Traveling Back in Time in Phuket
Forget the beaches. The most beautiful place in Phuket might just be its historic Old Town.
Standing at the entrance to Baan Chinpracha House on Krabi Road in Old Phuket Town, the famous beaches and bars of this Thai island were the furthest thing from my mind. Spotting a row of antique, red wedding carriages bedecked in flowers and canopies, I imagined a bride, swathed in vividly colored Thai silks, being wheeled through these narrow streets a century ago. Inside the mansion, still owned by the fourth generation of the family that built it in 1903, I was drawn in by the family photos, furniture inlaid with mother of pearl, and lavish clothing that the residents might have worn a century ago. The house—a unique blend of Chinese and European influences, with Ionic columns, colorful ceramic tile floors, and an arched inner courtyard—was a window into Phuket’s rich history.
Baan Chinpracha is one of many mansions built by wealthy tin barons in Phuket in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the distinct Sino-Portuguese style, with red-tiled roofs, porticos, and elaborately carved eaves and façades. Many have been converted to restaurants, museums and other uses: The former governor’s house, next door to Baan Chinpracha, is now the popular Blue Elephant restaurant; another houses the Thai Airways office. On the surrounding streets, two-story shophouses sprang up, allowing merchant families would live above their businesses. Today, after a decade of restoration, the district is a visual showcase of elaborate detail and a rainbow of colors.
The most concentrated stretch of picturesque shophouses is on Soi Romanee, the narrow lane between Dibuk Road and the town’s main street, Thalang Road. Originally a red-light district catering to Chinese-born mineworkers, the area is still inhabited by families of Chinese origin, evidenced by hanging lanterns and Hanzi characters etched into buildings. The detail on the façades and the vibrant colors—periwinkle blue next to marigold and pink, with curved windows highlighted in contrasting shades—create settings so enticing that it’s not unusual to see couples posing for wedding photos here.
But the street is not a museum: lively cafés and galleries operate in the ground floors of many shophouses, each more striking than the last. One of the most beautiful addresses is No. 16, gilded and painted a strawberry color—fittingly, since it’s now home to the popular Torry’s ice cream parlor, which makes house flavors like coconut milk with pea flower; durian; and coconut with slivers of a-pong, a crispy grilled pancake. I settled in at a table in the bright yellow room with its ceramic-tiled floor and crystal chandelier for a vivid if conservative choice—mango.
At the end of the street, just past a series of bright, contemporary murals, the din of shopkeepers, customers and clicking cameras crescendos at the intersection with Thalang Road. I turned to the right to peer at one of the street’s architectural stars, No. 20, just over a block away. The elaborate brick-red shophouse once housed a money exchange, and now contains an antique store and, behind that, China Inn Café, an enticing restaurant serving Thai food in a garden-like setting. I headed to the left instead to see No. 112, whose second-story terrace doors are each painted a different color. It houses the contemporary fusion restaurant Eleven Two & Co. Walking this street, between No. 20 and No. 112, reveals a multitude of styles. And doing it on Sunday night, when cars are banned and the street transforms into an open-air market, it’s easy to feel transported back in time. But even on this busy midday with the noise of traffic, the scene was so enthralling that I decided to walk back to take another look. The beach could wait.
Baan Chinpracha House: 98 Krabi Road, Talad Nuea, Phuket Town; +66 76-211 281
Blue Elephant: 96 Krabi Road, Phuket Town; +66 76-354 355
Torry’s Ice Cream: 16 Soi Rommanee, Thalang Road, Phuket Town; +66 76-510 888
China Inn Café: 20 Thalang Road, Phuket Town; +66 76-356 239
Eleven Two & Co.:112-114 Thalang Road, Phuket Town; +66 76-354 424