Many visitors to the Thai island of Phuket (pronounced poo-KET) focus on its famous white beaches and luxurious resorts. Too bad, because they’re missing out on its fascinating history. From the 17th century until the 1970s, it was tin mining, not tourism, that sustained the economy. Hokkien Chinese immigrants began arriving from the British Straits settlements to work the mines on Phuket, then called Thalang, in the 1820s; they established a commercial center in what’s now the Old Town.
Nowhere else in Thailand will you find as many streets lined with distinctive Sino-Portuguese shops. Lately the government has been busily burying phone and power lines along Old Town streets, beginning with the tourist-centric Thalang Road and the genteelly renovated block-long Soi Romanee (once a red-light district). Some residents have transformed their houses into hotels, shops and eateries, but elsewhere life remains unchanged. This coexistence of present and past makes for a delightful shopping experience, whether on foot or by tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw). Indispensable to meandering around Old Town is the free Phuket Town Treasure Map, available at many shops, hotels and restaurants or from the publisher’s office at Serendipity Designs.
As a child in the 1960s, Supat “Noi” Promchan peeked through the grilles of the “most beautiful home on Thalang Road,” then owned by a rich Chinese businessman, and fantasized about living there. In 2004, after 20 years as a designer-antiques dealer and a two-and-a-half-year restoration, she realized her dream. The gracious China Inn Café & Restaurant showcases Noi’s collection of antique and fine-reproduction textiles, lacquerware, basketry and furniture, plus objects from Thailand and the surrounding region. Most are for sale: Burmese lacquered bowls; sarongs from Thailand, Malaysia and Burma; Chiang Mai glass paintings. To nourish her devoted customers, Noi created a cozy 7-table, tree-shaded garden restaurant. The large menu features fresh, enticingly presented local specialties, such as yam ma muang goong sod (green-mango salad) and Massaman curry.
The oldest Chinese herb shop in Phuket, Nguan Choon Tong, still sells traditional Chinese and Thai remedies at its original circa 1905 premises. Now overseen by the great-grandson of the original Hokkien Chinese owner, whose faded photograph hangs on a wall, the shop has cabinets filled with more than 1,000 medicinal herbs.* Many are made according to Chinese doctors’ prescriptions, combining leaves, bark, dried insects and other ingredients stored in the original wooden drawers. Ready-made Thai and Chinese herbal remedies for reducing cholesterol, cleansing the blood and detoxifying sell for less than $3 a package.
Because Phuket lacks a signature handicraft tradition, most Old Town souvenir shops sell ho-hum touristy knickknacks from around the region. Not so at the diminutive Job & Things, which reflects the gentle personality and design sense of its owner, Job, a former archeologist who goes by one name only. She sells a seemingly haphazard mix of scarves, clothing, pillows, necklaces, cloth totes, framed pictures, bedcovers, cards, crystals and bibelots from across Southeast Asia. On close inspection, every item integrates with its neighbors. Job’s motto: “I sell what I want, what speaks to my heart.”
Locals shop at Antique Arts, which stocks a pleasantly crowded assortment of predominantly Chinese antiques found on buying trips to Fujian province, in that country’s southeast. Expect silver pieces from the Chinese-Tibetan border, Buddha statues and amulets, porcelain (some from the Ming dynasty), wood carvings, ivory, jade, jewelry and bronze. The well-informed owner, Worawut Limsuephchua, acknowledges that while his entire stock is unique, half of it comprises reproductions. Ask to see photos of his off-site collection of antique and reproduction Chinese furniture.
Opened in December 2011 in a long-abandoned cinema, HI.SO. is the first contemporary-design store in the Old Town. Its uncluttered showroom, which has a minimalist black-tile-and-white-stone floor, stands apart from other Old Town shops. The French owner-designer, Marc Gliede, describes his concept as “a new era of aesthetic Asia.” The shop carries imaginative and well-executed Asian-inspired kitsch home furnishings. The lighting is of particular interest: mirrored Ganesh lamps, elegant globe lamps covered with intricate white-shell rosettes, and a range of fixtures whose shades are decorated with chicken feathers dyed in bright colors.
Even inveterate shoppers need a restaurant break sometimes. Head to Raya Thai Cuisine for keng kati sai poo (crab curry with coconut milk) or yum phet yang (spicy roast-duck salad). After a day of shopping in Phuket, you’ll be rewarded with the sight of Thais seriously engaged in their favorite pastime—eating together.
*Consult your physician before using any herbal remedies
Serendipity Designs: 16 Soi Romanee; 184.108.40.2066)
China Inn Café & Restaurant: 20 Thalang Rd.; 66.76.356.239
Nguan Choon Tong: 16 Thalang Rd.; 220.127.116.111
Job & Things: 2/4 Phang Nga Rd.; 18.104.22.16886
Antique Arts: 68 PHANG NGA RD.; 22.214.171.1249
HI.SO.: 169 Yaowarat Rd.; 66.81.090.3100
Raya Thai Cuisine: 48 New Dibuk Rd.; 66-76-218-155)