Exploring Phuket Town: the Thai holiday island’s cultural capital
Thanks to its strategic southern Thailand location and rich natural bounty, Phuket’s backstory is a fascinating, multifaceted one. Europeans (Dutch, Portuguese, French and British) began to land on the Andaman Coast’s largest island from the 16th century, but the greatest group of international arrivals were the Chinese, who flocked here to stake their fortunes on the 19th-century tin-mining boom.
These workers married into Phuket’s Siamese community, and the local Baba (Peranakan) culture was born. This distinctive cultural heritage is visible all over Phuket Town, from its architecture to its cuisine. Ditch the beach towel: Phuket Town whizzes you right back to the island’s roots.
Much more than a day trip
Plenty of travellers blitz through Phuket Town on a half-day visit, but stay a couple of nights and you’ll get to sample its busy nightlife (this is where Phuketians and local expats party), dig into its deliciously varied culinary world (Thai-style dim sum for breakfast?), explore its vibrant art scene (street art on every other corner), suss out an ever-growing number of excellent artisan cafes and experimental cocktail bars, and snooze in century-old hôrng tăa·ou (shophouses) transformed into boutique guesthouses.
Phuket Town's Baba inhabitants made their riches in tin-mining, then turned their attention to constructing majestic, European- and Chinese-inspired mansions featuring breezy terraces, elaborate wood-carved doors and central tile-floored courtyards. Others set up slim, multi-level shophouses, with louvered windows, upper terraces and elegantly arched ground-floor porches. Over the last decade, many of these buildings have been colourfully restored, some as cafes, restaurants, boutiques and guesthouses. A shining example is 1903 Chinpracha House off Th Krabi, still lived in by the six-generation descendants of its original owner.
A DIY walking tour of Phuket Town’s Sino-Portuguese highlights could begin at the mango-yellow Standard Chartered Bank, before meandering along vibrantly repainted Th Thalang and Soi Romanee, whose shophouses gleam with pastel-pink walls and stuccoed pillars under swaying Chinese paper lanterns. Check out the beautifully refurbished Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion (now the famed Blue Elephant Thai restaurant) and delve into local history at Phuket Thaihua Museum on Th Krabi.
Phuket’s cultural capital isn’t all tin-mining grandeur. Sprinkled amid the Sino-Portuguese storefronts are a number of serene Chinese temples still very much in use. One of the most enchanting is the elaborately carved, restored 1889 Shrine of the Serene Light, a Taoist shrine with intricate wall etchings, off Th Phang-Nga.
Visit in late September or October and you’ll see these hushed worship spaces burst into action for Phuket’s famously frenzied Vegetarian Festival. Expect thunderous firecrackers, vivid street parades, masses of vegetarian food, and skewer- and knife-pierced worshippers. This important local celebration invokes the nine emperor gods of Taoism through self-mutilating mediums (mostly men). Jui Tui Shrine and Bang Niew Shrine are major sites for festival activity.
Phuket Town’s multicultural makeup means its cuisine is as diverse as it is celebrated. From super-fresh seafood to some of the best curries outside the Indian subcontinent, Phuket Town’s culinary creations, both traditional and inventive, are just as likely to be dished up on shophouse porches as inside early-20th-century mansions. Here, Chinese and Malay flavours mingle with southern-Thai cooking, producing a deliciously varied local microworld of Peranakan cuisine, with distinctive specialities seen only in this part of Thailand.
On Th Thalang, Kopitiam by Wilai is a great place to savour some soulful southern favourites; try the mee sua (sautéed noodles with egg, sea bass, prawns and squid). A few doors east, long-running Abdul’s Roti Shop doles out hotplate-fresh roti with sweet banana or savoury massaman curry, while Mee Ton Poe on the Clock Tower Circle is the place to go for hokkien noodles. At Cookie House, pick up boxes of Phuket’s signature cookies made from freshly pulverised almond paste, egg yolks and butter.
Long-established, antique-packed Sino-Portuguese townhouse Raya pulls in a loyal following for its well-priced Phuket specialties, such as mŏo hong (pepper-and-garlic-braised pork), mèe gaang pôo (crab-meat curry with noodles) and pàk miang (scrambled kale-like leaves). Just around the corner, sister restaurant One Chun works up a similarly enticing Phuketian menu. For Phuket favourites in a stylish setting, head to Tantitium or Tu Kab Khao, both inhabiting restored Sino-Portuguese buildings.
At the gourmet end of Phuket Town’s dining spectrum, Suay surprises with chef Noi Tammasak’s fantastic fusion fare – lemongrass lamb chops, braised-beef-cheek massaman curry, sweet-basil Shanghai noodles, and mango sticky rice with black-sesame ice cream.
For an in-depth culinary adventure with local Phuketian guides, track down Phuket Food Tours.
Crafted Coffee and Cocktails
Phuket Town’s coffee and cocktail scenes have exploded in the last few years, with Thai beans and local herbs fuelling menus and ambitious Phuketian baristas and mixologists taking charge.
There are plenty of urban-chic spots to get your caffeine fix in style, whether it’s an Aeropress latte, a nitro cold brew or a single-origin espresso. With exposed brick décor, wall mounted bicycles and a novel doubling as a door handle, Th Thalang’s cafe-gallery Bo(ok)hemian is the perfect example of Phuket Town’s creative buzz. Neighbour DouBrew, overlooking Soi Romanee, lures caffeine fiends for its inventive coffee and beautiful setting in the lobby of a renovated Sino-Portuguese home. On Th Dibuk, prize-winning Shelter Coffee is a popular yet laid-back hangout for artful brunchy bites and forward-thinking coffees, with a sweet back garden.
From beans to spirits, the Old Town’s artisan cocktail offerings have also sprung into the island spotlight. Moody Dibuk House, set inside a historical building, is the star of the show, with highly experimental liquid creations involving house-mixed gins. You’ll find more crafted cocktail sensations at Tantitium and Club No 43, both a few minutes’ walk away.
Phuket Town has excellent-value lodgings, many of which are tucked into refurbished century-old buildings oozing historical charm. Cheap sleeps abound in characterful, contemporary hostel dorms, such as at Ai Phuket Hostel.
If you're on a flashpacker budget, bag one of four arty, polished-concrete rooms at boutique-chic The RomManee, which unravels behind a bright turquoise façade on Soi Romanee above DouBrew coffee shop. An exquisite upper-midrange choice is white-on-white boutique hotel Casa Blanca Boutique Hotel, complete with private pool, Spanish-inspired flourishes and Sino-Portuguese history.
Art and fashion
Many of Phuket Town's historical shophouses house an eclectic bunch of boutiques and local artist-owned studio-galleries. Squeeze past antiquated stone Buddhas to find Thai-vintage-inspired women’s couture at Ranida, or sift through rainbows of fabrics at Ban Boran Textiles. With kaleidoscopic canvases, metallic furniture and soft-booming background bass, street-art-inspired Drawing Room is easily Phuket Town’s most original gallery.
There’s nothing like plunging into the depths of a local market to find Phuket’s pulse.
Phuket Town’s jam-packed Weekend Market, 3km southwest of town, is reminiscent of Bangkok’s legendary Chatuchak Weekend Market (but not as massive). On Sunday afternoon, an evening shopaganza unfolds at Th Thalang’s Walking St (from 4pm).
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First published in September 2016.