Before I continue, I should clarify that, when Thai is Anglicized, ‘ph’ is pronounced with a ‘p’ sound and not an ‘f’ sound, so ‘Phuket’ is pronounced ‘Poo-kett’ and not ‘Fuck it’. Just thought I’d mention that.
So, Phuket is known as a resort area and good base from which to enjoy islands and beaches. However, this includes beaches like Patong, famous for partying, bars and crowds, and islands like Koh Phi-Phi, the shooting location for the movie The Beach and now one of the most visited islands in the country, charitably described by my travel guide book as, “still very nice.” Anyway, I had exactly no interest in seeing or visiting these areas, but a bit of research convinced me that Phuket had tons more to offer than simply boozing on beaches with sunbathers and jet ski enthusiasts.
I zeroed in on Phuket Town, which boasts a thriving Old Town complete with lovely Sino-Portuguese architecture. Colorful shop-houses line the streets and house tiny stores and restaurants at street level, but simply cast your eyes upwards to admire the candy-hued second stories, the blues and reds and yellows and greens etched with intricate detailing of European and Chinese influence.
More relevant to my own choice of base, Phuket Town is quiet, the streets virtually deserted by 9pm, the town boasting an impressive array of cafés instead of bars. In fact, the town’s café culture is worth exploring just for the design and decorative elements alone. B(ook)hebian sports shelves of books and an upstairs local art gallery; Gallery Café also showcases art and a quirky decor; and Mach-iatto has a classier vibe, with a chandelier and black and white murals. There are bars in Phuket, of course, and they tend to be on the trendier side and, as such, more expensive, but they’re also fairly relaxed.
Despite this, Phuket Town certainly isn’t sleepy or boring (at least by my standards and for my tastes). As is usual for Thailand in general, locals will be seated on plastic chairs and eating inexpensive food until midnight, and weekends feature a day and night market during which it seems the entire town turns up to fill Thanon Thanang, eat freshly made snacks, and enjoy live music. The entire town actually dons new colors the moment the sun goes down, the shop-houses lit up with flood lights, their colors contrasting beautifully with the night sky.
The guesthouse I chose was run by a small family that helped me navigate the island and fed me mangosteen, a local fruit that looks like a small, round eggplant but tastes like a cross between a green grape and citrus, now one of my favorite fruits of all time. Help was occasionally needed, especially given the cost of transportation on Phuket. Generally speaking, taxis on Phuket are six to seven times the price of those in Bangkok. In fact, until recently, they were considered a form of organized crime. The new military government has cracked down on this kind of price fixing, but the cost is still incredibly high. To make matters worse, public transport on the island is inefficient and uncomfortable, so you kinda have to rely on taxis. Luckily, a colleague had decided to join me in Phuket Town and our plans matched up nicely, so we shared transportation wherever we went, halving the cost for each of us.
In addition to simply enjoying the town’s look and feel, we climbed to the top of a small mountain, a short walk that offered great views over the city and all the way to the nearby islands. On the way back, we stopped in at a nearby temple where locals were celebrating the start of Buddhist Lent. Unfortunately, the candles celebrants lit weren’t enough for my camera and my photos of the event didn’t really turn out.
Still, Phuket Town proved stunningly photogenic, with its buildings’ colorful facades, its night market and even its “regular” local market, which we found by following a random alley to a partially enclosed courtyard. By wandering into similarly random alleys, I was able to photograph a few locals doing their local thing, including men scrutinizing pendants and gems at the tiny amulet market and a child playing ghost with her mother’s laundry. We also visited a small but lovely Chinese-style Buddhist shrine.
As for food, we ate at the same Malaysian roti place every morning; their coffee was excellent and the food delicious and cheap. We also tried a few recommended restaurants, like The Cook, which served Thai-Italian fusion, including Tum-yam (spicy soup) pizza.
Overall, Phuket Town was a great place to visit and an excellent base from which to explore the area, especially if looking for a quieter spot far from the partiers and boozers and crowded beaches, but with plenty of things to see and do.