Asia Phuket, Thailand
Shopping: Thai Treasure Hunt
From rare antiques and herbal remedies to local pastries, the shops of Phuket turn it out
BY JENNIFER GAMPELL | PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRISTOPHER WISE

Shop-owner Job, the namesake of Job & Things; the entrance to the China Inn Café & Restaurant, which is more shop than restaurant; medicinal herbs at the pharmacy Nguan Choon Tong.

Many visitors to the Thai island of Phuket (pronounced poo-KET) focus on its famous white beaches and luxurious resorts. Too bad, because they’re missing out on its fascinating history. From the 17th century until the 1970s, it was tin mining, not tourism, that sustained the economy. Hokkien Chinese immigrants began arriving from the British Straits settlements to work the mines on Phuket, then called Thalang, in the 1820s; they established a commercial center in what’s now the Old Town.

Nowhere else in Thailand will you find as many streets lined with distinctive Sino-Portuguese shops. Lately the government has been busily burying phone and power lines along Old Town streets, beginning with the tourist-centric Thalang Road and the genteelly renovated block-long Soi Romanee (once a red-light district). Some residents have transformed their houses into hotels, shops and eateries, but elsewhere life remains unchanged. This coexistence of present and past makes for a delightful shopping experience, whether on foot or by tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw; from $2* per ride). Indispensable to meandering around Old Town is the free Phuket Town Treasure Map, available at many shops, hotels and restaurants or from the publisher’s office at Serendipity Designs (16 Soi Romanee; 66-76-222-856).

As a child in the 1960s, Supat “Noi” Promchan peeked through the grilles of the “most beautiful home on Thalang Road,” then owned by a rich Chinese businessman, and fantasized about living there. In 2004, after 20 years as a designer-antiques dealer and a two-and-a-half-year restoration, she realized her dream. The gracious China Inn Café & Restaurant (20 Thalang Rd.; 66-76-356 239) showcases Noi’s collection of antique and fine-reproduction textiles, lacquerware, basketry and furniture, plus objets from Thailand and the surrounding region. Most are for sale: Burmese lacquered bowls; sarongs from Thailand, Malaysia and Burma (from $38); Chiang Mai glass paintings. To nourish her devoted customers, Noi created a cozy seven-table, tree-shaded garden restaurant (lunch for two, $30). The large menu features fresh, enticingly presented local specialties, such as yam ma muang goong sod (green-mango salad) and Massaman curry.

The oldest Chinese herb shop in Phuket, Nguan Choon Tong, still sells traditional Chinese and Thai remedies at its original circa 1905 premises (16 Thalang Rd.; 66-76-215-901). Now overseen by the great-grandson of the original Hokkien Chinese owner, whose faded photograph hangs on a wall, the shop has cabinets filled with more than 1,000 medicinal herbs.** Many are made according to Chinese doctors’ prescriptions, combining leaves, bark, dried insects and other ingredients stored in the original wooden drawers. Ready-made Thai and Chinese herbal remedies for reducing cholesterol, cleansing the blood and detoxifying sell for less than $3 a package.

Because Phuket lacks a signature handicraft tradition, most Old Town souvenir shops sell ho-hum touristy knickknacks from around the region. Not so at the diminutive Job & Things (2/4 Phang Nga Rd.; 66-89-196-6086), which reflects the gentle personality and design sense of its owner, Job, a former archeologist who goes by one name only. She sells a seemingly haphazard mix of scarves, clothing, pillows, necklaces, cloth totes, framed pictures, bedcovers, cards, crystals and bibelots from across Southeast Asia. On close inspection, every item integrates with its neighbors. Job’s motto: “I sell what I want, what speaks to my heart.”

Locals shop at Antique Arts (68 Phang Nga Rd.; 66-76-213-989), which stocks a pleasantly crowded assortment of predominantly Chinese antiques found on buying trips to Fujian province, in that country’s southeast. Expect silver pieces from the Chinese-Tibetan border, Buddha statues and amulets, porcelain (some from the Ming dynasty), wood carvings, ivory, jade, jewelry and bronze. The well-informed owner, Worawut Limsuephchua, acknowledges that while his entire stock is unique, half of it comprises reproductions. Ask to see photos of his off-site collection of antique and reproduction Chinese furniture.

Opened in December 2011 in a long-abandoned cinema, HI.SO. (169 Yaowarat Rd.; 66-81-090-3100) is the first contemporary-design store in the Old Town. Its uncluttered showroom, which has a minimalist black-tile-and-white-stone floor, stands apart from other Old Town shops. The French owner-designer, Marc Gliede, describes his concept as “a new era of aesthetic Asia.” The shop carries imaginative and well-executed Asian-inspired kitsch home furnishings. The lighting is of particular interest: mirrored Ganesh lamps, elegant globe lamps covered with intricate white-shell rosettes, and a range of fixtures whose shades are decorated with chicken feathers dyed in bright colors.

Even inveterate shoppers need a restaurant break sometimes. Head to Raya Thai Cuisine (48 New Dibuk Rd.; 66-76-218-155; dinner for two, $50) for keng kati sai poo (crab curry with coconut milk) or yum phet yang (spicy roast-duck salad). After a day of shopping in Phuket, you’ll be rewarded with the sight of Thais seriously engaged in their favorite pastime—eating together.


EDIBLE SOUVENIRS
Keng Tin The town’s oldest traditional Chinese bakery has been run by the same family since 1942. They make Thai sweets like tau sar piah, a flaky baked ball of flour filled with red-bean paste or a mix of taro, sweet potato and ginger. 342–344 Phuket Rd.; 66-76-212-185

Rimtang
Shop here for packaged savory snacks that make tasty gifts, like gung saep song krueng (cashews with dried shrimp and Kaffir-lime leaves) and moo sawan (sun-dried pork with black pepper). A small restaurant serves cheap Thai meals. 25 Thung Kha Rd.; 66-76-211-714

*Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.

**Consult your physician before using any herbal remedies
.

STAY
RCI affiliated resorts on Phuket include:
Anantara Vacation Club at Phuket Villas C382
Steps from the Andaman Sea, with boating, windsurfing, tennis and more. 888 Moo 3, Tumbon Mai Khao, Amphur Thalang

LHC Phuket Resort 8715
Centrally located in the tropical environs of Laguna Phuket. 61 Moo 4, Srisoonthorn Rd., Cherngtalay, Amphur Thalang

Member Review:
“Good accommodations.”

Patong Bay Garden C389
White sandy beaches and near Patong’s famous nightlife. 33/1 Thaweewongse Rd., Patong Beach, Patong

LHC @ Allamanda Laguna Phuket 4973
Three swimming pools, a marina and a kids’ club. 29 Moo 4, Srisoonthorn Rd., Cherngtalay, Amphur Thalang

Member Review:
“Great location, great offerings on-site and in the adjoining areas."

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.


Non-RCI affiliated resorts:
Serenity Resort & Residences
Overlooking the Andaman Sea in southern Phuket. 14 Moo 5 Viset Rd.; 66-7637-1900; serenityphuket.com; doubles from $75 per night

Dusit Thani Laguna Resort
226 rooms with lagoon or sea views. 390 Srisoonthorn Rd.; 66-7636-2999; dusit.com; doubles from $160 per night

Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort & Spa
Set on 75 tropical acres overlooking the beach. 333 Patak Rd.; 66-76-396-433; hilton.com; doubles from $127 per night

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
Published: Summer 2012 
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