Southeast Asia, Day 3: A day in the charming Phuket Town

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Phuket Town
Per my new routine, I woke up this morning and Mom and I headed to the resort buffet so I could stuff my face with cereal and mounds of fruit and halal vegetable samosas. While we ate, I browsed our guidebook for ideas of what to do for the day.

Dad was now with us, and while he wanted to go on a boat and ride up to some islands for kayaking, Mom and I were concerned about a full day of sun exposure. I just hate the inconvenience of needing to re-apply sunscreen when I know I will eventually get burned despite my efforts. Plus, the trip he was suggesting would be a full twelve hours, far too long for our attention spans.

So instead, I suggested we go to Phuket Town, the historical and administrative center of Phuket. The area is supposed to be filled with Sino-Portuguese architecture and restaurants and shops and museums.

We headed out to the front of the hotel to get a taxi. The guidebooks inform us that metered taxis are the only honest way to travel in and around town, as the mini songthaew trucks along the sidewalk of the beach boulevard are tourist traps for which drivers overcharge. We asked a few of those truck drivers for prices, and they all said 500 baht. We attempted hailing a metered taxi a few times with difficulty, as the mini trucks kept pulling up beside us telling us they were taxis (they lie). Finally we got a metered taxi, he estimated the ride was going to be 400 baht, but he would run the meter so it would be whatever it read. We hopped in his car and off we went to Phuket Town.

Our first stop was the Phuket Cultural Center, a small museum located on the Rajabhat University campus north of the town. We arrived and the meter read 280, well under his estimate and the truck drivers’ offers. This cab driver was a one of the most honest people we met outside of the hotel, and even he was trying to cover up the meter with a strategically-placed hat. It was getting frustrating, because I don’t want my impression of Thailand to be muddied by a few bad seeds.

Stepping out of the cab, we were on the university campus beside a few outdoor shrines and a large covered walkway leading to the museum. Nothing was clearly marked, and the only people around were uniformed students. Once we got closer to the entrance, a frazzled young woman greeted us and in broken English she welcomed us inside. She apologized for the mess. Inside the first floor, it looked almost like a small library that a handful of students were helping her clean, with piles of maps and books and other resources scattered about. She led us upstairs as she told us the second and third floors were still open.

She became our guide for the free tour, and we were the only guests of the entire museum, so it was short and customized. She didn’t know English very well yet she successfully explained the rise of the tin mining industry in Thailand, something I know I wouldn’t be able to explain in a foreign language. Most displays were in Thai, but some placards did include English translations. My favorite parts were learning about the sea gypsies in southern Thailand, who find sustenance, life, and faith in their surrounding Andaman Sea, as well as hearing about the two badass sisters who defended Phuket against a month-long Burmese attack, Thao Thep Kasattri and Thao Srisoonthorn.

After our tour, Mom used the restroom, which she asked us to guard because the door wouldn’t fully shut (did I mention we were the ONLY people here), and then we were off to town.
The Education building
We wandered sound the campus, cutting through to get to the main road. After the path started to curve, I decided to ask some students for directions to the nearest exit, which turned into a fifteen-minute-long discussion that really could be summed up with “go down here, turn right, then turn right again, stay on the main road, and you will get to town.” But it was fun, and I especially liked interacting with the young people.

I laughed when one girl asked us where our car was, and I responded that we were only walking, and she made a facial expression between disgust and confusion when she realized we would be walking for 45 minutes to town. Everyone here has little scooters, and I bet that if I were without my parents,  one of them would have offered a free ride. We thanked and left them, walking off campus past the various science and education buildings, past some cute murals of animals and their names translated to English from Thai, through the main gates to a side street. Just like it would be in the states, the side streets near the university campus were filled with small shops and restaurants for cheap (fifteen cents for bottled water) and quick food.

