A walk on the crowded side in Phuket old town

A walk on the crowded side in Phuket old town

As the resort island mulls expanding its popular walking street, not everyone is in sync with the need for change

Tourist magnet: The walking street in the Old Town area in central Phuket is clogged with visitors on Sundays. A plan is being mulled to expand the walking street in the wake of a steadily increasing number of international arrivals to the island province after a three-year Covid-19 downturn. (Photo: Achadthaya Chuenniran)
Tourist magnet: The walking street in the Old Town area in central Phuket is clogged with visitors on Sundays. A plan is being mulled to expand the walking street in the wake of a steadily increasing number of international arrivals to the island province after a three-year Covid-19 downturn. (Photo: Achadthaya Chuenniran)

Phuket's tourist magnetism has extended from its beaches inland to its walking street that is now bursting at the seams.

A plan was afoot to expand the walking street but it is proving easier said than done. Car park spaces are scarce and any expansion could run into resistance from residents who share the street which the popular open-air market occupies.

Since the reopening of the border, tourists have returned in droves to the island province. After soaking up the sun on the beach, many head to the town centre for some shopping.

Specifically, they make their way to Thanon Klang, the street running through Phuket's old quarter, which has been closed to traffic and opened to small stalls selling anything from Phuket stir-fried noodles to one-of-a-kind local souvenirs.

The street in Soi Rommanee of Muang district pulls in crowds of Thais and foreign visitors alike enchanted by the low-rise buildings and shophouses showcasing the island's distinct Sino-Portuguese architecture.

The 2.7-sq km old quarter, served by a network of roads, dates back more than a century and has been designated an "environmental art conservation zone".

Experts agree the award-winning quarter, known as Old Town, is a shining example of how tourism has been exploited to conserve old-world charm.

The Fine Arts Department and provincial authorities are seeking to launch a bid to have the old quarter listed as a World Heritage site.

Thanon Klang was transformed into a walking street, locally called Laad Yai, in 2013 through the joint efforts of the community enterprises, businesses and state agencies as well as locals.

Tourism street

The walking street was intended to promote a brand of tourism which protects culture and the locals' way of life while making money for communities so people and conservation can go hand in hand.

Income is collected from fees charged to walking street vendors.

After three years in which the Covid-19 pandemic all but destroyed tourism, the sector is nearly back to full swing. The first signs of revival came with the unveiling of the Phuket sandbox programme in 2021 to lure back a limited number of tourists under a regulated travel environment and strict public health requirements.

As tourism revenue trickled back to the local economy to the tune of around 10 million baht a day in the beginning of the sandbox period, Laad Yai was also coming back to life.

Visitors were steadily returning. The walking street was gaining publicity through depictions on popular YouTube channels. The surge in public attention bumped visitor turnout, prompting local authorities to consider expanding the walking street.

Somyot: Community input is key

Expansion problems

However, an expansion was feared to overstretch the street's carrying capacity, with a knock-on, detrimental effect on the environment and the neighbourhood.

Somyot Pathan, president of the old quarter's community enterprise group, said visitors from Europe, the Middle East and Russia were the first to return after the pandemic restrictions were lifted late last year.

Now, more Chinese and Australians are holidaying in Phuket. Around 17,000-20,000 tourists, 80% of whom are foreign nationals, enter the resort province daily and many make a point to stroll down Thanon Klang and do some shopping.

The Sunday walking street -- 450 metres long and 5.5 metres wide -- is vibrant and teeming with activity. A combined 600 vendors line both sides of Thanon Klang which is at its busiest from 6pm to 9pm.

The street can take around 10,000 people at most although the rising tourist arrivals have pushed numbers past the limit. It is estimated that some 20,000 people pack the street each Sunday.

According to Mr Somyot, the expansion initiative is worth considering as the street is thronged by both walking street shoppers and sightseers keen to view unique buildings in the old quarter.

Tourist arrivals are going up further, thanks in part to the cruise ships which bring in large groups of holidaymakers. Many cruises originate in Singapore before making a stop in the province which is also a port of call for some cruises which set sail from Europe.

Mr Somyot said setting aside more space on the walking street would need input from local communities and municipal authorities.

Options floated

Two options were floated for the expansion: opening the street on Saturday as well or enlarging the market to cover adjacent areas.

"But we need to be mindful of the local capacity to handle visitors. We have to calculate the amount of parking spaces, how many toilets are available and take into consideration the security factor."

"Moving the periphery of the street further is the easy bit. Managing the expanded space represents a challenge," he said.

However, Mr Somyot said more space means greater trading opportunity which will encourage locals to make more products for sale. "That's the beauty of it," he added.

In terms of waste, the organiser has banned plastic bags and plastic drinking straws on the walking street which produces 3.2 tonnes or rubbish per day.

Don Limnanthapisit, president of the Phuket Old Town Community, said the Old Town area was a piece of living history, where 80% the old buildings are still occupied by the descendants of the original owners.

The Old Town and the walking street are part and parcel of the same thing. As long as one thrives, the other will too.

Expansion in a nutshell

Mr Don said the street opens on Sundays from 4pm to 10pm. Visitors come by the busload as more houses in the community open their doors for people to view the architecture and cook traditional Phuket cuisine.

The high visitor turnout has left the street crammed with people. The walking street may be expanded all the way to Sam Yak Praisanee (the Postal Intersection) while permission will be sought from the Phuket municipality to increase vendors at the present site.

Close by, there is also the Limelight Avenue Phuket where a flea market has been operating. Mr Don said it might be worthwhile exploring the feasibility of connecting the walking street with the flea market to help lessen congestion.

Overcrowding has sparked safety concerns. The authorities are wary of a repeat of last October's deadly crowd crush which killed 159 mostly young people out partying in the Itaewon neighbourhood of Seoul, South Korea.

They are studying the launch of an online platform that allows people to book visits to the walking street for a specific time period.

Mr Don said this would help spread out visitors and keep too many of them going in at the same time.

However, he insisted that enlarging the walking street would require sounding out residents since the project would affect many stakeholders. "Among them are the people living along the street, who must have access to their homes on Sundays while all the action is happening," he said.

An effective disposal system for rubbish left on the walking street during activities also must be implemented. "We should figure all this out quickly. We can't afford to argue over it for too long," Mr Don added.

He said if the adjacent Phangnga Road could be opened as an extension to the Thanon Klang walking street, it might not only relieve congestion but also carve out a new niche with added appeal. The road could be designated exclusively as an art zone where visitors can have self-portraits painted or hand painted.

Parking woes

Mr Don also raised concerns about a shortage of parking spaces for visitors. One solution could be renting some land and developing it as a temporary parking lot or arranging a park-and-ride service.

If the public transport system was more efficient and convenient, parking would no longer pose a problem for residents and visitors to the walking street, which could then open every day of the week.

Sarote Angkanapilas, Phuket City mayor, admitted parking presents a major issue standing in the way of expansion.

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