Most who pass through the transport hub of Takua Pa in south Thailand’s Phang Nga province see little more than the bus station, stopping only for a transfer to the tourist hot spots of Khao Lak, Khao Sok National Park, Ko Kho Khao or further south to Phuket, Krabi and beyond. Lucky travellers who take the time to explore the area, however, might be treated to a classic Sunday market in the the historic old Takua Pa district a few kilometres south of modern Takua Pa.
Although pleasantly quiet and unassuming today, Takua Pa was once a famous international port town beginning as early as the 1300s, when the first Indian traders arrived. By the late 1800s, the city was booming thanks to the area’s substantial tin reserves, and by this point the Portuguese, Dutch and British had all firmly planted themselves in the area. During its golden age, Takua Pa was perhaps Thailand’s most culturally eclectic city aside from Bangkok.
Streams of Chinese also migrated to the area to work the tin mines, and while the Europeans moved on when tin prices fell in the 1900s, a Chinese community continued to thrive. Eventually, Chinese immigrants were largely assimilated into Thai society, but their descendents still practise elements of Chinese culture, as can be seen in Takua Pa’s many historic Chinese pagodas, its local foods and a handful of old Chinese-style tea and herb shops.
One of the most visually pleasing aspects of a visit to old Takua Pa, however, are its ancient Sin0-Portuguese shophouses. Although most of these could use a good restoration, the buildings retain a classic charm reminiscent of some of the historic architecture in Bangkok’s Banglamphu area, or even Hoi An’s old town in central Vietnam.
In fact, the similarities between old Takua Pa and old Hoi An don’t end there. Hoi An also boasts a number of Chinese-style pagodas, and Chinese-style red lanterns may be found dotting the streets and doorways of both towns. As the old Takua Pa market sprang to life during late afternoon on Sri Takua Pa street, it almost felt like I’d been transported to one of Hoi An’s charming old streets.
Once the market did get rolling, I didn’t have to look far to be reminded that I was indeed still in Thailand. Distinctly Thai sticky rice sweets wrapped in banana leaves (khao niew bing), colourful luk chup, southern Thai-style curries and soups, and roasted cashews fresh from one of south Thailand’s many farms were spread across vendors’ tables. One of the friendly vendors even invited us into her quaint old home to check out her antique collection of fine silver wares — relics from Takua Pa’s heydays.
After snacking on some delectable caramel-graham-waffle cookies (a local specialty), we stocked up on slow-roasted massaman curry and Indian-Malay influenced yellow rice seasoned with turmeric, along with grilled chicken and sweet cucumber sauce. We also bought a box of Chinese-style boiled duck, and to top it all off, some Chinese sweet bean tea cakes.
The easiest way to reach old Takua Pa if you don’t have your own wheels would be to hire a motorbike taxi or songthaew for a return trip in the 250 to 500 baht range from the Takua Pa bus station. If coming from Khao Lak, you could arrange a taxi there, although that would run over 1,000 baht both ways, so it might be best to make it a motorbiking adventure that could also include the beaches north of Khao Lak and the seaside hamlet of Baan Nam Kem and its tsunami memorial.
If coming from Khao Lak or further south, you’ll want to follow Phet Kasem Road (aka route 4) for a good 30 kilometres as it flanks the Andaman coast. Stay on Phet Kasem as it turns to the east — passing the entrance road to the tsunami memorial and Ko Kho Khao pier — until you enter into Takua Pa town itself. Phet Kasem then turns sharply to the left at an intersection adjacent to the tourist information centre, but you’ll want to take the sharp right here onto Rat Bumrung Road. Follow this road for about eight kilometres as it snakes alongside the Takua Pa River, and then take a right at the road’s end onto Thanon Montri 2, then the next left, which will take you straight to Sri Takua Pa Road. The market gets rolling around 15:00 every Sunday.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.