Many a visitor to the ‘Pearl of the Andaman’ will leave convinced that this overdeveloped west coast bay is some kind of hedonist’s paradise, where the day’s beach-side Speedo and thong parade gives way to a night-time of Bacchanalian excess along Soi Bangla (and its temptress soi sisters Easy, Gonzo and Crocodile).
Admittedly, many tourists come to Phuket precisely to throw away their moral compass, shed their clothing, and indulge in the kind of questionable evening behaviour that would never be possible – or acceptable – back home. But a few come looking for something else, a taste of Phuket’s unique culinary and historical story.
You often see these tourists in Phuket Town, wandering aimlessly under the burning sun, map in hand, walking in continuous circles around the Ratsada, Yaowarat, Dibuk, and Phuket Road circuit, admiring the old architecture, but understanding nothing about how it came to be. I should know, I’ve been one.
However, you need wander (should that be wonder?) no longer, for enlightenment is at hand, in the form of Phuket Heritage Trails (PHT).
Specialising in walking tours of the Old Town, the owner and chief guide of the company is local Phuketian Kritchaya Na Takuathung, a former newspaper reporter and hotel PR who is now devoted to introducing visitors to the living history of Phuket Town. As her website says: “Beneath the postcard paradise attractions of beach umbrellas and Mai Tais, lies an important gem of history developed over the course of centuries”.
With her PR background, she is all-too-familiar with island tours that promise a day of exotic culture only to end up spending the vast majority of the day in shops selling tourist trinkets, pearls paraphernalia, and the gold jewellery you never knew you needed. As she points out, “Phuket Heritage Trails stands apart from other local tours in that it is not a commercial tour jammed with commission motivated shopping diversions.”
Ironically, PHT tours start from a rather modern (and more than a little garish) dragon statue that stands next to the local Tourism of Thailand offices. In our first history lesson of the day, Chaya explains that the Thai-Chinese believe that Phuket island, because of its distinctive shape, is a dragon arisen from the Andaman Sea. Knowledge a little expanded, from here, we head west onto Thalang Road, one of the oldest thoroughfares on the island.
As she goes on to tell us, Phuket Town’s fortune was made on the back of tin mining, a once hugely lucrative industry that led to the creation of a major trade network throughout the region. Chinese immigrants flocked here in their thousands hoping to make their fortune – the more successful of them built the shop-houses that still stand on Thalang Road today.
They mixed with Phuket’s existing mix of ethnic Thai, Chao Lay, the sea gypsies who still eke out a living in small fishing villages around the island, and Malays, including the ancestors of Abdul, who runs the popular roti shop that bears his name, and is where we stop for breakfast.
Generations of backpackers are familiar with the distinctive roti dough as the wrapping for banana pancakes, but this distinctive, flaky ‘bread’ is best devoured with a bowl of curry. At Abdul’s you can choose between fish, chicken and beef – we highly recommend the latter. They also make an excellent teh tarik, or pulled tea in Malay, a sweet, steaming mug of goodness.
Stomach full, it’s off to shop at the many batik shops along Thalang Road. Often run by ethnic Malays and Indians, they sell this distinctive cloth at great value – in every way a better souvenir than the imitation T-shirts, Australian beer coolers, and fall-apart flip-flops you’ll find in Patong.
Chaya’s fascinating explanation of history continues with stops at Chinese temples, crumbling mansions, cultural museums, and a nunnery, before heading up nearby Rang Hill for a bird’s eye view of Phuket Town and beyond.
Our tour finished with lunch at the famous Lock Tien food court on the corner of Yaowarat and Dibuk, where Chaya ordered us a feast of Peranakan delights. As she explained (a fountain of information, there is seemingly no question you can ask about Phuket Town that the knowledgeable lady can’t answer) Peranakans – also found in Penang, Malacca and Singapore – are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who intermarried with local Malays. Accordingly, their cuisine blends Malay spices with Chinese ingredients and wok cooking techniques.
The final result is a wealth of wonderful and unique flavours, traits that could just as equally be applied to Phuket Town as a whole. Welcome to the real heart of the island.
For more information on Phuket Heritage Trails, see www.facebook.com/Phuketheritage. Chaya can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 085-1589-788.
Tours cost from B1,800-B2,100 per person, and are inclusive of hotel pick-up and drop-off, all museum entry fees and meal costs.