Lonely Planet correspondent Austin Bush skipped the beaches and discovered the charms of Phuket’s capital. Here’s his report from Phuket Town, highlighting the best things to see and do
For more than 20 years, I was based in Thailand, from where I contributed to more than 30 guidebooks for Lonely Planet. These days I’m mostly based in Lisbon, Portugal – but a few months back I found myself back in Thailand, to wrap up work on a cookbook about southern Thai food that I’m writing and photographing.
Phuket, an island in southern Thailand, is one of the most visited places in the country. With its famous tropical beaches in mind, however, relatively few of those visitors make it to Phuket Town, the island province’s landlocked capital. This is a real shame, as it’s one of the most charming urban centers in the country.
A street scene in Phuket Town Austin Bush
Home to beautiful Sino-Portuguese architecture, unique cuisine that blends Chinese and Thai elements and a really fun cafe scene, Phuket Town offers plenty to check out. Best of all, it’s compact enough to explore on foot – as I did.
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I usually start the day in Phuket Town with…
A visit to the fresh market. Even in a food paradise like Thailand, hotel breakfasts can be pretty dire, and my policy is always to grab my first meal of the day at a local stall. The basement level of Phuket Town’s fresh market is home to several vendors selling local sweets and rice and noodle dishes, including some regional items you won’t find elsewhere.
Street art by the artist known as Alex Face can be seen at one end of Phuket Town’s morning market
And my favorite place for breakfast is located just at the edge of the market. Mingalar Coffee Shop is a small cafe run by Burmese immigrants who serve up such dishes as puffy naan paired with a dip made from pigeon peas, along with tiny glasses of sweet tea – exactly the type of breakfast I ate while on assignments for Lonely Planet in Myanmar.
A dish of muu hawng, pork braised with soy sauce, garlic and black pepper; the interior of Raya a longstanding restaurant in Phuket Town
In Phuket Town, you must try…
Muu hawng. Phuket Town is a fascinating blend of Chinese and Thai cultures known locally as Baba – especially apparent in the unique local cuisine. Perhaps the most famous Baba dish is muu hawng, generous chunks of pork belly braised with garlic, soy sauce, sugar and lots of black pepper. It’s rich, savory, indulgent and downright spicy from all that pepper. You can’t miss with the versions served at Raya, One Chun or Tu Kap Khao.
A spread of khanom jiin noodles and toppings; the exterior of Khanom Chin Pa Mai, a noodle restaurant in Phuket Town
The top spot for noodles in Phuket Town is…
Khanom Chin Pa Mai. In southern Thailand, people like to start the day with khanom chin, thin, round rice noodles topped with your choice of curry. Pa Mai offers a variety of curries, from a creamy, peppery crab version to a sweet one created with mung beans. As is standard, the dish comes served with a huge array of optional toppings that range from tiny dried fish to a pile of leafy, bitter, sweet, astringent herbs, which you apply to suit your taste.
Inside the lobby at The Memory at On On Hotel
In Phuket Town, I stayed in…
The Memory at On On Hotel. I originally stayed in this classic hotel (which has a cameo in The Beach) back in the early 2000s, when it was a hostel in dire need of refurbishment. That renovation finally happened in 2012, and today it’s one of the more charming midrange hotels in all of Thailand. Old-school touches such as exposed brick and antique bric-a-brac have made it one of Phuket’s premier selfie destinations, and a location in the center of town means I was able to walk just about anywhere I’d like to go.
Hat Nui, an isolated cove on Phuket’s southern shore
In Phuket Town, I got off the beaten track by visiting…
Hat Nui. Phuket’s beaches are world-famous, but the most popular ones can be quite crowded, with the standard big-beach annoyances such as touts, fast-food restaurants and pesky vendors. If you prefer something more low-key, head to the far south of the island to Hat Nui, a beautiful, isolated cove accessible only via a hike or a ride in the back of a pickup truck via a steep dirt road. Upon descending, you’ll find a low-key beach bar and a handful of like-minded sunseekers who have also made the effort.
A variety of Thai kitchen tools purchased at Phuket Town’s morning market
You should bring Thai kitchen tools back from Phuket Town
In and around Phuket Town’s morning market you’ll find shops that sell uniquely Thai kitchen equipment. I picked up some rustic tools used to grate coconut, and devices that shred green papaya into thin strips for som tam, Thailand’s spicy papaya salad.