Old Phuket – The Bohemian Vibe

Wherever I go, heritage and history fascinate me most. Of course, empty beaches & serene mountains are my dreams too. But nothing can beat the less explored side of a town that is famous for its nightlife and beaches. A city steeped in history, with its architecture influenced by Europe, houses colourful mansions reflecting the glories of a past era is Old Phuket. Here is your complete guide to wandering in Old Phuket.

Index

Reaching Old Phuket

Old Phuket has located 35km away from the airport on the southeast side. You can catch the shuttle buses from the airport to get dropped at the Old Phuket bus terminal. A songthaew ride from Patong costs 15 baht for one and takes about 30 minutes if the traffic is moderate. Without knowing where to catch a songthaew, we booked a grab taxi to Patong once, which cost us 240baht!

To catch a songthaew to any other part of Phuket from Old Phuket, head to Suriyadej traffic circle. The street is filled with non-historic buildings. It resembles the New Sukothai or Chakkarpet road of Bangkok – where locals go shopping for their usuals. A few metres away from the junction, you can see the large-dingy building, “Phuket Central Market” on Ranong Road and lots of Songathews waiting for passengers to get in. Check and ask if it is going to the same area before getting in; keep an eye on the google map to get off at your location. Because unless you request the driver to notify you, he won’t shout out the stops name.

Why visit Old Phuket

It is fascinating to see how locals have preserved their ancestral properties beyond making it a museum. The Sino-Portuguese buildings (Chinese+Portugese) with bright colours and floral patterns on the floor and tiny intricate lime plastered details on the walls impress you. These streets are excellent for wandering and cafe hopping with a Bohemian vibe shopping for vintage and handmade things by local artists. I wish the streets were vehicle-free, though.

When you have had enough touristy party vibe and tired crowded beaches, head to these streets and sip hot coffee in heritage buildings. Or chuck the other areas and stay here while in Phuket! It is an excellent place with a lively atmosphere in the evening, calmer in the night and a lovely place for your morning joggings amidst colourful heritage colonial buildings. Mind that, this isn’t a hidden gem as such, but not crowded as Patong.

My mother, who isn’t a history buff, feels there was more to explore! here even staying here for 5 days This town is addictive. The vibe is purely local. Those who love walking without any fixed plan love to explore various cheaper food joints and love to mingle with locals; Old Phuket is Bae.

How many days/hours to spend here

Unlike me, if you aren’t staying here and it is just a visit to Old Phuket in your short trip, keep two hours for walking and shopping plus an hour for lunch/brunch/ dinner. . The roads aren’t a maze. Parallel and perpendicular roads are easy to be explored by yourself. Suppose you want to know history in deep, you can opt for walking tours by local organisations.

History – Why is it a colonial town

Hundred years ago, the Phuket population was concentrated in Thalang and Phuket Town. With its Tin mining and rubber industry booming, it attracted Chinese and even Portuguese in the late 19s. The port, wealth, tin mining, good weather became a trade centre in Southeast Asia. So with the influence of traders from Europe and China who gathered to exchange goods, Phuket took its shape. The Chinese traders who settled here created a hybrid architecture style by combining Chinese and Portuguese styles. In the 1970s, Thailand’s tourism boomed; a new town developed around today’s Patong area with mansions and hotels closer to the brilliant beaches.

I was surprised to see streets similar to Old Phuket while watching Crazy Rich Asians (Filmed in Malaysia, though). When I dug deeper into the filming locations, I read about a street in Singapore, “Bukit Pasoh Road.” There are many more similar streets like this in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and other parts of Malaysia.

Various streets and famous spots there. 

Each shophouse and cafes are different having a few common elements that blend them together. The common factor is– their height and width. Most of them are Ground plus one or two floors with stucco work, or low relief plaster works on the colourful walls and columns. The bright colours are what makes them unique from each other. If you observe even vaguely, you will understand this.

The town comprises of few parallel and perpendicular roads. It is extraordinary to notice the sudden change in the street’s appearance as you get closer to Old Phuket from the new town. Multistorey buildings disappear, sloped roof houses appear and ultimately, you witness the splash of colours on the street facades. Four main roads meet at the junction where you see the epic brown coloured coffee house with cycles hanging on its walls – The Old city coffee station. Keep this as a landmark or the starting point to navigate easier.

