Phuket island is famed as a beach haven, and the bustling Phuket city, especially the old architectural quarter, is often overlooked.
The main attractions in old Phuket Town are the Sino-Portuguese buildings (the Chinese row houses), the Sino-Colonial mansions, the elaborate Chinese and Thai temples, and the public markets.
Phuket has a long association with European seafaring nations such as Portugal, Great Britain, Holland and France. It also has an established tradition of ethnic
Chinese settlement, mainly from Fujian Province, during the tin mining days. In addition Phuket city was a tradional meeting place of Thai and Malays.
The overall result was a fascinating cultural mix, and the townscape of old Phuket is unique in Thailand.
Essentially the old quarter is the home of the Baba cultural community of mixed Thai-Chinese heritage.
Many of the Chinese arrived on Phuket's shores as poor coolies seeking work in the tin mines. They might have been poor, but they were imbued with a strong work ethic, and most created good lives for themselves, often marrying local girls due to the lack of Chinese females.
More than a few rose from back-breaking labour in the tin mines to become moguls of business, and today their grandchildren command large tracks of Phuket's land and control the lion's share of its business.
A large number of the resort hotels on Phuket were built with the fortunes created by these old coolies-cum-moguls of the tin mines
Their initial architecture is often compared to the former British Straits Settlement of Penang, Malaysia.
One of the features of the Chinese row (shop) houses is that the front verandahs join up to form a sheltered walkway (called a five-footway). The five-footway also functions as a pedestrian throughfare, charmingly framed by a series of arcades.
Intricate European neo-classical and Renaissance-style stucco designs grace the facades of the shophouses. The interiors and atmosphere are a blend of Chinese and European, but biased towards Straits Chinese, with many having a large central living rooms floored with
ceramic tiles (some imported from Italy) with the elaborate European motifs of old. Much of the furniture is beautifully carved in wood, and very Chinese, while wall hangings and other decors similarly recalls old China.
Thalang road was formally the most important trading street in Phuket, and today boasts the longest continuous stretch
of beautifully maintained Chinese row houses, each with a beautiful Chinese door and individual decor.
The small lane (Soi Romanee), off Thalang road, used to be the red light district (female companionship and opium dens) in those days.
In the same area, and scattered throughout Phuket City, there are also a number of Chinese shrines which are especially active during festival times.
In the late 19th century, Kor-Sim-Bi Na Ranong (a Sino-Thai businessman and Governor of Phuket at the time), together with other affluent Chinese settlers, are accredited with the construction of richly decorated hybrid mansions, combining arched windows and doors with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian supporting columns.
Many of the buildings are characteristically much longer than they are wide, and the entry ways have fancy latticework. Many lovely examples can be found on Dibuk Road; others include the Provincial Hall (Sala Klang), The Phuket Courthouse (San Jahngwaht) and Nakorn Luang Thai Bank.
Certainly by the 1930's the architecture had developed into a more European-Sino-Thai style, but the decorative forms of the earlier period were also incorporated.
Some of the mansions and shophouses are beautifully restored, with many still inhabited by local families.
The best way to appreciate the architecture is to walk the streets:-
Start at the fresh produce market, almost opposite the Thai Airways office, and adjacent to the local small bus terminal where the song-taew buses from the beaches terminate on Ranong road. From the small
fountain/roundabout at the end of this road, head north (on Yaowarat road). Some of the old quarter streets are on the left and right (for example, Krabi road on the left and Thalang and Dibuk roads on the right).
For a more specific detailed walk (2 km), start at the Central Post Office (northern end of Montri road). Walk west along Thalang Road, noting the Standard Chartered Bank building, turn south along Yaowarat Road to Fountain Circle.
Head west once more along Ranong Road, noting the Thai Airways building, a fine example of Sino-Portuguese architecture.
At the west end of Ranong Road turn north along Patiphat Road, then east along historic Krabi Road to return to Thalang Road.
turn left at the end of Thalang Road (you have now come full circle) and head north along Suthat Road. On the right, just after the junction with Luang Paw Road and Deebuk Road, is the Sala Phuket or Government Office, an interesting example of colonial architecture.
An Old Phuket Town Festival is held annually, typically in the form of a 'walking street' or 'street of culture' weekend bazaar from September to November.
City Hall is promoting the old town as Phuket's heritage and cultural attraction.
Two style of buildings stand out. These are the Sino-Portuguese shop house, and the Sino-Colonial style mansion.
