as a break from the beaches, Old Phuket Town offers good contrasts

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Had enough beaches? Want to see more of the island? Old Phuket Town is one of the best places to begin. It lies directly east of Patong, a 20 minute drive over the mountain. From Bang Tao and Surin beaches it takes about 30 minutes, and just 15 from Chalong Bay.

The island of Phuket has a mixed history, with different waves of habitation shaping its landscapes. Ethnic Thais are relative newcomers and have never lived here in significant numbers. Thus, when you visit Phuket Town it is not really a Thai town that one finds, but a Chinese one.

A flood of ethnic Chinese into Phuket started in the 1800s when they moved north from strongholds in Malaya and Singapore to exploit the local tin mines. Chinese ran the mines; Chinese made the money and built the town that became the commercial hub and administrative centre.

Phuket Town is not large, and its streets narrow. Several lines of old row houses are beautifully preserved and now form a kind of living museum. Some of these are being converted into boutique accommodations, coffee shops, galleries, and other trendy establishments intent on preserving the architecture while making them useful in modern times.

Notable for gaudy, grotesque statuary and architecture are the three Chinese shrines in town. Both very traditional and well patronized, they remain the centre of many Thai-Chinese families’ social and spiritual lives.

The town also has a variety of interesting open-air markets, restaurants and night entertainment facilities, all helping to add spice and interest to a visit here. There are reasons to visit in the morning (the fresh market) and reasons to come in the evening (dining and entertainment). There are plenty of places to dine. See what interests you most here and plan your visit to Phuket Town accordingly.

Chinese shrines & Buddhist monasteries both give colour to Phuket Town

The religious traditions of both the Chinese and Thai are rooted in Buddhism, and both are emblazoned with fiery reds,oranges and yellows. But that's the end of their similarities.

Chinese Buddhism emanated from the Mahayana tradition, or Greater Wheel, that spread from India to Tibet into China, collecting numerous gods and goddesses on its journey to represent different aspects of the human condition.

Thai Buddhist tradition follows the Hinayana path, and might be called more 'pure'. technically it has no gods a all, with the Buddha himself being recognized simply as an enlightened monk and the great teacher.

The two religious traditions give Phuket some interesting contrasts, with three active Chinese temples and several Buddhist monasteries scattered through the town. Spend an hour walking and you will run into examples of each. It's the Chinese shrines, however, that stand to impress the most, for these are obviously wealthier than their Thai counterparts. And the major Thai Buddhist monasteries and shrines, like Wat Chalong and the Big Buddha are outside the town, not inside.

Phuket Town's fresh market – for a strong dose of Thai cuisine & culture

Phuket's fresh market in the middle of the old town is the best of its kind on the island, typical of Thai fresh markets countrywide and carrying the widest range of foodstuffs – fresh, dried, canned and preserved in all kinds of ways, right down to the process of rotten fermentation. And there are all kinds of other strange looking and smelling products that will somehow end up on a dinner table. Markets might not be for everyone, but for those who want a better look into Thai culture and cuisine, this market makes an interesting stop.... but only in the morning. Typical of many Thai markets, it opens with first light and is finished by 11 AM.

Most public busses running to and from beach areas – usually the 'song taew' trucks – use the market as their central terminus, making it easy for visitors to get here. If driving oneself, you'll find a carpark on the top floors above the market, which occupies the basement plus two floors.
The top of the market's three floors is virtually all fresh meat, poultry and seafood. It is interesting, and educational, to see what the fishermen are pulling from the oceans these days – and somewhat sad. There are far too many juvenile fish, and if in Australia the vendors and fishermen would be arrested for selling baby crabs and females heavy with eggs. There are a few live foods here, like eels, and farm-raised fish.

The middle floor is virtually all vegetables and related products, like curry pastes, preserved foods plus canned and bottled stuffs. Here one finds any number of strange foods or condiments that would be unimaginable in a Western kitchen. Do bring children here, for they too will be fascinated, and will probably raise all kinds of questions that their parents cannot answer.

