Diving into Sino-Portuguese architecture in Old Phuket Town

Diving into Sino-Portuguese architecture in Old Phuket Town
Good buildings come from good people and all problems are solved by good design.
–Stephen Gardiner


While in Thailand, I managed to travel down to Phuket, a mountainous island home to some of Thailand's most popular beaches.  (Made so in part by movies such as The Beach and James Bond.)  I didn't know much about the area before my visit, so I booked a hotel in the heart of Old Phuket Town.  It turns out that the old town is landlocked and a decent distance from gorgeous beaches and the bus station, sort of a bummer, but separating myself from throngs of tourists and surrounding myself with fascinating architecture made up for that in droves.

Old Phuket Town's history dates back to 1511, when the town served as a hub for Phuket's tin-mining industry and attracted the attention of Portuguese and Chinese merchants.  Phuket embraced the western ways of the colonists from Portugal and built homes in their architectural style, while Chinese immigrant merchants became rich on tin-mining profits and built homes, favoring the shophouse style.  Thus, the Sino-Portuguese style was born and Old Phuket Town is one of the best preserved and most recognizable collections of these buildings. (Wikipedia & RoughGuides) A great walking tour guide with history and photos is here.

sign in the old town explaining shophouses

sign in the old town explaining shophouses

Sino-Portuguese architecture, synonymous with colonial architecture, is best known for its mix of European and Chinese styles.  Think wooden shuttered windows and interior courtyards with ponds.  An example of this mix is the strong walls supporting the weight of heavy roof tiles (a reflection of advances in Western engineering) and gently curving red-tile roofs which are characteristically Chinese.  This fusion of Portuguese construction and Chinese design yields some fascinating buildings, and I enjoyed admiring the quaint buildings with exotic flourishes, like cheerful pastel colors and gold monkeys on exterior walls.  Most of Old Phuket Town's Sino-Portuguese buildings are from the late 1800s.

About seven years ago, the historic core (Thalang Road) of Old Phuket Town underwent a major improvement project and sees more architecture-hungry tourists these days.  Phuket has actually submitted an application for UNESCO to list the old town as a World Heritage Site, and I personally don't think the town merits inscription because it's not as intact as other UNESCO-listed old towns and it's also overrun with cars and motorcycles.  Apart from drooling over the buildings and visiting some of their museums, the town has a few markets worth visiting and a vegetarian festival in the fall.  The Sunday afternoon/evening food market along Thalang Road was spectacular, so more on that in my Thai food post.

Enjoy photos of Sino-Portuguese architecture from Phuket, Thailand!


Old Phuket Town & Shophouses

Thalang Road is lined with these cheery Sino-Portuguese shophouses, and RoughGuides.com does a great job explaining the buildings:

Because streetside space was at a premium, shophouses were always long and thin, with narrow frontages, recessed entrances and connecting porches that linked up all the way down the block to make shady, arched colonnades known as five-foot walkways, ideal for pedestrians and shoppers. The front room was (and often still is) the business premises, leaving the rest of the two- or three-storey building for living. A light well behind the front room encouraged natural ventilation and sometimes fed a small courtyard garden at its base, and the household shrine would always occupy a prominent and auspicious position. Outside, the hallmark features that make the neighbourhoods so striking today include pastel-painted louvred windows that might be arched or rectangular and perhaps topped by a pretty glass fantail, lacquered and inlaid wooden doors, fancy gold-leaf fretwork, detailed stucco mouldings and perhaps Neoclassical pilasters.



Sino-Colonial Mansions

Just as interesting as Old Phuket Town's shophouses are its mansions.  This blog post points out 18 downtown mansions and provides photos and history, something I used as a rough guide when walking around.  The Blue Elephant restaurant and cooking school is in one of these old mansions, and I stopped in to see if any cooking classes were available that day (no dice) and enjoyed their gorgeous restoration work.  I also had lunch at Raya, a rustic, narrow mansion tucked between some massive concrete buildings.  While admiring Phuket's architecture, I did manage to visit the museum-slash-private-residence Chinpracha house, or Baan Chinpracha, for about $5.  This grand home was built in 1903 in the "Angmor lounge" or European style; most of the house's furniture is imported from China with fences from Holland and ceramic floor tiles from Italy.