x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

My Kind of Place: Phuket Town, Thailand

Quite different from Phuket's usual touristy towns, this Thai city has hung on to its past.

Soi Romanee, an old street lined with gaily coloured shophouses in the heart of Phuket Town. Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images
Soi Romanee, an old street lined with gaily coloured shophouses in the heart of Phuket Town. Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Why Phuket Town?

Unlike the tawdry beach resorts on Phuket's west coast, which are overrun by fast-food outlets, massage centres and high-rise hotels, Phuket Town - now officially a city - has managed to retain a distinctly Thai feel. Temples and markets are still an important part of life for its 70,000 residents, many of whom have Chinese ancestry, and it's easy to get hold of sizzling street food in all of its deliciousness (surprisingly difficult in resort towns such as Patong).

In the Old Town, the roads are hung with lanterns and are lined by Sino-Portuguese shophouses fronted by wooden window shutters and paintwork made flaky by the heat of the tropical sun. Here, you'll find shopkeepers hand-rolling Chinese dumplings ready for the steamer, or sipping sweet-smelling Thai Red Bull in the shade of arched colonnades. Smoke curls away from street-side barbecues, wafting past a bright new wave of galleries and cafes started by local entrepreneurs. Join them for coffee, browse their art or kick back with a second-hand book.

A comfortable bed

Clustered around a lattice of well-preserved streets, Phuket Town's best hotels are refreshingly atmospheric, housed in restored mansions and shops. At the top end of things is Casa Blanca, a colonial-era building with a neatly corniced facade on a busy road. Its bright white interiors, lit by pendulous chandeliers, are cool and quiet nonetheless, and there's a tranquil blue pool around the back to chill out in. Double rooms, with either a garden view or a balcony overlooking the street, cost from 2,800 Thai baht (Dh335) per night, including breakfast and taxes (www.casablancaphuket.com; 00 66 7621 9019).

Slightly cheaper but no less cosy is Sino House, where the apartment-style rooms and suites mix warm timber furnishings with Chinese-style wall hangings. Long-stay residents will appreciate the fact that each room comes with a microwave, refrigerator and work desk. Double rooms cost from 2,000 baht (Dh239) per night, including breakfast and taxes (www.sinohousephuket.com; 00 66 76 232 494).

For a clean, central option that'll allow you to explore on a budget, try Phuket Backpackers (www.phuketbackpacker.com; 00 66 7625 6680). Rooms and dorms here are rudimentary but there's free Wi-Fi and a common room with DVDs for rent. The cafe area faces the local bus stop, making it the ideal place to sip a coffee and watch everyday life unfold. Double rooms cost from 550 baht (Dh66) per night, excluding breakfast but including taxes.

Find your feet

Public buses from other parts of Phuket drop passengers off at Suriyadate Circle, a roundabout in the Old Town that's crowned by a gently splashing fountain. Two streets north is Thalang Road, the heart of 19th-century Phuket, where many of the shophouses still sport wooden doors and intricate stucco mouldings. Pastel-coloured cafes and bars have breathed new life into the old Soi (street) Romanee, while imposing mansions - built before Thailand's democratic revolution - dot the roads out towards Phuket Town's mega mall and museum.

The beaches, including Patong, are easy to reach by brightly coloured songthaew (small open-sided vans with benches in the back). These are safer, cheaper and more sociable than private cars or tuk-tuks (a one-way journey from Phuket Town to Patong, for example, costs only 25 baht [Dh3] per person).

Meet the locals

Shopping and snacking are Phuket Town's two most popular activities. To sink your teeth into the flesh of an electric-pink dragon fruit or chatter with locals over a bowl of fiery noodle soup, try the roadside market along Thanon Ranong. For everything else, including cheap gadgets and sugary doughnuts, your best option is the gleaming Central Festival Mall, a five-minute motorbike ride from the town centre.

Book a table

The Cook (00 66 7625 8375) has a well-deserved reputation for its pizza, pasta and pastries, all served in clean, air-conditioned surroundings. Try the unusual spaghetti pad Thai (150 baht; Dh18), the creamy lychee smoothie (75 baht; Dh9) or the frankly barmy durian pizza (190 baht; Dh23).

The best of several western-style coffee shops in the Old Town, Gallery Cafe (www.gallerycafe-phuket.com; 00 66 8910 37000) is split between two buildings. The first, with lazy ceiling fans and black-tiled floors, is a stress-free spot serving walnut brownies (50 baht each; Dh6) and a mean protein shake made from bananas, milk, eggs and honey (80 baht; Dh10). Next door, there's an antique shop selling blown-glass curios and locally made knick-knacks.

After sunset, there's nowhere better to eat than at Siam Indigo (www.siam-indigo.com; 00 66 76 256 697), an old house surrounded by greenery on Thanon Phang Nga. Here, the Thai tapas menu (including tempura prawns and spring rolls) costs 230 baht (Dh28) per person. Not so hungry? Go for the tom kha kai (chicken and coconut milk soup) served with fresh banana flowers (150 baht; Dh18).

Shopper's paradise

If some of your days will be spent crashed out on a beach, consider a visit to South Wind Books (00 66 8972 42136). This dusty little bookshop is chock-a-block with second-hand tomes in English, Thai and a dozen other languages, and the owners encourage book swapping. If you want to buy, most paperbacks are priced between 140 baht and 200 baht (Dh17-Dh24).

Nearby is I Mon Gallery (http://monart2011.webiz.co.th; 00 66 8696 18968), where local artist Monthian Yangthong creates and sells paintings inspired by the Buddhist way of life (A small acrylic painting costs around 3,000 baht [Dh358]).

What to avoid

Men who wave "taxi" signs. The public transport network may be infuriatingly limited but songthaew make regular trips to the surrounding resorts.

Don't miss

The small, Chinese-style Shrine of Serene Light is one of many temples dotted around Phuket Town; check out the intricate ceramic decorations adorning the roof.

If you go

Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies direct to Phuket from Abu Dhabi in six hours from Dh3,220 return, including taxes.