Although Thailand has never actually been colonized, the distinct Sino architecture of Phuket Town could be easily mistaken for a colonial outpost.
Since its birth, Phuket Town has been a thriving commercial hub. First with the tin trade, which was later replaced with the rubber trade. The Siamese Architects Association as an area of historic importance has since recognized it. The Old Phuket Foundation has done a lot to preserve the heritage and architecture of Phuket Old Town and there are ongoing efforts to have the old center recognized as a World Heritage site. Many of the movers and shakers of the time with a big influence over the growth of Phuket Town had roots in China and Malaysia, so it’s no accident that the architecture of Old Phuket Town has a striking resemblance to the buildings lining the streets of George Town on the island of Penang in Malaysia. The old town’s Sino architecture is instantly recognizable but there have been subtle changes to the basic building designs over the decades. In Phuket Town, building styles from different eras have ended up jumbled together. Some have come and gone, others adapted as tastes have changed. And like any
Traditional Shop House Style
The earliest Sino terrace house style dates from the early 19th century, when builders began using materials that are more durable. Early shop house styles (1790s-1850s) have a row of wooden windows along the entire width of the upper floor and can be opened right up to allow air in. Some will have had louvered shutters added.
Southern Chinese Eclectic Style (1840s-1910s)
Known as the ‘late traditional shop-house style’ these two-story terrace houses are practical and designed to be secure. They are usually a bit taller than the traditional shop house style. Their architecture is a mix of southern Chinese with varying degrees of Malay and European influences. This style is easily recognizable with the front of the lower floor opening onto a ‘five-foot way’; the covered walkway where pedestrians can walk along the street protected from the sun and rain. If the lower floor is used as a shop or other business, it has an open front facing the five-foot way, but if the building used solely as a residence, the font is a nice, symmetrical arrangement of a central door with rectangular windows either side. There is often a second, inner door; the first opening out, the second opening into the reception hall. This is known as the ‘Chinese porch wall’. Other distinct features of this era are lime-based concrete walls, mortar and plaster with timber beams for the terracotta floors and roof, which has timber battens laid with U- or V-shaped terracotta tiles. Inside is a courtyard and an air well, which separates the reception hall in the front from the kitchen.
Unlike the plain paneled windows on the upper floor of the Traditional Shop House Style, the windows have wooden shutters with fixed or adjustable louvres, below which are green ceramic air vents for better ventilation, known as the ‘spandrel’. The full-length arched windows, which is an Asian interpretation of the French window, are lined with vertical iron bars, above which are be air vents which can be circular, rectangular or even ‘bat-shaped’. However, unlike truly French windows, they do not open onto a balcony or veranda. You will find beautifully preserved examples of these buildings along Thalang road and surrounding streets. In the old days, Soi Romanee, off Thalang Road, was the town’s red light district, where there were once opium dens. Here are some of the buildings to look out for, including mansions that have a few hints of local influence in their architecture.
China Inn Cafe and Restuarant: a classic renovated 100-year-old Chinese shop house on Thalang Road, built according to feng shui
House of the Beautiful Images
House of the Beautiful Images: a coffee shop on Soi Romanee where the Phuket Photo Club meets every two weeks.
Pithak Chinpracha House Museum (Baan Chinpracha) is an elegant mansion built in 1903 and has been the backdrop in films such as The Killing Fields and Heaven and Earth.
The Blue Elephant
The Blue Elephant restaurant is another house built by the same family in 1940.
Phuket Provincial Hall
Phuket Provincial Hall on Narisorn Road dates back to 1910 and was also used in The Killing Fields as the French Embassy in Phnom Penh. It has 99 doors is a quirky feature.
Thai Hua School Museum
Phuket Thai Hua School Museum is a well-preserved example of European-Sino-Thai architecture. Built in 1934, it was the oldest Chinese school in Thailand but is now an art gallery.
Baan Klung Jinda
Baan Klung Jinda is 100-year-old building on Yaowarat Road. It’s now a restaurant serving Old Siam dishes and houses many antiques. A brief tour can be arranged for those stopping for a meal.
Phuket Philatelic Museum
This was Phuket’s first post and telegraphic office and is at the corner of Thalang and Montri roads. It has been renovated and turned into a philatelic museum, exhibiting old postal equipment, old phones and old Thai stamps. You can visit any day except Sundays and Mondays.