls; against a backdrop of striking graffiti painted on a crumbling wall, a jazz band warmed up the crowds. Muscular men stood watch over the groups of young women.
At last, with a clash of cymbals and a few loud sirens, the parade began. Beautiful women with elaborate headdresses and baskets of flowers sashayed elegantly down the street to the music of ancient instruments played by university music students. A few dragon-costumed figures pranced around, menacingly. And to the beat of drummers, men walked carefully in their upturned shoes, holding elaborate triple tiered parasols.
After all this excitement, it was time to relax over more tea and cake. We sat next to a group of local women who photographed one another in their elegant outfits – clearly enjoying a break from their usual, more mundane household responsibilities.
Then we took a last walk down our favourite street, Soi Romanee where each decorative house front was a lush photo opportunity. It was even more romantic at night with Chinese lanterns throwing shadows against the little flower-adorned shrines fixed to the walls and shrubs cascading down from the balconies scenting the air.
First published in SA Garden and Home April 2014
Images: Judy Bryant