We got to the main road and soon after we found the 7/11, which several students had used as a landmark to ensure we were on the right path. We stepped inside the air conditioning for a break from the heat, and I was instantly attracted to the dirt cheap toiletries, things that would cost at least five times as much in Vanuatu. I got a bottle of coconut oil, a small notepad and some eyeliner here for under four dollars total. Deodorant was only a dollar! What a difference ease of shipment makes to a country’s in-store pricing.

We continued on our way, walking along the main road, passing restaurants and more industrial-type shops, like a lumber store that sold beautiful carved wood doors, or a ceramics warehouse with stacks and stacks of plates and bowls and teacups. Like Copenhagen is a wealth of bicycle accessories due to its popular cycling culture, Thailand is a motorcycle- and scooter-lover’s heaven, with shops upon shops of custom seats and hubcaps and accessories for all kinds of two-wheeled motor-driven transport.

Alleys in town
A blue-themed shop
We finally approached town, evident by the concentration of smaller shops and gorgeous architecture. I could spend several days exploring this town, with its streets lined with shops selling beautiful textiles and jewelry and spices, decorated with paper lanterns and string lights. Yes, it was a tourist attraction, but nowhere near the crude and distasteful tack that was Patong Beach. There, they sold t-shirts with liquor and sex puns or drinking straws shaped like penises for the bachelorette party crews. Here, it was classy tourist culture, or at least…culture. There were local printing presses making wall art, there was jewelry designed by local artists, there was a prevalence of Thai silk. Some items were more expensive than others, but any item purchases here would give you the peace of mind that it was created locally out of pride for the country’s artistic skill, and not just to get money from a tourist’s pocket.

The vibe of the area was so much more relaxed, and while it did cater to the tourist, it was just so much more beautiful and breathtaking than anything else I’ve seen here so far. The colorful architecture was present building after building, and turning a corner might reveal a rainbow-colored modern mural or a century-old brightly-painted row of window shutters.

The waiters at restaurants weren’t grabbing your attention by waving menus in your face as you walked past, and sellers weren’t shoving armful of jewelry in front of you as you try to casually browse their shop. I was able to get a Thai iced tea, or milk tea, in a restaurant for 30 baht.

In a local stationery store, I picked up some pens as souvenirs, and the shop reminded me of those in Tibet, with silly and quirky designs. I picked up a carrot and cactus-shaped pen, as well as two pens topped each with an angry watermelon slice and a crying egg.

Our new Thai dog

Throughout our walking, we acquired a black stray dog that appeared to enjoy our company and low key wanted us to feed him. We never did, but he sleepily followed us for several blocks until we went into a closed marketplace to use the restrooms.

Philatelic Museum

As the afternoon carried on, I wanted to fit a couple more cultural sights into the programme, so we looked at our map and went to the Thavorn Hotel Lobby Museum, a free museum along our walk that had lots of old photographs and information on the local history of the area and its small parks/squares. Finally, we made a stop at the Phuket Philatelic Museum, another small but free museum that housed the history of the Thai postal service. These museums were the smaller ones, each warranting only about thirty minutes each.

When we got tired, we exhausted ourselves trying to hail a metered taxi but instead settling on a 400 baht mini truck ride back to Patong Beach. The driver was annoying, taking his time getting out to button and re-button his shirt before finally driving off, then immediately stopping for gas, and then riding the middle of the two lane highway for the entire forty minute journey, while scooters and other vehicles angrily passed us on both sides. Then, when we arrived at our destination, he insisted he didn’t have change (so he could get paid 500 baht for the ride) but between the three of us we scrounged together exact change. UGHGHGH!

Dad went to the store to get some ingredients to make Aperol spritz cocktails with prosecco, aperitif and club soda (backpacking, this was not), and Mom and Dad enjoyed them beside the pool while I took a nap, because I am a bundle of fun.

When it grew close to dinner time, we left to the busy touristy area and settled on Sweet restaurant, as the first Thai restaurant we stopped in was out of white wine, crucial to my mom’s dinner experience. I got some green curry chicken and my mom got some pad Thai, and after popping into a few shops after dinner (stores here close at eleven pm), we returned to the hotel to sleep. Tomorrow was our last full day in Phuket.