The basement area is given over to a wide range of merchandise, some food, some clothing and various other staples of Thai markets. A series of food stalls here provide breakfast for vendors and customers, and one can easily find coffee and tea, and other food items, even if it requires lots of finger pointing to jump the language barrier.

modern markets & shopping malls near Phuket Town

Central Festival Phuket, Phuket's biggest and most modern shopping mall, is just a few hundred metres west of the town itself, facing the major intersection of the north-south highway and the road to Patong Beach. Opposite this is another huge complex of home building, fitting and repair supplies. Immediately over the hill to the north of the upmarket Central Festival is the Big C Shopping Mall, renown for island's best budget shopping.

Barely one kilometre further up the main road is the mammoth Tesco-Lotus super store with the biggest assortment of foodstuffs on the island. Together these four huge complexes form Phuket's major modern shopping district. Still, there is talk of yet another, even grander shopping mall to be built in the same area, a short distance to the west.

take a walk through Phuket's historic Chinatown

Walking is by far the best way to see the historic old town of Phuket and its well-preserved and beautiful old Chinese row houses. Distances are not great, and you can cover the most interesting areas in less than an hour, if desired. But you might find enough things of interest to go slower and longer. We offer more detailed suggestions on where to go and what to see on a separate page: Phuket Old town – take a walking tour.

Khao Rang hill, in the middle of Phuket town, is an excellent stop-off

Khao Rang is one of the two small, forested mountains right in the middle of Phuket Town – this one on the west. The other one is crowned by a forest of communications towers.

It thus makes sense to combine a trip to Phuket Town with a visit to this pretty little mountain – for three reasons. First there are the great views out across Phuket to the southern end of the island. Secondly, one of the best Thai food restaurants on the island sits at the peak of the hill, sharing the great views. Finally, there is a good chance you will see the local troupe of monkeys that makes a living here by begging and stealing from visitors. These frisky little guys can liven things up – and children love them.

Walking or cycling up Khao Rang is a good option for the very healthy; there’s a Fitness Park at the top, and you can see super-fit Thai cyclists up there each evening. But most will need transport.

Evening is also the time you’ll surely meet the monkeys – actually crab eating macaques. Beware, they hang out for hand-outs, and opportunities to steal bags and things from unwary visitors.

Tunk-ka Cafe , that oh-so special restaurant on the hill

The restaurant here, Tunk-ka Cafe, is an old, well-established part of Phuket's social fabric, run by a famous connoisseur of Thai cuisine and his daughter. This Chinese-Thai gentleman is best known by his Chinese moniker, 'Go Liang'.

The range of cuisines here is superb, and the detailed care that goes into each dish unsurpassed. Just for example, most Thai restaurants serve just two or three versions of the popular Lao dish som dum, but in Tunk-ka Cafe you choose from a whole range of different styles of this green papaya salad, all very different, all prepared superbly and some unique to this restaurant. Signature Thai dishes using a coconut cream base, including curries, 'panaeng' and others, are done especially well here.

For those who want to find genuine, unadulterated Thai cuisine of the kind that is nearly impossible to find along the west coast tourist beaches, a visit here will do it. With Tunk-ka's main clientele being Thais from the town right below, the prices are also genuinely local.

And for those lucky enough, you might meet Go Liang, a man fluent in English who has a great knowledge of Phuket, its history, cuisine and more.

History - Super Cheap was Asia’s most amazing market – not a foot note in history

This most enigmatic and amazing of all markets in Asia burned down in a tragic fire in 20xx. However, it was such a highlight of Phuket that I want to keep its memory alive as an historical foot note to this page. With lots of photos – to show just why a person who has been wandering around colourful markets across Asia since the 1960 was so engrossed by this one.
Here is what I wrote about it in 2010:

Super Cheap is a unique cross between a traditional Asian market and a modern supermarket. This vast, barn-like maze is so large one can get lost in it, is so high a customer would be in real danger climbing to get products on the top shelves, and has so many products it might take an hour to find what you are looking for – with help from the staff. But what a fascinating hour that can be.

Getting lost in this market's labyrinth of alleyways and sections is not just a possibility but a probability on your first visit.

Wandering around Super Cheap has the feel and fascination of a traditional Asian market, except those towering shelves bring in the confusion of a vast warehouse. Yet it works like a modern supermarket. One pushes and fills a trolley with a few kilos of vegetables or a quarter ton of cement, then heads for the check-out counter. However, if you need the full ton of cement plus the red cement mixer – and all your meat, fruit and vegetables for the week – then you'll take a forklift to the checkout.

by John Everingham