Phuket Town’s hidden legacy
Besides its sun, sand and sea, Phuket has a precious cultural legacy well worth seeking out. Take a stroll in the old part of Phuket Town and you will feel as if you are walking back in time.
Big improvements have recently been made along Thalang Road and Krabi Road in the heart of the old town. The ugly tangles of electricity and telephone cables have been moved underground and the houses renovated and repainted, restoring the charm of the old town. And the changes have not gone unnoticed, as the numbers of visitors eager to catch a glimpse of Phuket’s heritage are gradually increasing.
“The front door is the mouth while the windows either side are the eyes,” Suchada Chanchuwanichkul, a native of Phuket, said of the house fronts while guiding me around the town.
“All the doors and windows are made of solid wood, and most of them are wonderfully carved to show the wealth of the owners.”
Most houses in the old town are shop-houses owned by descendants of Chinese families. The houses are a blend of Chinese and Western designs, known as the Sino-Portuguese style, due to the Portuguese presence and influence in the Malay peninsular since the 16th century.
In the 18th century, most tin mining in Phuket was carried out by Hokkien Chinese who built much of the old part of the city. Later, in the early 20th century, when Phraya Rassada Nupradit was governor of Phuket, European mining companies arrived, and major civil engineering projects such as roads and canals were completed. During this period, many shophouses in the Sino-Portuguese style were built.
“Unfortunately, some houses have been rebuilt in a modern style. But some foreigners rented or bought these houses and renovated them in a traditional style, and after realising their true beauty, they are now recognised as a precious legacy,” she noted.
It is usually impossible for tourists to visit private houses, but now people living along Thalang and Krabi roads are raising awareness of the architectural beauty of their homes and are starting to open their houses for tourists to visit.
“In the past, Thalang Road was called ‘big market’, while Krabi Road, which runs on from Thalang Road, was known as the back of the village. This gives you the idea that Krabi Road was quite remote a century ago,” she said while walking me into a house, which normally is not open for tourists.
“These houses are about five metres wide. But they are at least 70 metres long. Each house has a roofless area that lets the light flood in. It’s good for ventilation too. Inside, there are bedrooms, a kitchen, room for storage, etc.”
I was quite surprised to learn that some houses are longer than 80 metres. All have high ceilings to cope with the hot and humid climate, and many do not have mains water, but have their own wells. Some houses also have back gardens and vegetable plots.
One house belonging to the Ong Sim Phand family, at 97 Krabi Road, is a place you should not miss if you have a chance. The house has just been renovated and a new tiled floor in the old style. The walls have been repainted and it is quite beautiful.
The first room houses a portrait of Ong Sim Phand, her grandfather. The next room is a living room with a traditional open air space. There is a sofa set in front of a wooden wall which is delicately carved in the Chinese style.
“This house is about 80 years old. My grandfather bought it from a Penang merchant for 4,000 baht,” Jariya Wongsalert, the third generation of the family to live in this house, told me.
“If you are just a normal guest, you will be greeted only in the front room. Close friends can go deeper inside the house. So, the deeper you enter, the better your relationship with the house owner.
“That old wall is still strong today. The old bricks were made from clay mixed with syrup from brown sugar.”
Inside is a spacious living area, kitchen, office and bedrooms. In the back garden is parking for the family’s cars, and in total, this house is 180 metres long.
I left the house having been surprised and a little jealous of their beautiful home.