Phuket, Thailand’s lush and mountainous island, glimmers like a polished emerald in the Andaman Sea. Thousands of years before vacationers discovered the sugar-sand beaches ringing the shoreline, the southern Thailand island was home to ancient tribes. Phuket’s next chapter of human history was written by sea-faring traders, gypsies, sailors, and laborers drawn to the island from India, Portugal, England, China, and other far-flung locations. From there, economic opportunity on the island drew people from across Thailand and from neighboring Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar.
This cultural fusion spread across the centuries makes Phuket unlike any other place in Thailand. For worldly travelers, fully experiencing the enchanting island today means delving into its extraordinary past. Facilitating such in-depth exploration is a specialty of InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts, the pioneer of global luxury travel with more than 70 years of amassed insider experience. Guests at the beachside InterContinental® Phuket Resort, for example, benefit from the cultural wisdom of the expert hotel staff whose extensive knowledge of Phuket history and traditions inspires discovery.
One particularly fascinating aspect of Phuket’s multicultural mix is Baba Yaya, or Phuket Baba, the colloquial term used to describe the island’s Peranakan Chinese community. Originating from enterprising Hokkien Chinese laborers and merchants who arrived on the Malay Peninsula hundreds of years ago, Phuket Baba is a distinctive, living culture blending Chinese, Thai, and European influences. In Malay, male Peranakan (descendants of the Chinese immigrants who married local Malay women) are called Baba and female Peranakan are Nyonya.
During Phuket’s 19th-century tin-mining heyday, multicultural Peranakan Chinese from across Southeast Asia and immigrants from mainland China descended upon the island to work in the mining industry, on rubber plantations, and as traders and fishermen. From this influx grew a tight-knit and increasingly prosperous community of Phuket Baba, whose influence permeates Phuket culture, cuisine, and even architecture. The wealthiest of these merchants and families built elaborate Sino-Portuguese-style mansions and shophouses in Phuket Town, the capital and largest town of Phuket province. One of the original Peranakan businesses, the medicinal herb shop Nguan Choon Tong, opened in 1905 and is run today by a descendant of the founder.
Dozens of other original Peranakan structures—long, narrow buildings with ornate wooden doors adorned with delicate Chinese fretwork carvings—remain in the compact Old Town district. Many of the buildings have been restored and reborn as shops, restaurants, and guesthouses with facades painted in a rainbow of colors from pale yellow to bright blue. One of the most photogenic collections of colorful buildings is on Soi Romanee, a short, connector street formerly famous for its opium dens, brothels, and other colorful enterprises. The reimagining and repurposing of Old Town heritage sites embodies the ever-evolving fusion of cultures that makes Phuket such an extraordinary and interconnected place.
To help visitors gain a deeper understanding of Sino-Portuguese architecture, the island’s enduring Peranakan Chinese heritage, and the captivating history of Old Town, the InterContinental® Phuket Resort partners with the expert local guides of Old Phuket Tour for private, half-day, and full-day tours of Phuket that include a guided walk through Old Town. Phuket Baba heritage stops on an Old Town tour include the Phuket Thai Hua Museum and Peranakanitat Museum.
Both museums are housed in restored Sino-Portuguese-style buildings, the first in a former Chinese school built in 1934 and the second in a stately, corner bank building. Though small, the museums share the impressive story of Chinese migration and the Phuket Baba community through photographs, artifacts, and exhibits about prominent Peranakan civic leaders, and Peranakan cuisine and traditional attire.
On holidays and special occasions, it’s not uncommon to see modern Phuket Baba women wearing the traditional fashion, called Phuket Nyonya. Typified by long floral skirts, lace tops, and vibrant colors, the regal-looking attire is bedecked with detailed beadwork, embroidered shapes, and decorative brooches.
One of the most impressive displays of Nyonya fashion can be seen each June at the annual Phuket Baba Wedding, hosted by the Thai Peranakan Association and its local Phuket partners. The cultural tourism festival, celebrating its tenth year in 2020, welcomes couples from around the world to be married in a traditional Baba wedding, complete with authentic Peranakan wedding attire to wear during the ceremony.
Indubitably the best way to immerse oneself in Phuket Baba culture is through its food, which, like Phuket, is unlike any other fare found in Thailand. Peranakan dishes regularly feature pork, and blend Chinese and local cooking influences and ingredients. At Old Town market stalls, truly adventurous eaters can try the local favorite Phuket street food, Loba—snout-to-tail pork parts braised in a potent five-spice blend and lightly fried to chewy perfection. For more refined Peranakan fare, try Moo Hong, a slow-cooked and aromatic pork belly stew. Two atmospheric Old Town eateries specializing in the dish are Raya and The Charm, both located in restored Sino-Portuguese shophouses.
Reservations are required for the four-course Peranakan feast served at The Blue Elephant Phuket. The internationally acclaimed restaurant and cooking school, housed in a meticulously restored Sino-Portuguese Phuket Town mansion, specializes in Thai fare, but offers a separate Peranakan menu. Choose from a variety of Phuket-style heritage dishes, such as Sam Bai Kor Leang (deep-sea tiger prawns cooked with Thai organic garlic, Red Holy Basil, and coconut milk) and Tubo, a sharable Phuketian dessert made with Adzuki beans, sweet potato, taro, gingko, and coconut cream and served in a coconut shell.
As demonstrated through its distinctive cuisine, architecture, and traditions, Phuket’s Peranakan roots and evolving multicultural identity reinforce how something truly magical happens when diverse people come together to create community. That’s what makes Phuket such an inspiring and life-affirming place for discerning travelers seeking to forge meaningful connections between cultures.
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