Phuket town leaps back into history

Around 8.4 million visitors arrived through Phuket International Airport in 2011, numbers forecasted by the authorities at Airports of Thailand to scratch the 9 million mark in 2012. While a vast majority of the passengers undoubtedly base their choice of destination primarily for the island's jet-set lifestyle and casuarina fringed beaches, Phuket Town proves that the southwestern Thai island offers far more than just luxury and sea views.

Phuket derived much of its past prosperity from rubber and tin mining, bountiful industries that attracted the English, French, Dutch, and Hokkien Chinese to set up trading posts on the island during the 17th century. Though the tin and rubber trade has since given way to tourism, the medley of cultures that have called Phuket home in the past is still very much evident in the townscape of city centre.

What do The Killing Fields and The Beach have in common?

The answer is that they both feature (non-beach) scenes filmed in the heart of Phuket Town. The opening scene of The Beach was filmed at On On Hotel, a run-down hotel on Phang Nga Road, while the French and American embassies settings depicted in The Killings Fields were filmed at the Phuket Provincial Offices and Luang Anupas-Phuket-Karn Mansion respectively.

There are only a handful of streets that make up the town, making it easy to explore on foot, tropical sunshine inclusive. Rows of colorful shophouses, no more than three stories in height, line picturesque streets including Dibuk Road, Thalang Road, Yaowarat Road, and Soi Romanee. The Sino-Colonial building facades are connected by what's known in Hokkien as "Ngoh-Ka-Kee", or five-step-way, a connecting and covered walkway, separated by arches, that connect the entire row of shophouses. Several of the shophouses now house quaint eateries, cafes, boutique art galleries and independent shops.

A shrine to history

In addition, there are a handful of shrines, including the Sam San Shrine on Krabi Road, constructed in 1853 in honor of the Goddess of the Sea, the Jui Tui Shrine on Soi Phutorn off Ranond Road dedicated to the vegetarian god Kiu Wong In, and the Pud Jow Shrine dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. The latter Taoist shrine also boasts the distinction of being the oldest on Phuket, having been built over two centuries ago with a renovation 100 years ago.

Other historical landmarks in Phuket Town whose walls could tell many a story, include the Old Siriroj Hospital on Krabi Road, the island's very first private hospital opened in 1982, and Phuket Taihua Museum on the same road, housed in a former Chinese language school dating back to 1911. Near the intersection of Montree and Phang Nga roads stands the Old Phuket Post Office, built in 1932 and the only government building that still remains in all its original glory. Some historical residences, such as the Chinpracha House on Krabi Road, are gracious enough to open the doors to their homes for visitors looking to take a tour back to the island's past.

Magnificent Mansions

So-called "Angmor Lao" ('red-hair mansions', or more literally 'foreign mansions') that display the wealth of Phuket's citizens past include the Luang Amnart Nararak Mansion, built by a tin mining tycoon in 1911 and featuring Ionic and Corinthian architectural features. But the grande dame of Angmor Lao on Phuket is perhaps the former governor's residence, the Phra Phitak Chinpracha Mansion, a palatial building that recently has been given a new lease on life as a Blue Elephant Royal Thai Cuisine cooking school and restaurant.

Phuket Town might not be in itself motivation to cross half the world to visit, but when in Phuket, between sunbathing and sailing, it's well worth a visit to see how the island's past citizens once lived.