List of roads we explored –

  1. Thalang road
  2. Romanee road
  3. Krabi road
  4. Dibuk Road
  5. Ranong road

Thalang Road

This is the road we loved most. It got everything – fabulous boutiques to cafes all in old buildings. At the end of this road, the Walking street opens on weekends. The Thalang road starts from the Old Phuket coffee station junction and ends after 500m at the main road. The historic buildings do not exist throughout. After the Cub house cafe, it looks like any other Thai city. Things I admired most here –

China Inn restaurant and a boutique opposite to that for a high-quality cotton dress with vegetable dying. Another boutique with a unique collection of dresses in Talang road is Ranida Boutique, but the rates are on the upper end.

Romanee ROAD

Tourists often overlook this narrow perpendicular road to Thalang. It can be identified by a pink building with lots of golden relief works. Buildings worth noticing here –

A long pink building that takes up most of the road length, A souvenir shop opposite Rush coffee selling excellent neckpieces for a cheaper rate. and wall graffiti (it was faded in the rain when I went, so most parts of the wall were covered with tarpaulin)

Krabi road

OLD PHUKET MUSEUM

This is the street where I stayed for five nights in Old Phuket. Located 100m away from the Old central coffee shop, this road is quieter as you move away from the coffee shop junction. . It is more of cooking classes and a few mansions on this road than boutique shops for accessories and clothes,There was no building that caught my eye, to be particular. But it was the most suitable neighbourhood for us I could find in Phuket.

Dibuk Road

The street of mansions. All the other roads are full of smaller Sino-Portuguese buildings, but Dibuk road is all about Mansions and larger colonial buildings. Supposedly, the sunset at the intersection looks fantastic. All the evenings, there was either passing showers or pouring rains. So we could never go beyond a mansion that is a restaurant now – Endless summer and Cyan coloured mansion next to Endless summer because of rain.

Top ten things to do in Old Phuket.

Go shopping in vintage shops for handmade items

From street murals to handmade coconut shells, Old Phuket is the hub for artisans. Most shophouses run workshops in their backyard. The softwood cutlery, fragrance oils are truly homemade here. There are a few artists who still use vegetable dye to the fabric. During the peak tourist season, they run paid workshops to teach tourists how to make vegetable dyes and create unique prints on the fabric. Though clothe dying happens inside their shophouses, you can always see artisans working with coconut shells, wooden cutleries by the streetside in their Sino-Portuguese houses.

Scary handmade wooden masks with Sexy lips

Visit mansions to witness the lavish interiors of Sino Portuguese style

The traditional Sino-Portuguese mansion here flaunts its bright interiors, usually painted in yellow. Most shops and cafes I visited were all painted in shades of yellow inside. Whether a shop or a restaurant, you can see antique tea sets/cutlery arranged nicely on the ledges.
It is super evident that every owner takes pride in maintaining their ancestral property. Be it a shiny Gramophone or an Old radio – it is spotless. At times you see wooden flooring. Otherwise, it is always ceramic tiles (Belgian Tiles?) with ornate floral designs with the colour scheme of mustard, brick red and yellow. Their taste for wooden furniture is unmatchable. The dog-legged tables with ivory chips on the top are not to be missed in most shops.

Explore night markets for cheap stuff and souvenirs.

The boutique shops are usually costlier. (I find it worth it, though). The night markets at the beginning of Romanee road is an avenue of smaller shops selling cheaper things of decent quality. The boutique shops are usually costlier. (I find it worth it, though). The night markets at the beginning of Romanee road is an avenue of smaller shops selling cheaper things with decent quality. The usual stuff you find on Patong streets is usually of poor quality. But here, the qualities are better. If it doesn’t rain, the night market spreads on Talang road with no access to vehicles. With plenty of new street food and street shopping, weekend markets in summers are a fun thing to do.

Go on Cafe hopping

INSIDE THE OLD CITY COFFEE STATION – THEIR COLLECTION OF ANTIQUES NEED AT LEAST THIRTY MINUTES OF YOUR ATTENTION. I DON’T KNOW WHAT WAS BETTER – THE COFFEE OR THE VIBE!

