Old Town Phuket is a maze of and small sois (alleys). For first-time visitors, walking tours of Phuket Town are the best option to avoid confusion trying to figure out the one-way system. Phuket Town walking tours are also the best perspective from which to take in some of the city’s beautiful Sino-Portuguese architecture.
Architecture in the old town dates back mostly to the height of the tin mining era, roughly 80-120 years ago. Lining the streets are Sino-Portuguese-style shop houses. These have a narrow frontage, but go back a long way from the road. To get an idea how far back they go, drop in at China Inn Café (closed on Sundays) at the west end of Thalang Road.
All true shop houses are built to conform with Chinese feng shui beliefs and include a central courtyard open to the sky, complete with a well where the families would bathe and do their washing. The buildings in front and back of this courtyard have thick walls and small windows, keeping them cool in the hottest weather.
In front, along the street, is a Ngor Ka Kee (Chinese for ‘roofed pavement’), originally intended to give pedestrians shelter from sun and rain. Over the years many of these were taken over as part of the shops they fronted, but recent efforts by the local government have seen some of them returned to their original purpose, making a stroll through the old city much more pleasurable.
Thalang Road and Soi Romanee have been much gentrified in the past couple of years, with very pretty results. Power lines in both streets have been tucked away out of sight, which makes a huge difference – just compare façades on these streets with any other street on the island!
Another popular stop on Phuket tours is Khao Rang (Rang Hill), located on the outer edges of the town. Halfway up the hill is a shrine with a huge golden Buddha statue. There is also a fitness park located at the summit, a popular place for Thais and foreigners to exercise. The view from the top is spectacular, with panoramic vistas of the eastern side of the island. There are two restaurants at the top of the hill, where you can enjoy excellent Thai food while taking in the view. This is also a popular place to watch the fireworks Thais set off during festivals and holidays.
The Phuket Orchid Garden and Thai Village is located 2.5kms from the centre of Phuket Town. Here you can watch a variety of performances focusing on the unique culture of southern Thailand, including traditional folk dance, sword and staff fighting exhibitions, Muay Thai (boxing) and elephant shows and rides. The spectacular orchid garden covers over 8,000 square meters and includes many varieties of orchid unique to the region. The garden is also a popular wedding venue. Brahmin, Thai Buddhist and Western ceremonies are offered.
Dotted around the old town are a couple of dozen Ang Mor Lau, gracious Sino-Colonial mansions styled after European homes in the tropics, but also designed along feng shui lines and decorated with Chinese motifs. Few of these are open to the public, but the largest, the 20-room Phra Pitak Mansion, has been renovated and converted into a high-end Thai restaurant in the Blue Elephant chain. Dining there is now the only way to experience this neo-Belle Epoch building. It’s at the intersection of Krabi Rd and Satun Rd, a short walk from Thalang Road, and easy to reach with tuk tuk or songthaew.
Another home-turned-restaurant from this era is the former quarters of the province’s treasurer, which is now the Baan Klang Jinda restaurant, on the Yaowarat Road-Mae Luan Road intersection, well worth a visit for a glimpse of how life was lived by the wealthy in Phuket 70 or 80 years ago.
Located in the Sam Kong district, 10 minutes from the centre of Phuket Town, is the Phuket Butterfly Farm. This is an excellent outing for the whole family, with its insectarium and butterfly garden enclosures. The insectarium houses a large number of interesting species, such as stick insects and leaf insects.
However, the real attraction here is the beautiful butterfly garden. Over 40 species of butterfly live here among a variety of native trees and flowers. In addition to the butterflies, the garden is home to orioles and several other species of exotic birds.