In Hokkien Chinese, Sino-Colonial mansions were affectionately referred to by the slightly pejorative term "Ang mor gau" - ( houses of ) the red haired monkeys, the red haired monkeys being Europeans.
Renovated buildings that showcase the Sino-Portuguese style are:
China Inn Cafe and Restuarant
(This is a classic renovated 100 year old Chinese shop house on Thalang Road, built according to feng shui) the House of the Beautiful Images coffee shop
(on Soi Romanee. The Phuket Photo Club meets here every two weeks) the Dibuk Grill and Bar
(on Dibuk road)
Good examples of the Sino-Colonial style architecture are:
Thai Hua Museum Baan Chinpracha Museum Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion Phuket Provincial Hall Phuket Philatelic Museum
Soi Romanee (both sides of street) China Inn cafe
Pithak Chinpracha House Museum (Chinpracha House) (Baan Chinpracha)
This elegant mansion at 98 Krabi road was built by Phitak Chinpracha (1883-1949) (also known as Tan Ma Siang) in 1903. It was run as a private house museum by Khun Pracha Tandavanitj, a distant relative, until his death in 2006. His wife Khun Jaroonrat still shows visitors around.
The house and grounds were used as a location for several movies including "the Killing Fields", "Heaven ans Earth", and TV's "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles". In the 1990s it won a conservation award from the Thai authorities.
Phra Phitak Mansion
Phra Phitak Chinpracha also built another splendid mansion at 96 Krabi Road, adjacent to Chinpracha House during the second World War and completed in 1940.
This mansion is pictured in our navigation matrix above (centre).
Tan Ma Sieng, who made his fortune mostly from mining tin in Phuket, was ennobled as Phra Pitak Chinpracha by the King of Thailand.
But it is not open to the public.
However it has been reported that Tan's descendants, the Tantawanitj family, have leased the building for 30 years to Blue Elephant, which is spending some 40 million baht on the renovation of the 20-room mansion.
Blue Elepehant is an international gourmet Thai chain of restaurants. They intend to renovate the building into a 300 seat chic restaurant, which is due to open in
Phuket Provincial Hall
This beautiful building, on Narisorn road, dates back to the 1910s and is famous for its unique architecture and 99 doors. It doubled as the French Embassy in Phnom Penh in the film "the Killing Fields".
(The nearby Governor's Residence off Dibuk Road doubled as the American Embassy in the same film.)
Phuket Thai Hua School Museum
This is a splendid example of European-Sino-Thai acrhitecture, and was built in 1934. The school itself is the oldest Chinese school in Thailand, founded in 1911.
The school moved to new larger premises in the late 1990s, and in mid-2005, the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (Thailand's Cultural Ministry) refurbished the Thai Hua school into an art gallery.
The idea was to promote Phuket's artists as a contribution to post-tsunami recovery. Two art exhibitions were held in August and September 2005 ('Flowers of the Andaman' and 'Sino-Portuguese').
The building will showcase Phuket's unique Baba community, and serve as a local community centre for arts, culture and language.
Baan Klung Jinda
This 100 year building now serves as a fine dining restaurant serving Old Siam dishes. It is on Yaowarat Road, and was originally built by the son of a Chinese military man.
This stunning mansion is decorated in old Chinese style and there are many antiques. A brief tour can be arranged for those stopping for a meal.
Phuket Philatelic Museum
This was Phuket's first post and telegraphic office and is at the corner of Thalang and Montri roads. It has been renovated and turned into a philatelic museum, exhibiting old postal equipment, old phones and old Thai stamps. Open daily except Sundays, Mondays and public holidays.
Sino Portuguese Buildings at Vachira Phuket Hospital
Ranong Building - Built in 1920 by the Na Ranong Family. A single story building built for special patients which cost 1,000 baht. It has been used for staff housing.
Sripatcharintranusorn Building - Built in 1921 by Somdet Prasripatcharintranusornboromara – chtawee who gave 6,500 baht of his person money to fund the building.
Today it is the conservation building, the Bureau of Arts, and is used as a library of the Vachira Phuket Hospital.
Boonyapat Building ( also spelt as Boonpat ) - Built in 1920 by Khun Boonyapat. A single story building that cost 1,200 baht. It was used for staff housing but will become a museum.
** Photo Guide within navigation matrix ** Old Colonial house (Phra Phitak Mansion) at 96 Krabi road, and Chinese shophouses