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Keeping up appearances: Does Phuket Old Town need World Heritage status?

Keeping up appearances: Does Phuket Old Town need World Heritage status?

HOT TOPIC: The face of modern Phuket is constantly changing. New developments dot the island’s coast, and massive infrastructure projects are in the pipeline. However, beneath this facade of shiny new beachside villas and luxury property estates, lies a rich history; albeit one slowly disappearing.

Friday 14 October 2011, 05:56PM

Phuket's Old Town has changed little in the past century; receiving UNESCO World Heritage status would ensure it stays this way long into the future.

Phuket's Old Town has changed little in the past century; receiving UNESCO World Heritage status would ensure it stays this way long into the future.

This weekend, Professor Yukio Nishimura, urban planner and Vice-President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), whose functions include evaluation of World Heritage sites, will visit Phuket Town, a major step in its bid for UNESCO World Heritage status.

In the immediate term, bestowing World Heritage status would bring two key things to the island: money from the World Heritage Trust to assist with restoration work; and an influx of tourists to Phuket Town; however the long-term effects of attaining such status are by no means all positive.


Phuket Town’s heritage is closely intertwined with that of Penang, Malaysia. It shares the same Peranakan ancestry, and much of the architecture in the Old Town was directly modeled on that of its Malaysian counterpart, and hence British influenced. The historic capital of Penang, George Town, was granted World Heritage Status in 2008, but it hasn’t necessarily been all smooth sailing since then.

Alex Ong is a native Penangite, as the islanders are known, and an organiser of the George Town Festival, an annual celebration of the inscription of George Town on the UNESCO World Heritage List on July 7, 2008. He believes that, “The [inscription] has favoured the development of George Town... in terms of awareness, conservation and protection of both our tangible and intangible heritage.

“On the other hand, livelihoods in inner city George Town are getting tougher due to rising rental costs. The people are moving out to the suburbs and new townships, and some streets are dead at night.”

It seems to be a common sentiment. Ooi Geok Ling, Managing Director of Penang Global Tourism (PGT), told online news site iGeorgeTown in March this year that “The most obvious change is the surge in demand for property in George Town. Property prices have increased tremendously.”


Dr Kosol Taeng-uthai is the President of the Thai Peranakan Association, an NGO leading the charge for Phuket Old Town to attain World Heritage Status. He is convinced it would bring beneficial results, but says the process must be slow to ensure it is done right – “at least two years” is his time estimate.

“I think it’s a world standard, and the power of globalisation that UNESCO brings can help... people to preserve their heritage,” he said.

“Normally with heritage, people think of the buildings and the architecture, but we also have intangible ‘software’ like food. Now the Peranakan Association is dealing a lot with the intangible heritage.

“We are trying to preserve the ‘hardware’ and the ‘software’. Hardware means the heritage sites, software means the intangible culture. It’s important because if the locals do not start this programme, then it will not be successful. It should be from the local people.”

Dr Kosol says the aim would be for the area bordered by Dibuk Rd to the north, Montri Rd to the east, all the way to Sapan Hin in the south, and Satun Rd to the west, to be declared a World Heritage area. Phuket Town would then form part of a ‘trans-boundary’ heritage zone along with George Town, Penang and Malacca, both in Malaysia, both of which also have Peranakan Associations.

Interestingly, Phuket Town’s heritage architecture is already fairly well protected. In 1994, Phuket Municipality designated 210 rai (33.6 hectares), covering Rassada, Phang Nga, Yaowarat, Krabi, Dibuk and Thalang Roads as a conservation area, prohibiting buildings more than 12 metres high.


Yindee Manosuntthorn is the Head of the Phuket Old Town Community, as well as being a long time business owner on Thalang Road in the heart of the historic area.

“I think the community is too small, and so to join with more people, or people with more influence [like UNESCO] would be a good thing,” she says.

Khun Yindee seems acutely aware of the external pressures that the UNESCO title would bring, but says it is something that has already been discussed among the community. But rather than forcing the closure of local businesses, she believes it may actually save them.

She says some long time business owners in Phuket’s Old Town are already selling up shop, particularly as large families divide inheritances. It is simply not as profitable as locations on the west coast, or in Bangkok. “If a lot of tourists come [to the Old Town], it would encourage local people to stay and run the business because it would be more profitable; it is actually an incentive not to sell.”

She is not alone in that opinion. Journalist Normandy Madden lives in Macau – a World Heritage site since 2006 – but also has a home in Phuket. She says she loves Phuket Town “because it’s a miniature crossroads of history”, and believes any concerns about property ownership are probably unfounded.

