Trang, Thailand’s Intimate Vintage Capital

Trang Province in Southern Thailand does not quite have the same notoriety that Krabi and Phuket enjoy. However, it could be promoted as Thailand’s capital of “vintage”, an idea that would finally provide Trang with a much needed identity.

Trang province is well known for its natural resources. The Province gained fame in recent years for hosting underwater wedding ceremonies in Koh Kradan. The ceremony brought some fame to the province, and to Thailand, which became the first country to the world to issue a marriage license underwater. The event, celebrated in February 2016, is supported by the Trang Chamber of Commerce and is open to all couples, including the handicapped, who benefit from special assistance to fulfill their dreams.

Trang is also well known for Morakot Cave (Emerald Cave) located in Koh Mook, another well-known natural sightseeing landmark, particularly popular with domestic travellers. Last but not least, there is Trang City, probably one of Southern Thailand’s best-kept secrets. The town celebrated its 100th anniversary last year as the capital of the province. In 1915, the provincial seat of government was moved from Kantang, the former capital located 20 km to the south.

The city’s history looks in reality very “un-Thai”. Trang has a mostly Chinese essence, as immigrants from Southern China settled there for trading purposes. “Kantang was the only deep seaport in the south. They have common origins with Chinese from the Strait in Penang, and from Phuket, as many came for the tin industry there,” explains Mr. Suphat, a teacher specializing in Trang Chinese history. To his knowledge, the Trang Chinese population probably encompasses 80% of total inhabitants.

The large number of Chinese in the area mostly reflects the destiny of Phraya Ratsadanupradit, the first Governor of Trang Province. Originally from a Zhangzhou family, this well-educated visionary brought prosperity to the region when he became Governor in 1890. He was behind the introduction of rubber trees in Southern Thailand, and was consequently named Governor of Phuket’s Regional  Government in 1902, spending his time commuting between Phuket, Trang and Penang. He died in Penang and, since then, a ceremony on his birthday sees descendants from Phuket, Penang, Ranong and Trang gathering together.

Phraya Ratsadanupradit’s house has been preserved in Kantang, the old capital city of the province, and has been converted into a museum. Kantang is a rather sleepy town, but it probably has one of the most charming rail stations of Thailand. Built of wood, and carefully preserved with its manicured green lanes and freshly painted wooden facades, the station is today a beloved backdrop for photographers and romantic couples due to its old style atmosphere.

This is what makes Trang City such an interesting place to visit. Nowhere in Thailand is nostalgia more perceptible than in Trang. It is all vintage in the old town, with its high number of Peranakan style houses (Sino-Portuguese as they are called here in Thailand) that bear similarities with Phuket or Penang, as well as lots of old signage hanging over the shops. Most of the old town exults this backwards style, where Chinese shop houses (Peranakan or Sino Portuguese style) line the streets of the old town. Some have been carefully restored for the 100th anniversary celebration, and even adorned with painting from local artists.

Meanwhile, old shops sell outdated costumes, small coffee shops seem to have barely changed over the last 40 years, and curious three-wheeled tuk-tuks—given by Japan in the sixties—still ply the streets of the town. