After reading an article on Baba Nyonya culture in Phuket and the close-ties shared between Phuket & Penang back in the tin mining days, we had to see for ourselves. So last week we flew up to Phuket to spend a few days exploring the island by motorbike.
Before enjoying the beaches and driving up and down the some of the steepest roads we have seen in Southeast Asia, we first headed over to Phuket Town. When we cruised into the outer limits of the city, traffic became heavier and buildings squeezed closer together. But no signs of Penang.
Ignoring the map, and taking left and right turns that led us in circles, we finally turned by accident in the right direction. We knew immediately because we could have closed our eyes and re-opened them and thought we had been transported back to George Town.
With the exception of the tangle of above-ground power lines, these were Penang streets in the middle of Thailand! The distinct windows, doors, and floor tiles of Penang shophouses. Incense clouding the interior of Chinese temples. Colonial style bungalows hidden behind rows of soft pines and stone fences. We stood on the five-foot-walkway, staring at each other, dumbfounded that we were not in Penang.
Shophouses fronted by a five-foot-walkway - one of the many identical architectural features shared between Penang & Phuket.
This is where the Nyonya women in Phuket shop for their figure-hugging kebaya & batik sarongs.
While it was easy to spot the similarities between the two old towns, it was just as obvious to notice the differences. Smaller in scale when compared to George Town, the streets of Phuket Town seem more organised, well-kept, and quaint, with a touch of Thai flavour here and there. With regard to cleanliness, George Town has A LOT to learn from Phuket.
Perhaps it has to do with tourism growing every year in Phuket that there are also more shophouses converted into cafes and galleries. We see similar changes in George Town after the UNESCO listing, but we hope that the remaining traditional businesses in Phuket Town and George Town endure for visitors to experience the real heritage of these special places.
One of the most significant differences occurred to me when I tried speaking Hokkien and Mandarin with some of the local Chinese. They gave me a blank stare and answered in Thai. I realized that only a few elderly Chinese could still speak the Hokkien language. Because the Chinese in Phuket form a very small minority, they assimilated quickly into Thai culture.
Phuket Town is a charming place, holding onto remnants of its Chinese and Baba Nyonya past. But after a short visit there, I found a new appreciation for my home. Penang is truly a multicultural island, with distinct food, festivals, and languages.