In the years since, the five main Old Town streets, Dibuk, Thalang, Phang Nga, Rassada and Krabi roads, plus Soi Romanee and other small lanes have been given an uplift. Much to every photographer’s delight, unsightly power lines along Dibuk and Thalang roads have now been buried, allowing the beauty of the centuries-old Sino-Portuguese buildings to shine through. More power line projects are in the works for other streets.
Soi Romanee has seen the most striking changes. This narrow one-way lane was once a rowdy red-light street for Chinese immigrants back in Phuket’s heady tin-mining days. Then it saw a decline, and up until about five years ago most of its buildings sat in an unused and crumbling state. Since then, nearly all of the two-storey structures lining the soi have been given a bright new coat of pastel-toned paint and some hip cafés and offices have opened up.
A one-stop shop explaining Phuket’s past is found along Phang Nga Road. This new Phuket City Information Centre has photos and displays that explain the meaning behind the different architectural details of the buildings in the area, plus models of an old-style well and oven. Here, you can pick up a free booklet called ‘Enchanted Phuket Town’, published by the Phuket City Municipality and brimming with information, in Thai and English, about Phuket Old Town and nearby attractions, as well as a suggested walking tour and map.
Next door, another transformation has taken place at the On On Hotel. Built in 1929, the hotel’s intricate white facade has made a striking presence in the area, so much so that it was chosen as a backdrop in the film ‘The Beach’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Inside, it had a rather grand lobby area but the guest rooms upstairs were small and rather dingy. The oldest hotel in Phuket Town, up until a couple of years ago it offered cheap accommodation favoured by backpackers on a tight budget. But the hotel has recently undergone an extensive renovation and major facelift. Now rebranded ‘The Memory at On On Hotel’, it has retained its charm – and even some dormitory rooms – but with choices like ‘The Memory Junior Suite’ things have clearly moved on at On On.
Shrine of Serene Light on Phang Nga Road has been home to Chinese-speaking men with hammers and chisels for a few years now, as the 1891 shrine has been undergoing a major restoration. Formerly a private shrine belonging to a prominent Phuket family of Hokkien Chinese origin, the entrance was once tiny and hard to spot on the road. Now it’s been opened up and there are not one, but two, elaborate arches along the entrance path with fierce dragons among the intricate detailing along the top.
Be sure to visit the room behind the Chinese god statues, where large murals of Chinese warriors are found, part of the original design that have been restored.
The former Standard Chartered Bank building at the corner of Phuket and Phang Nga roads is being turned into a museum for the Baba-Peranakan culture that thrives in Phuket and elsewhere around Southeast Asia. Baba-Peranakan grew from the blending of Chinese, Malay and Thai cultures following the large influx of Chinese immigrant workers to the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The museum opens daily from 9am to 4.30pm. There is a modest exhibition of women’s traditional Baba attire on display. The 100-year-old building once housed Phuket’s first foreign bank and sits opposite the town’s original police station and clock tower.
One of the stately old mansions along Krabi Road now houses the Blue Elephant, a branch of the international Thai restaurant and cookery school found in London, Paris and other cities in Europe and Asia. This former governor’s residence was built in 1903; it has long been a stunning sight for people passing by, even in its dereliction. When Blue Elephant took over, it spent millions of baht in restoring the building to its former elegance, with added modern flourishes. It’s now a must-visit place for both cuisine and history buffs, and its stylish surrounds have made Blue Elephant a popular choice for wedding receptions and magazine photo shoots.
Next door sits Chinpracha House, one of the few mansions in Phuket that are open to the public.
The current owners are descendants of the original builder, Prapitak Chinpracha, the son of an immigrant from the Fujian region of China who made his fortune in tin mining. The 110-year-old home has been maintained in pristine condition and is chock-full of a collection of photographs, furniture and artifacts from China and old Phuket. Its cool, tranquil interior feels a world away from the hot, hectic resort areas of Phuket – a perfect antidote for those needing a break from the beach.