Friday Photos #1: Shops on Thalang Road, Phuket

SAM_4894Welcome to the first installment of Friday Photos, a series in which I will highlight a selection of the week’s photos.  I plan to build each segment around a particular theme and most will be in and around my neighborhood.

That neighborhood happens to be the heart of Phuket, Thailand,  just a stone’s throw from what is called Old Town district.  It’s an area rich in history, interesting food and vibrant culture.

This week, while winding down from the New Year’s festivities, I took a stroll along the commercial center of Old Town – Thalang Road.

Thalang is one of the oldest roads in Phuket.  At the dawn of the twentieth century, the only roads that existed in Phuket were in this downtown market area.  The rise of a local government official known as Ko Simbi changed that.  This is the famous Phraya Ratsadanupradit Mahitsarapakdi.  As Lord Lieutenant of what was then called Phuket Circle from 1901-191, he initiated extensive road-construction – among numerous other improvement – projects.  Phraya Ratsada had a special road roller:  a three-metric ton tube-shaped stone that was used to press the laterite surface over what was formerly basic passages and cart paths.  The road roller required only two operators – one was the driver who sat atop the elephant that pulled the device and the other was the elephant feeder.  Their wage was 16-18 baht per person.

SAM_4888While not as striking as the Sino-Portuguese style of shophouse found elsewhere along Thalang Road, the two-story building at the northeast corner with Thepkassattri Road is one of the oldest remaining buildings in the region.  This latter road was named by King Vajiravudh during a visit to Phuket and originally marked the taewnam (“water area”), meaning the coastline.  East of this location is all landfill today, hence the park beyond being especially appropriate with its golden sea dragon fountain.

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While there are a few shops along Thalang Road that exist primarily to sell souvenirs and t-shirts to tourists and an ever-fluctuating number of funky cafes, the majority of the shops are operated by locals for locals.  Many of the buildings have remained in the same families for generations.  There are a several hardware shops and many cloth emporiums such as the one pictured here.  I’m no expert but I believe this is silk which, along with batik, is the most popular form of clothing amongst the local Baba people who are descended from the Malay Peninsula’s overseas Chinese.

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Here’s a café I hadn’t noticed before.  If I don’t walk along a particular street at a particular time of day for a while, I will always find something “new”.  This one might be shuttered during the evenings or it may have recently opened.  It had been quite a while since I’d walked along Thalang Road during the daytime so I’m not really sure.  I absolute love the color combination and will stop for an ice cream or a drink next time.  Soon.

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Okay, so this one isn’t a shop but it illustrates the Chinese styling of the doors, windows, and vents that is so common throughout Old Town.  Common doesn’t have to mean boring!

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Can you guess what caught my eye in this shop?  Well, the old pillar box of course!  That’s the cylindrical style of post box from a bygone age.  These were first developed in Victorian Britain and spread throughout the British Empire.  And Thailand! This style is very similar to one that originated in the Siamese postal system around 1911.  This shop has some pretty cool nick-knacks as well, some of which found their way into the New Year’s cards I sent out this year…

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I absolutely love “shops” such as this one as I never know what I’m going to stumble across – antique toys, old coins, a cool blade or two.  This vendor gets bonus points for setting out on the sidewalk (actually Southeast Asia’s famous five-foot way) rather than being inside a dark and dusty cavern.  While I always stop for a glance, I never buy anything as I simply don’t have space for any more clutter in my tiny apartment.  What I need is to get somebody to build me some display shelves and then I can buy to my heart’s content…

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Speaking of the five-foot way…  Called ngorkhakee in the Hokkien  Chinese dialect used by so many of the older families of Phuket, this is an arched walkway along the storefronts that originated either in colonial Singapore or Penang, Malaysia, depending on who you ask.  The overhang of the first floor of homes permitted commerce to continue during the frequent monsoonal rains without soaking the goods or the customers.  A five-foot length was usually measured using a standard wooden measuring ruler called an ingjaochue formerly used in technical and engineering drawing.  It displayed a unit of one krong, or five Chinese feet, which is equivalent to 160 centimeters.

When I first arrived in Phuket a decade ago, most of these were bricked closed or otherwise blocked by the building owners.  Starting in September 2009 led by our diminutive long-standing mayor Miss Somjai Suwansuphana, these have been restored to their former splendor (not to mention usefulness).  This was concurrent with the burying of the huge tangle of power and telephone cables that formerly uglified the area.  Old Town is now a very beautiful place on so many levels.

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Here’s another cloth shop but with a nice display of Thai snacks at the front.  Some of these are quite tasty although I’ve never been a fan of the little pieces of “toast” seen at the upper right.  They are way too sugary for my tastes.  But you never know until you try so don’t be afraid.  They will always taste better than the dried insect snacks you see at the local markets!

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I will end this week’s edition of Friday Photos with yet another cloth shop.  One of my “requirements” for finding somebody to date is that she must like wearing the long skirts made out of these sort of patterns!  The problem is that most of these local Baba women have long been betrothed to males in other local families (who have their own snappy garb they wear).

For next week, I think my theme might be the local architecture or perhaps a look inside the many nearby temples.


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