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Pick up any guidebook, leaf to the Phuket Town section and I guarantee you’ll see the words “Sino-Portuguese architecture”. To dig a bit more deeply than a guidebook does into what this actually means, I spent a half day with Kritchaya (Chaya) Na Takuathung of Phuket Heritage Trails and discovered that there’s a lot more to Phuket’s history than a bunch of pretty shopfronts.
“Bangkok people think this is expensive,” says Chaya, as we start the day chatting over 25-35 baht khanom jeen at Khanom Jeen Mae Ting on Satun Road in Phuket Town. “In Bangkok, maybe you pay only 15-20 baht for khanom jeen. But in Phuket it comes with local pineapple, which is both sour and sweet — and crunchy too — and many more vegetables.” The conversation rambles on to why Phuket pineapple is both sour and sweet (it’s planted between rubber trees), that the Phuket governor eats here, that his most beloved predecessor, Ko Sim Bee Na Ranong, was assassinated by a Trang doctor jilted when his planned gambling den was turned down, that the name “Phuket” is a derivative of the Malay Bukit (hill), oh and the dog here likes to eat your chicken bones.
Breakfast sets the tone for a near endless stream of fascinating insights into a town that I too thought nothing much of other than it hosting some pretty shopfronts. Chaya ventures forth on all manner of topics, explaining in flawless English the minutiae of legal cases, mansion back-stories and temple histories.
Breakfast done we head to Chinpracha House, one of Phuket’s best regarded and most beautiful mansions (it was used as the set for Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earthi>). The house was built in 1903 by 20-year-old Tan Ma Siang as a surprise gift for his wife. She refused it however, saying the house was “out in the jungle”, too far from their shophouse, which is the current day China Inn on Thalang Road. It took five years for her to be convinced that the move would be worth it.
Today, despite losing a beautiful lawn area, the house remains stunning, with chilled Italian ceramic tiles underfoot and fascinating displays throughout. The matriarch of the Chinese immigrant family’s sixth generation still resides upstairs and we run into her in the kitchen as Chaya is explaining the history of a particular water cooler to me.
We spend an hour in the house, Chaya walking me through the fascinating period photos and also explaining the workings of traditional Chinese houses, and how access to the deeper realms are earned through friendship and relations.
Like many 19th century immigrants from Fujian, Tan Niaw Yee originally arrived in Phuket for the tin. Already a man of means when he arrived, he saw an opportunity in assisting workers to send money back to their relatives in mainland China. Workers would visit his shopfront on Thalang Road and buy a chit that would entitle their family to receive the same amount (less a commission deducted at both ends of course) in Fujian. It was a road to considerable wealth.
We leave the house and head over to the short Soi Romanee, which today is known for its rainbow of restored shophouses with boutique guesthouses, offices, private homes and cafes.
But most older residents know the street as Soi Macau. The influx of Fujian labour whose money Tan Niaw Yee was sending home brought with it a number of challenges. One of these was (often very short-time) companionship, so it was decided a red light area should be established. As Chaya tells it, “There were no girls from northeast or northern Thailand in Phuket then, so instead they were brought in from Macau — by the shipload.” And so Soi Macau was made.
Like in Penang, most of the shopfronts on Soi Romanee have two curiously shaped windows above the door to the left and right: these serve a dual purpose of providing ventilation and being good feng shui. Each corner is said to represent a bat (which itself means good fortune) and the four together a fifth bat. Each of these five in turn represents one of the five elements of earth, metal, water, wood and fire.
Heritage listings came late to Phuket, yet a good amount of architecture has been saved from the sledgehammer and spread of concrete egg-carton functionalism. In theory a heritage-listed building cannot be modified in any way and a number of legal cases, one involving the front lawn of Chinpracha House, are ongoing.
Soi Romanee links parallel running Dibuk and Thalang Roads and it is the latter that we spend considerable time wandering up and down as Chaya explains the history both of specific buildings and of the people who built them. It’s an intriguing amalgam of various retailers, cultures and faiths. A church sits beside a Chinese temple, while at the other end outlets for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims run near side by side. Machinery parts beside saris. Printing presses beside postcard shops.
Obviously, there’s a lot of history here. Sin & Lee was Phuket’s first supermarket to sell imported goods, 99 Boutique Hostel is still owned by the same family that started the first electronics shop on Phuket — on the same premises. There are traditional Chinese medicine halls, stores selling only white and black clothing meant for funerals; then there are the chic cafes and antiques boutiques, but many do still remain private residences. “They’ll never sell their houses,” says Chaya of the predominantly ethnic Chinese residents.
Why all this concentration of commerce in a small enclave within Phuket Town? Well it turns out that the trading junks used to make port right by the end of Thalang Road. We cross Thepkasattri Road towards the eastern end of Thalang Road and there is a festy black canal running under the bridge. Until underwater tin mining in Phuket Bay changed the flow of water, the trading junks were able to make their way all the way here, where the cargo would be unloaded and carted down Thalang Road. As Phuket Town grew the canal was walled in and narrowed considerably and to the south of the bridge a model junk is the only reminder of what once must have been a bustling port.
We fit in one more stroll back down Thalang Road, take a secret backway through Kopitiam Restaurant and find ourselves at the side entrance to the revered Sang Tham shrine, which dates back to 1891. Originally a private family shrine, when an appeal to extended family members for funds to restore the temple went unanswered the family opened the shrine to the general public and the money has been flowing in since. Midway through a restoration when we visit, there are boxes of Fujian pottery lying around and workers are carefully breaking the bowls to create the shards that are used to decorate the ornate decorative birds and flowers that adorn the temple.
Within the shrine Chaya says that today people come here to have their fortune told, but even more head to the nearby Kwan Im Temple, where fortune cards are collected for all manner of health ailments. I mention that perhaps I should visit as I’ve very sore eyes; Chaya tells me about how her mother’s friend, a serial doubter of these things, visited Kwan Im after spending 8,000 baht on three doctors trying to cure her own sore eyes. She went through the fortune-telling ritual and was given a specific card that she then took to the oldest traditional medicine shop in Phuket Town (yes, also on Thalang Road). The owner handed her a concoction in return, which she was told to boil for five hours before drinking the bitter results.
Her eyes are now fine.
More information Phuket Heritage Trails runs both morning and afternoon walks and there is considerable flexibility in what sights you visit, so contact Chaya and let her know what your particular interests are. Price varies depending on where you are in Phuket and what you plan to see, but we paid 1,500 baht for a half-day tour.
Phuket Heritage Trails
T: (085) 1 589788
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 30th May, 2015.