I do think it would benefit the local community, in terms of bringing in more revenue and maintaining some of those old businesses, many of which don’t do a thriving business now – it’s a very quiet area in low season,” she said.

Central Macau, the ruins of St. Paul and the Plaza de Senado, as well as the protected villages of Coloane island, have more tourists now than they did before, but they still look more or less the same as they did years ago.”

The Thai Peranakan Association’s Dr Kosol is also confident of the commitment of local people to retain their ownership of property, and ensure that the ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ remain in local hands.

“In Phuket, people worry about the future, about the economy. But Baba [another name for Peranakan] people are clever enough to plan how to manage when the future is changing. I think the economy will be growing up fast, and I know that many people from other provinces or other countries will invest here. But I have told everyone that they should remain as owners of the property so we still have a voice in how the town can change.”


Not everyone is so eager for World Heritage Status. Kritchaya Na Takuathung operates Heritage Trails, which runs guided tours for tourists through Phuket’s Old Town. Khun Kritchaya obviously has a vested interest in World Heritage Status being granted – it would be good for her business – but she is hesitant to say that it should go ahead, at least in the immediate term.

“[World Heritage Status is] yes and no for me. If you look at business, it will be very, very good. It will draw more tourists to Phuket Town, and make people understand that there is a culture in Phuket Town.

“The downside from what I see is that if you go to Penang or Malacca, people are still living in the culture. When I take people around Phuket Town, the culture is just the buildings... I don’t think the local people really understand what tourists want to see from that.”

Most importantly, Khun Kritchaya feels the people of Phuket Town are simply not ready to meet the expectations that would be required of them should they achieve World Heritage Status.

“So many people are too busy, or too caught up with their daily lives and trying to make money, and they don’t have enough information to show people. That’s what scares me if we are to be announced as a World Heritage Site – I don’t think the people are ready... They know the name of the local food, for example, but they don’t know the story behind that food.

If we have World Heritage Status, people will be expected to live in the culture, and that means answering questions about the culture.”


If there is one concern seemingly shared by everyone involved with Phuket’s heritage, it is the younger generations. With bigger and better opportunities for education and employment in Bangkok or overseas, it is becoming difficult for Phuket’s Peranakans to ingrain their cultural traits into their youth.

Phuket Old Town Community Head Khun Yindee says that because so many well educated children go off to study and live abroad, it has become difficult to keep the Peranakan culture alive. But she also thinks World Heritage Status would help restore cultural values. It could encourage people to take pride in their ancestry, and learn more about their past in the same way that Penang has embraced theirs.

Khun Kritchaya from Heritage Trails also sees it as the definitive factor. She says in Penang, young people are proud and knowledgeable about their history, a trait not widely replicated in Phuket.

“The most important thing I think is not UNESCO, and it is not Penang or Malacca. The most important thing is the local people here in the Phuket Old Town. We should talk more and discuss together more, and liaise on how to preserve our culture, and how to plan our economy, and plan how to educate our children to ensure our heritage can live beyond the buildings.”


With younger generations seemingly uninterested in their heritage, Khun Kritchaya questions the true motives behind the community’s desire for World Heritage Status for Old Phuket Town.

“This is probably bad to say, but there are probably some who want to open their arms to accept tourists because they can make more money. But you should want to show off about your culture because you’re part of it, not because you want money from tourist’s pockets.

“Another risk is that we have so many tour operators and travel agents. I’m afraid if we have this title [World Heritage Status], these tour operators will only use it as another selling tool to draw people to buy more Phuket tours. That would be bad.”

Overall though, she gives a qualified yes to World heritage status. “I think UNESCO is the way to go. If you asked me ‘do you want the UNESCO title’, I would say yes. But I don’t think we’re ready. The buildings are ready, but the people are not ready. We need to educate our own people first, and make sure we are talking about the same thing before we open up the door and welcome more people here.”

Mr Madden has seen first hand the effects that World Heritage Status can bring in Macau, and believes Phuket has nothing to worry about, so long as it is managed well.

It might threaten the local culture – but we’re not talking about an isolated village with tribes closed to western and modern life. Phuket Town was a centre of commerce and trade from the start and had a mix of cultures. Cities all evolve, and if Phuket can use its World Heritage Status to defend local buildings and businesses, that would be great – for everyone – especially if it means that local cafes can’t be taken over by, say, Starbucks, in the name of preservation.”

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that if it is granted, UNESCO World Heritage Status is not a recognition of work already done – rather it is a contract of obligation to the future of heritage preservation, a contract that must be signed up to by every local resident and curious tourist alike.

– Dane Halpin

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