PHUKET TOWN, Thailand -- It's a post-dawn, pre-rush-hour morning by the equator. The air is a mixture of light, woolen heat, and crisp, salty breeze, layers of weather from the dark night that was and the bright day that will be. Rickshas canter along the sides of the street. Motorcycles buzz. Vendors call out, standing over Gauguin-esque stacks of finger bananas, green guava, and baby mangoes. Rows of Sino-Portuguese shophouses spring to life, people padding about on tiled porches and shuttered windows springing open.
This is the Phuket that few know, the part away from the beaches and their hordes seeking tans, yet it is the very part that helped the island make its fortune before tourism. From the 16th to the 19th century, before modern Thailand, it was known as Jung Ceylon. Chinese, Portuguese, and Malay made a fortune in tin and rubber. Boats stopped here and at surrounding islands as part of the spice trade. Buddhists and Muslims mixed. And a sleepy port town full of mansions and shophouses sprang up. The streets were actually paved with gold.
Amazingly, little has changed. Farther down the Malay Peninusula, Malacca and Penang in Malaysia are better known for their old shophouses and an atmosphere linked to the past, but Phuket is better preserved. Now that the whole island -- with beaches more stunning than most of Bali's and a huge interior -- has begun to go upscale, bustling Phuket Town could very well have its moment. (Phuket, four hours from the country's hardest hit areas in the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami last year, has been on the road to recovery and beyond for 10 months, and its beaches are softer and prettier than ever.) From nearly any point on the island, ''P-Town" is quite central, thanks to the way the highways are designed. Locals here have an expansive generosity, and even without knowing the language visitors can do quite well.
The best way to start the day is as any local would, at the morning market. It is best before 8 a.m., when the curry vendors (food here combines Malay flavors, Indian aromas, Chinese techniques, a touch of Middle Eastern spice, and Thai dynamism) have just set up and the water has not yet evaporated from just-picked chayote shoots.
One morning experience not to miss is ''khanom jin," a signature dish combining Chinese noodles, bundles of fresh herbs and vegetables (Vietnamese coriander, lemon basil, chopped wing bean), and the famed southern curries, sour and hot; it tastes as if a mouthful of sea water had been dosed with chile and lime.
Cooler mornings make for good walks. Architecturally, Phuket is a gem. One can spot touches of Moorish fantasy in the courtyards, English colonial calm in the gardens and mansions, and the fetching Chinese functionality and Portuguese eye for detail in the shophouses. Soi Rommani, once a street of brothels, is a quiet strip being redone with a temple at the end and no building over two stories. Thanon Dibuk is a lesson in the classic shophouse vernacular: buildings taller than they are wide, ornate latticework, tiled roofs, thick ribbings, and color schemes that seem to smile and dance in the daylight. One building worth seeking out is the Provincial Court on Damrong Road, which has 99 doors and a courtroom that is a masterful piece of period woodwork.
Asians have a knack for commerce and Thais for design. Slowly, old and new, tradition and innovation are mixing here. Thanon Dibuk has several no-name boutiques that deal in a very Bangkok sort of fashion, single-fabric garments that flow freely and reveal sexy touches of Tibetan and Indian style with an urbanism that is very mod Siam. Fai Sor Kam sells candles, incense, and great holders for the two. Soul of Asia is overpriced but nonetheless a lesson in regional styles of antiques. If you don't mind a mall, the ground floor of nearby Central Festival has a great open-plan assortment of Thai homewares such as Panta, lotions by Harnn, and fabrics by the likes of Pasaya.
By noon, P-Town hums with the singsong Thai language, radios blaring sugary Asian pop, and lots of customized pickups and motorbikes. A great place to observe their rhythm is 346, a combination cafe-gallery owned by a Portuguese hotelier. The building is painted yellow to recall another island of lifestyle note, Macau, but here the interiors mix red silk lanterns, simple black tables, and an old Thai-Chinese symbol that glows red on the back wall. Downstairs, the cafe turns out southern Thai dishes like stir-fried beef, chile, and lesser ginger; stir-fried Phuket greens with fermented shrimp; and spicy lemongrass salad. Upstairs, an airy art gallery exhibits works from all over the country. The preserved tile-lined terrace is a perfect spot for sipping cold Singha beer; sweet, chalky guava juice; or the house specialty, very strong coffee.
Wander less than a kilometer out of the town center and a small port welcomes ferries and fishermen alike. Offshore, there is a small island, Koh Sirae, inhabited by sea gypsies where many go for seafood lunches served in shacks without names.
When the light fades to the shade of golden raisins, take that as a cue to climb Rang Hill (Khao Rang). This tiny hill has an almost 30-foot Buddha in the Suppression Evil pose and sweeping vistas that put Phuket Town in perspective. Chinese temples, their gabled roofs bent like hunchbacks, golden-roofed Buddhist temples, and neat housing rows form patterns. A local restaurant, Tung Ka Cafe, serves lip-nipping green papaya salad and good sour curry along with sunset views.
Darkness brings almost a different day entirely. The worklike rhythm of daytime traffic takes on squealing evening tones. Youthful faces pop up, as do night markets slashed with neon. Thanon Yaowarat, one of the longest unbroken shophouse rows, is home to much of the revelry. Timber Hut is a classic wood-clad bar in the Thai roadhouse style. Each table is lined with Scotch or whiskey, ice buckets, glasses, and mixers. Live music is the main attraction. And dancing is plentiful. More local yet is a place called Kor Tor Mor, and more zany and wild than that is Krajok See, a flamboyant take on the same model that begins as a restaurant and ends as a house party. Almost anyone will know it.
By the time these places empty out, the air is once again cool, dark, and sweet with the nearby ocean. It's a taste that will disappear by morning but, like much of Phuket Town, one that has lost little of its charm.
Rob McKeown is a freelance writer based in Asia.