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Sang Tham is a small Chinese Taoist shrine in Phuket Town that’s a microcosm of the transformation taking place in the town’s Old Town district. What was once an oft-missed sight hidden away down a narrow lane is now revealed in grand style with an ornate streetside archway topped by lively dragons.
The shrine, also known as the Shrine of Serene Light, was built in the 1891 by one of Phuket’s most prominent Hokkien Chinese families, the Tan clan. Once a private shrine for the family, over the past decade a restoration project has been underway, bustling with craftsmen brought in from China chiseling away at the doors, walls and roof details. The restored shrine was officially opened in February 2013.
There’s a lot that’s new here: the narrow lane has been widened, paved and tiled. The elaborate archway at the street entrance makes the shrine impossible to miss now when passing by, and it is now open to all. Within the temple grounds, another archway and more buildings have been built around the main shrine, most vividly a white and blue Sino-Portuguese shophouse.
The main shrine has been carefully restored, inside and out. Staring back at you through the wafting incense smoke from within its dim interior is a fierce looking collection of god and goddess statues. Battle-ready warriors are carved into the sturdy wooden entrance doors.
Tucked away behind the statues is the shrine’s most striking sight: large murals depicting some rather regal figures and more warriors, completely covering the two-storey-high walls. It’s especially dim back here and the murals look old. They’ve been restored with a light touch and retain some sense of smoky ancient mystery.
The shrine is just one of many Old Town buildings seeing changes in recent years. The historic district of Phuket Town has finally gotten the attention it deserves with a community-driven revitalisation project bringing the streets back to the glory of their late 1800s tin-mine boom times (and making it a more attractive place for travellers to set up base, as well).
Not everyone has been cheering the changes at the shrine. Its expansion has diminished its feel as a hidden treasure — in the past it was one of those delightful unexpected finds that travellers would have stumbled upon by accident. On the other hand, the shrine’s now more tightly woven into the fabric of the dynamic streets of Old Phuket, a rare part of the island that not only celebrates its past but where the right kinds of efforts are being made to protect its future.
Sang Tham Shrine is found on Phang Nga Road, not far from the On On Hotel, which has also recently reopened after a big renovation (more on this soon). Entry is free but donations are welcome.
By Lana Willocks
Last updated on 21st September, 2014.