In delving into the new Old Phuket, a must-visit is the Memory at On On Hotel, Phuket's oldest hotel that has recently reopened after an extensive makeover. It's still owned by the same family that founded the hotel back in 1929, but after decades of being a rather dismal backpacker hotel, management was turned over to a Bangkok hospitality company, The Treasury Village Group.
A multi-million-baht upgrade restored this faded beauty's shine with the help of Phuket native Namfon Kanchanasaya, who is well known for her skilled eye for colour and design as the founder of Ceramics of Phuket.
Distinctive design pieces including an antique gramophone, vintage photographs and painted wooden shutters evoke the feeling of a romantic era of travel, while crisp white bed linens, ceramic bathroom basins and a bold use of bright colours throughout add a modern look. The inner courtyard, which uses the original open-roof architecture to allow in fresh air and sunlight, gives the downtown hotel an ambiance of a private garden space.
Just across the road from the On On is Siam Indigo, now a hub for great food and glamour since the 100-year-old shophouse was given an alluring uplift by Celine Masson and her partner in the business, architect Pisit Aongskultong, seven years ago. Khun Pisit said the design was inspired by tin mining in the old days and Baba-Peranakan culture.
In the seven-month renovation of this former travel office, partitions were removed to open the interior space and the back area developed into an enchanting garden patio, complete with an elaborate statue of Hindu God Ganesha created by Khun Namfon, the same designer who directed the On On's upgrade. Parts of the wall are artfully broken away to reveal the original brickwork.
Other original elements including the roof were restored to their former glory, while the interior was converted into a vivid and welcoming space adorned with rich red velvet curtains, glitter balls and a series of shimmering ceramic mosaic pictures of Hollywood starlets by Chiang Mai artist Surachai Sripaiboon.
Another restaurant in Old Phuket that's become a talked-about spot to enjoy a dressed-up evening out is The Brasserie, which is housed in 110-year-old shophouse originally built for much less elegant purposes: a shop selling spare parts for tractors.
When Alain Tabruyn and Phuket native Kwanjai Wonglee took over the building three years ago, the couple created a chic bar and restaurant that blends classic Old Phuket style and the traditional design of a Parisian brasserie.
Bathed in the warm glow of stunning chandeliers handmade in Phuket, the restaurant is divided into different areas, each with a distinct mood, from the bright oyster bar to a cosy bar designed to resemble a copper brewing pot just behind it, to the swanky main dining area lined with a long red leather bench, to the romantic enclosed garden terrace tucked away at the back.
Alain reveals that they will soon open a high-end restaurant next door with only 25 seats and a noted chef will create his artful dishes in a specially designed kitchen at the centre of the dining room. As the evening progresses, the chef's table will be converted into a DJ station and diners will be free to dance the night away.
Perhaps the best example of the old town segueing into something new is the Kopitiam cafe on Thalang Road, run by the affable Wiwan Bumrungwang, the great-granddaughter of the founder of the town's oldest herb shop, still in operation by the family right next door. Housed in a shophouse originally built by the powerful Tan family 100 years ago, and since bought by Khun Wiwan's family, Kopitiam opened three years ago and quickly became the go-to spot for authentic local food.
Covering the walls of the low-key yet inviting interior are several photographs of Phuket through the ages, which Khun Wiwan brought out from her uncle's extensive historical photograph collection. Kopitiam's warm decor with Baba-Chinese touches immerses diners into the local Phuket scene as much as the delicious Hokkien noodles it serves up.
Another Phuket-born entrepreneur, Watinee "Ann" Keatipanpatana, whose grandfather settled in the Thalang area after emigrating from China, has given new life to an old shophouse on Soi Romanee. Aptly named The Rommanee, this boutique guesthouse was a true labour of love for this computer programmer-turned-hotelier, who opened it late last year.
Many modern touches were added to the 80-year-old building, while its teal green exterior blends in well with the historic street's pastel-toned buildings. With only four guest rooms to work with, Khun Ann designed each in a unique and whimsical style: a modern Chinese room in red and black tones, a 'colourful' room, a retro room and a minimal room.
Phuket Town is getting older but with the help of some creative minds and fresh ideas it continues to be reborn anew. It's now emerging as a place where the hip and historic intermingle, as a new generation finds ways to honour the town's past while adding up-to-date appeal. Within each of these historic buildings many stories and surprises continue to unfold, which reveal as much about Phuket's future as its past.