By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Nation Weekend
BESIDES ITS natural charms of the sea and surrounding islands, Phuket retains its own unique appeal for those staying ashore, with a rich history, amazing cultural diversity and palate-pleasing food.
Phuket Old Town packs in a lot of history all on its own, with a continuous stretch of more than 140 shophouses, some beautifully restored and many still inhabited.
The venerable commercial centre is lined with impressive Sino-Portuguese architecture. The Portuguese and British left their imprints on the island when they came to mine tin in the 16th century, and the Chinese did the same 200 years later.
Part gallery, part boutique hotel, Woo occupies a century-old Sino-Portuguese shophouse in Phuket Old Town.
Newly opened on Thalang Road is a gallery- boutique hotel called Woo, whose owner spent two years renovating a 130-year-old Sino-Portuguese shophouse, returning it to its original grandeur.
The row house boasts intricate European neo-classical and Renaissance details in its stucco cornices and arched window frames, while the main door and mother-of-pearl-inlaid wooden furniture are beautifully carved in the Chinese manner.
Phuket’s shophouses are normally about five metres wide and extend back some 50 metres. This one, though, is an astounding 106 metres long and seven metres wide and contains a vast collection of antique furniture, watches, record players, typewriters, sewing machines, porcelain and glass-blown containers.
“My grandfather immigrated from Mainland China through Singapore and Penang and finally settled down in Phuket,” says owner Padet Wuthicharn. “He bought this house in 1915 and set up Moh Seng & Co, selling imported watches and household utensils. It kept going until after World War II.”
Padet says his building in 1910 became the second property in Thailand for which a title deed was granted, nine years after King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) set up the Land Department. The first – which received title deed No 1 and is in Bang Pa-in in Ayutthaya province – belonged to the King.
Padet spent Bt15 million to renovate the structure and add a new building at the back, connected to the house with its 12 guestrooms. The old house is now mainly a gallery with a cafe where guests have their breakfast.
Supported by wooden beams, the original house has walls of compressed soil that carried the vertical and lateral loads. Just as striking is a wooden staircase built with mortise-and-tenon joints.
“I reinforced the structure with steel columns and a layer of cement walls set two centimetres from the originals so as not to ruin the original structure,” says Padet.
All of the artefacts on display are from the family collection. A navigator’s antique sextant is seen among typewriters bearing the first Thai font and old fire extinguishers with mounting brackets.
Padet shows a blown-glass epergne imported from England, a type of table centrepiece that was popular gift for Phuket people to present to the newlyweds.
Admission to the Woo museum is Bt100 (Bt200 for foreigners, Bt50 for children and students) and 90-minute guided tours in Thai and English can be arranged.
The restaurant Charm earned a Bib Gourmand in the latest Michelin Guide for its culinary diversity and value for money.
Phuket is esteemed for its tummy treats, the legacy of centuries of cultural mixing. The year-old restaurant Charm on Deebuk Road mingles Chinese and Peranakan cuisine in with its Southern Thai, earning it a Bib Gourmand award in the second Michelin Guide Bangkok, signifying good value for money. Indeed, you pay no more than Bt1,000 for a three-course meal.
Decked out in a century-old Sino-Portuguese shophouse with vintage-style furniture, a notable Chinese feel and beautifully sculpted porcelain dinnerware, Charm is meant to be a place where you feel as though you’re “dining in the home of a wealthy family”.
Mu hong and Kien tod
That’s the aim of owner Bhuritphat Phucharoen, whose family also runs a seafood restaurant in Phuket.
“Growing up in Old Town I always accompanied my parents when they visited well-to-do families,” he says. “I wanted to revive those memories and at the same time elevate Phuket-style dining to new heights.”
He serves dishes based on family recipes, beginning with Kien tod (Bt220), a local sausage with minced pork and shrimp, crabmeat, taro and turnip seasoned with five-spice powder. It’s steamed, deep-fried and served with a chilli-tamarind dip.
Gaeng pla tumee
Mu hong (pork stew, Bt250) is another favourite local dish that originated with the Peranakans – descendants of Chinese settlers who married Siamese – so it’s a mix of Chinese and local spices and ingredients.
“The soy sauce we use comes from Penang and is very flavourful and slightly sweet,” says Bhuritphat. “The pork comes from the forelegs and belly and is simmered for three hours and seasoned with garlic, ginger, cinnamon and star anise.”
The influence of Penang, practically a neighbour of Phuket despite being in Malaysia, is also found in Gaeng pla tumee (sour fish curry, Bt250). The curry paste from Penang is similar to gaeng som but without the turmeric. It’s cooked with seasonal fish and ladyfingers and seasoned with tamarind sauce.
Pla tao iew
Also worth trying are Pla tao iew (Bt250), which is fried fish fillets topped with seasoned brown sauce and garlic, and Nam chub yum (Bt200) – shrimp paste dip with poached shrimp, sliced shallots and chillies and pungent with kumquat and bigarade orange.
Another Bib Gourmand recipient is Ta Tuay near Sarasin Bridge in Thalang district, a friendly place occupying two houses with corrugated iron roofs, surrounded by a garden with gurgling water.
Homey eatery Ta Tuay, another Bib Gourmand recipient, uses ingredients mostly from its own organic farm.
Nakhon Si Thammarat native Sittichai Khongseejan quit a job in construction and moved to his wife’s hometown to establish a 100-rai organic farm, all of whose produce – including edible flowers – goes into the dishes at Ta Tuay, which they opened 18 years ago.
The menu blends the family recipes of both husband and wife – his southern style and hers Chinese.
“I can tell you where every ingredient comes from, like the seafood from Baan Tha Chat Chai, a Moken fishing community,” says Sittichai. “I think it’s important to know where the food we eat comes from and how it’s grown or produced.”
Sea-grape-seaweed salad with som tum and Pla insee tod
He claims his eatery was the first in Phuket to serve sea-grape-seaweed salad with som tum (Bt150). That was seven years ago, after his elder sister, who worked at the Department of Fisheries, told him about this so-called “green caviar”.
“This dish made the name of our eatery well known. The little bubbles popping in the mouth with a sea-fresh, slightly salty taste go well with som tum cooked in the Central style so that it’s somewhat sweet.”
Gaeng som (sour curry, Bt150) with sea bass and bamboo shoots retains the distinctively strong southern flavour and pairs perfectly with Pla insee tod (Bt150), which is three thick fried fillets of spotted mackerel that tone down the curry’s spiciness.
Tom kati bai lin han (Bt120) is a bowl of coconut-milk curry with shrimp, egg yolk and a leafy herb called lin han due to its long stem, which resembles a goose’s tongue.
Tom kati bai lin han
“The Michelin award helped draw more foreign visitors, but it’s also brought the Revenue Department, which frequently visits to inspect our accounts,” Sittichai laughs. “The award is a reminder, though, that we always have to try and do better to meet the expectation of our customers.”
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Authority of Thailand’s southern office.
THREE NOT TO BE MISSED
Woo Gallery & Boutique Hotel is on Thalang Road in Muang district. Call (076) 353 719 or visit “@woogalleryhotel” on Facebook.
Charm on Deebuk Road in Muang district is open daily except Wednesday from 11am to 9.30pm. Call (076) 530 199 or visit “charmdeebukphuket” on Facebook.
Ta Tuay near Sarasin Bridge in Thalang district is open daily from 11.30am to 9pm. Call (086) 470 4807.