Every town has something worth seeing. Any trip that lasts more than three months is necessarily going to include downtime; you won’t see highlights every day, and every few weeks, entire days are taken up with the minutiae of travel: laundry, planning onward travel, etc. But even the stopover towns have a monument or natural feature or a really good diner, and if I have more than a night in a place, I try to check it out. So even though my time in Phuket Town was mostly spent recovering from jet lag and visiting hospitals (shingles lingers for an impossibly long time), I did spend an afternoon admiring the buildings at the center of town.
The free “Treasure Map” of town explains the origins of the town’s Sino-European architecture: Phuket is perfectly placed for ocean commerce, and it was a big trade center where Indian, Malay, Arab, European, and Chinese merchants gathered–and some settled down. Chinese tin miners were especially influential, building the colorful two-story shop-houses that I also saw lots of in Singapore. A few downtown streets have recently been renovated, and apparently one in particular, Soi Rommani, is a popular filming location. Phuket is so heavily strung with electric wires that it’s a wonder they don’t fall to the ground, so it was nice to walk along the renovated streets, where the cables have been buried.
It took a little backtracking and poking my head into the wrong alleyways, but eventually I found the Shrine of the Serene Light, a Chinese Taoist temple. The courtyard was full of bamboo scaffolding, long wooden boards, and bags of building materials. A man crouched near a sculpture to the side and carefully applied a new coat of paint. No one else was in there, so I covered my bare shoulders with a hat and a bandana in a hasty stab at proper dress, and went inside.
I had already passed under two gates to get to the shrine, and now I took off my shoes at the pavilion immediately in front of the shrine. I ogled the fruit laid out in offering, and stepped over the threshold into the dark temple. Drawers of paper-slip fortunes lined the right-hand wall, and a wisp of smoke rose from the tall candles in the center of the room. A boombox in the corner played what I assume was a religious song, and I walked to the back of the small room to look at the different altars; one had a bronze bas-relief on the wall, one housed a statue under a carved wooden canopy, and one was so cluttered with flowers, fruits, and candies that it was hard to see the honored figure behind.
I had only been in Thailand for a few days, but already I was used to being honked at while walking down the street, and hearing drivers shout out “Taxi! Motobike!” in a bid for my business. So I wasn’t surprised, while walking back to my hostel from the hospital one hot afternoon, to hear a “Taxi! Madam! Taxi!” and to see a songthaew driver lean out his window and gesture to me frantically. I smiled and said, “No, thank you,” and carried on.
But he was not done. He followed me for several meters, and after I thought I’d finally shook him, I heard a pattering behind me and looked up to see that he had got out of his car and actually chased me down on foot. Had this been nighttime instead of broad daylight, I would have been frightened.
He held a map out and said, “10 baht, 10 baht, I take you anywhere you want to go, 10 baht, we go here first.” 10 baht is about 30 cents and cheaper than any songthaew ever costs, so it was clear to me that this was one of the Souvenir Shop Scams I’d read about. You get in an absurdly low-priced vehicle, the driver takes you to at least one souvenir shop, more if he can, and he gets a cut of whatever you spend. It was very hot, the hostel was quite far down the road, I wanted to know what these mysterious souvenir shops look like, and I thought, hey, I’m not really getting scammed if I know about it up front, right?
I got in the songthaew and when he pulled in to the souvenir shop I obediently went inside. Immediately, a woman in a long traditional dress greeted me, and she shadowed me for my entire time in there. It was a vast room, like one of those abandoned shops in the mall that occasionally gets rented out to a book discounter or a Halloween outfit, and it was almost entirely filled with jewelry cases. Two women peered into the cases and seemed intent on buying at least one piece each from the smiling saleswoman behind the counter. The huge room was empty except for us.
My guide tried to steer me to the jewelry, but I looked around the walls, at the t-shirts, scarves, and trinkets. I took a blurry photo before my guide could stop me and point to the many “No Photo” signs posted around the room. Then I bought two postcards, to my guide’s evident disgust, and went back to the songthaew. He wanted to take me to the mall next, but I’d experimented with the scam long enough and asked to go straight back to the hostel.
I was only in Phuket for a few days, but I managed to see the old buildings and the new scams, which is not bad for a stopover town.