A must-do in Phuket is a walk in the old part of Phuket City, around Thalang, Dibuk and Krabi roads. The beautiful architecture along these roads will take you back the charm of a century ago. According to Pranee Sakulpitpatana, a lecturer at Phuket Rajabhat University and one of the island’s premier historians, the architecture is a reflection of European influence on the island.
Old Phuket Houses
A must-do in Phuket is a walk in the old part of Phuket City, around Thalang, Dibuk and Krabi roads. The beautiful architecture along these roads will take you back the charm of a century ago. According to Pranee Sakulpitpatana, a lecturer at Phuket Rajabhat University and one of the island’s premier historians, the architecture is a reflection of European influence on the island. Europeans including the Portuguese and the British, had been interested in Phuket’s tin wealth since the 16th century.
In the 18th century, much of the island’s tin mining was carried out by Hokkien Chinese who became the big players in building the old part of the city. In the early 20th century, under Governor Phraya Rassada Nupradit, major European mining companies were invited in, and the major public infrastructure such as roads and canals was built.
No one knows exactly when the first building in this style was constructed, but old photographs from the reign of King Rama V (1853-1910) show that it was already well established by then. Two styles of building in particular stand out: the shop-house (Sino-Portuguese style) and the big mansion (Sino-Colonial style).
The Sino-Portuguese Shop Houses in Phuket
The shop-house was a place for a family to both live and do business, using the front of the building for trading and the remainder, including the upper floor, as their private home. Businesses in those days included banks, general stores and tin mining offices. Shop-houses are usually found built in rows, giving rise to the Hokkien Chinese term tiam choo, meaning a row of shop-houses.
The floor plans of all these shop-houses are very similar: five metres wide but as much as 50 metres long, creating a very spacious living space for an entire family. Across the front of each, along the edge of the street, is an arcade, offering shade and shelter to the public. Behind this, the house is usually divided into four parts.
There is a living room for general purposes and for receiving guests, followed by a space, open to the sky, with a well. At the rear is the kitchen. Upstairs is the family’s private area and bedrooms. In the old days, the central open area was often the heart of the house. It was here that you would find the women of the house chatting while cooking or doing the washing. It was also, in a sense, the lungs of the house, allowing air to flow through, even in the hottest month, April, when temperatures in Phuket can rise to 38 degrees C. Also contributing to the cool atmosphere were the thick, solidly-built walls.
Sino-Portuguese Houses to Visit
The House of the Beautiful Images on Soi Rommanee, a café with exhibition space for photography, open from 10 am to 9 pm every day except Wednesday. Tel: 076-214207
The Dibuk Grill and Bar on Dibuk Road, open from Monday to Saturday from 11:30 am to 3 pm and again from 6 pm to 11 pm. Tel: 076-218425
The China Inn Café & Restaurant on Thalang Road, open Monday to Wednesday from 11 am to 6 pm and on Thursday to Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm, and from 6 pm to 11 pm, closed on Sunday. Tel: 076-356239
China Inn in Phuket Town
In the old days, it was the custom for an entire extended Chinese family to live under one roof. The oldest son would take over the family house from his parents but his brothers would continue to stay there until they married. The sisters, too, would remain in the family home until they married (to someone of the same social and financial status).
Supat “Noy” Promchan, owner of the China Inn Café, had had a dream ever since she was a child, and has now made that dream come true. When she was a little girl, she lived not far from Thalang Road and often passed by a beautiful shop-house at 20 Thalang Road, the residence of a well-to-do business family.
Sometimes she would peep through the windows to see what was going on. She saw the daughters of the family, always dressed up and looking very beautiful. She often said to herself that she wanted as house like that for herself. Years later, Khun Noy noticed a “for rent” sign in front of the house. She immediately contacted the landlord. After spending more than 3 million baht and two and a half years renovating the place, Khun Noy opened it as a restaurant and souvenir shop, the China Inn Café & Restaurant. Her childhood dream had come true.
Opening Hours: open Monday to Wednesday from 11 am to 6 pm and on Thursday to Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm, and from 6 pm to 11 pm, closed on Sunday
Location: Thalang Road
Sino-Portuguese Mansions in Phuket
Another type of distinctive architecture is what the Hokkien Chinese call the angmor lao. It translates literally as “the big house of the red-hairs” - or European Mansion. After amassing wealth from tin mining or as merchants, many Chinese immigrants began building such mansions for their families, featuring a capacious portico, a terrace on the upper floor and a courtyard in the middle.
Some of the larger ones have two or three courtyards. As with the shop-houses, the courtyard was the site of the family well, from which servants would carry water into the master’s private bathroom. The servants, naturally, would bathe and do all the washing around the well.
Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion
Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion on Krabi Road, named after the owner, who made his fortune partly from tin before starting construction of the mansion during the world war II. Still in private hands and therefore not open to the public, it is widely recognized as the most beautiful home in Phuket
Tai Hua Museum
Tai Hua Museum on Thalang road. Built in 1911, this building was at one stage a Chinese Language school. These days it is used as a museum, exhibition space and occasional function hall.
Phuket Provincial Hall
Phuket Provincial Hall on Narisorn Road. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, this large building holds the offices of the province’s highest official, the Provincial Governor, but is open to the public apart from on special occasions. There are more than 50 pictures of old Phuket on display around the building.
Phuket Philatelic Museum
Phuket Philatelic Museum, at the intersection of Montri Road and Thalang Road. This building was the island’s first post office. It was renovated in 2004 and opened as a museum in early 2005.
Opening Hours: Every day apart from Sundays, Mondays and public holidays, from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm.
Baan Klung Jinda Restaurant
Baan Klung Jinda , at the intersection of Yaowarat Road and Mae Luan Road. This was originally built, 108 years ago, as the official residence of the town treasurer, in which role it served for many decades. It then fell into disuse until about five years ago, when a local businessman leased it and converted it into a high-end Thai restaurant. Apart from extensive renovation of the original building, he added a new wing.
Opening Hours: Every day except Sunday lunch is served between 11 am and 2 pm while dinner is from 5 to 11 pm
Jaroonrat “Daeng” Tandavanitj is the owner of Baan Chinpracha, a fine example of a Sino-Colonial mansion at 98 Krabi Road. Her late husband, Pracha Tandavanitj, inherited it from his father, who in turn was the eldest son of the original owner, Phra Pitak Chinpracha, who built it 105 years ago.
Khun Daeng, who is 65, still lives there. She keeps the upstairs as her private home, but opens the ground floor to the public. She has been managed to keep this beautiful house in fine condition - she feels it is her duty to do so.
The house has been used as a location in many films, both Thai and Western, including Hollywood films such as Heaven and Earth and the TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
This is the only Sino-Colonial mansion in Phuket that is open to the public.
Opening Hours: From 9 am till 4:30 pm. Private functions are also welcome. It is closed on Sundays.
Tel: 076-211167 and 076-211281
The best time to enjoy a wander around Phuket’s historical streets is from 8:30 am onward. There are many coffee shops serving local breakfast as early as 5 am, with affords visitors the opportunity to go for a fine filling meal with the locals. Most shops close at around 6 or 6:30 pm and most are shut on Sundays.
You might want to try some restaurants in the neighbourhood for lunch as well; they serve unique local dishes that you won’t usually find in your hotel.
Wear your most comfortable walking shoes and don’t forget your hat and sunglasses. Don’t carry too much stuff with you, but bring a camera - it’s a must.