The best way to explore and witness the essence of the Sino-Portuguese vibe is by cafe hopping. You get good food inside a fancy cafe with Old world charm. Plus, you have a choice – Isolate yourself in the restaurant when you feel crowded on the street. After a cup refreshing cup of cappuccino and some crispy rolls, you can get on the road with the same energy. Old Phuket cafes never ask you to move out unless you haven’t ordered anything. With a bowl of Mango sticky rice and a book, you can easily sit in each cafe for at least two hours. 

My top four cafes are –

Visit China Inn – The best and most famous cafe in Old Phuket

No matter what cafe or restaurant you miss, you can’t leave Old Phuket without eating in China Inn. The vegetarian options are limited; still, the taste in every bite we had made us have one meal a day every day. When you see the place from outside, it appears to be a small place with one hall in the front. But it isn’t. It is an old family house renovated with great taste and accurate details to match with Sino-Portuguese style. 

Right from that blackboard with a handwritten menu outside to those bronze tea cattle, everything here is the old-world charm. From the first hall, you can enter another where they sell handmade crafts. Further inside is a beautiful garden with a limited table set up for visitors. 

HEADS UP –this place is open from 11 AM TO 6.30 PM six days a week, except Sundays. The owners weren’t rude, but there was no sign of even a slight smile on their faces when customers arrived. 

Explore Ranong road where locals pick their usuals.

Patong caters to the “touristy” needs and Old Phuket to the “artsy dreams” Neither of these is useful to the locals. Most things you buy in those streets aren’t utilitarian. You want to buy Jasmine rice, but you can’t find a grocery store on Talang road. You want to buy some Thai spices, but Romanee road sells only artsy accessories. Ranong road is where locals go shopping for their daily needs. The Jute gunny bags, big polythene bags of size 3×3 feet ( We bought one, it is dam useful), spices, tiger balms, the rice baskets for sticky rice, veggies, Mortar and pestle, Coconut shredder ( similar to what we use in India), unique bronze vessels, running fabrics for their Sarongs/pant/skirts, daily use footwear, Polythene raincoat – Basically Ranong road is where you can get a glimpse of local Phuket life.

Shop for dramatized neckpieces as a souvenir.

In India, we are used to seeing big jewellery pieces for dressing up gods and goddess statues. Those giant traditional motifs are always symmetrical with real gold or gold plated. What you see in Old Phuket, especially Romanee road, is extra dramatic! The irregular patterns of petals for flowers, intricately placed beads for leaves arranged in a flowy manner around the petals make a giant neckpiece! They are as attractive as their house shops.

If you are a fashion enthusiast, you can’t stop yourself from buying this. They may look extravagant, but they are affordable – Less than 1000 baht. I don’t know what I will wear it for, but I have this one on my home shelf now.

Observe and admire the details on these century-old buildings

LOOK AT THE YOGIS AND DANCERS ON THE BALCONY RAILING

The stucco and low relief patterns on plaster are common. You find it everywhere, throughout Old Phuket. Still, each detail is different from the other Some go overboard and use a bit of glittering gold to ornate the surface. Others keep it simple white. Few ornate the columns, while the others keep it smooth, simple and round. Monochrome to the rainbow facade, arched windows to the triangular ones, louvres-no louvres – Phuket locals know how to achieve distinctiveness.

Each house owner wants their house to blend in with the other yet unique. It is super important for their shop to stand out to attract tourists. They have a way of detailing their heritage structure. While you walk, keep an eye, observe them. You will be blown away by the minute details that make each building at least slightly different from the other.

Go for early morning walks on the empty streets.

Old Phuket isn’t as touristy as Patong or Bangkok. It receives a lot of tourists who come there to take a stroll for a few hours by evening. Early mornings are the best time to see all the streets and street photography when the roads are empty.

Visit museums and some famous mansions.

I don’t know if it’s my ignorance or overexcitation about coffee and shopping in Talang street. We forgot to visit the Thai Hua museum that was right next to our guest house! Every evening, mom reminded me, and we would say to each other – Tomorrow we shall go to the museum. That tomorrow never came. If you aren’t a museum lover, check their website and decide if it’s your thing or not. For me, we could have gotten first-hand information about how Chinese immigration and Portuguese invasion shaped the town to what it exists now.

Got more suggestions on good cafes in Old Phuket? Let us know in the comment section below.

Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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