Phuket is the name of Thailand’s largest island (I didn’t know it was an island at first, the separation is small), a province and the town in which I’ve stayed for the last 5 days. Old Town Phuket was first settled by Hokkien Chinese immigrants during the industrial revolution because of a tin mining boom in the region; native Thai were just to the north of current Phuket in a much older rice-farming settlement called Thalong. I’ve been staying at the 99 Oldtown Guesthouse and enjoying the history of the area, like the shophouses built by second-generation Chinese after the mining successes of their immigrant parents allowed for a move from hard labor into merchant lifestyles.
The day I arrived, I went to a street fair celebrating Por Tor, or the Hungry Ghost Festival- a holiday in the Ghost month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when the gates of hell are opened, honoring one’s ancestors and offering gifts of food to wandering spirits. The street fair had everything to offer, from Phad Thai
and squid satay
and even deep fried insects.
Yesterday, a great feast was layed out at the Taoist temple just down the street for the spirits, with four roast pigs, many bottles of drinks and whiskey, all sorts of traditional dishes, and bright red glutinous rice cakes in the shape of turtles for longevity and good fortune.
I had largely heard of Phuket only as a major tourist destination, and while it is that (the beaches of the west coast are super developed with luxury resorts), it was really fun to get to engage in the culture too, right outside my door.
I was recommended a tour hosted by a Phuket native named Chaya, born and raised in Oldtown. She took a small group of us through a mansion built by the son of Phuket’s first banker, built in classic Sino-Colonial architecture modeled after settlements in Malacca. This house was particularly nice for its open roofed pond in the main room, allowing for good ventilation of the space as well as a balance of air and water important for feng shui.
There were also some really cool trinkets that the family had kept (they still live in the house, and are now 4 & 5th generation): an opium pipe from the den they used to run in town;
a kerosene powered fan;
and great photographs of all the generations covered the walls. It was obviously a house that honored those who had come before and the contributions they had made that lead to the continued good fortune of the family.
In stark contrast to the mansion’s finery, we also visited a village of sea gypsies- nomadic fishing peoples who had only built villages on land within the last 100 years as international borders disrupted fishing traditions. Fishing remains THE way of life, using fish traps that look like 6 ft long rabbit hutches made of curved mangrove wood and hand-twisted chain link.
The mangrove acts to lure small fish, which in turn entice larger fish to swim thru a funneling entrance into the trap. The bait survives, and only the larger fish are harvested for wholesale. The village itself doesn’t look like much- corrugated tin huts, dirt roads, and chickens, stray dogs and kids everywhere. But happiness comes from being out on the ocean, putting in a hard half-day of work and spending the rest of your time with family, teaching young ones to fish and being part of the community.
On my own, I also explored a bit of what brings international travelers to Phuket’s beautiful coast line. I took a ferry over to the Phi Phi Islands- a group of islands about 2 hours from Phuket in Phang Nga Bay, surrounded by crystal aquamarine waters known for snorkeling and diving. Phi Phi Don, the biggest and only settled island, is a mash of resorts and hostels that populate the isthmus that connects two rocky, cliffed areas; the ferry pier is right smack in the middle of the isthmus.
Once we arrived, I hired myself a long tail boat, which are used as water taxis,
and went around the island snorkeling- just jump off the boat into reefs of coral with huge purple sea urchins, giant clams with iridescent blue lips, parrotfish audibly munching on the coral, and calm warm water. And that’s just in the places that are easy to reach!
I’ve really enjoyed my time in Phuket- good food, welcoming people, new cultural experiences- all the best things about traveling somewhere new!
The next adventure will be sea kayaking and camping in Phang Nga Bay- tell you all about it in a couple days!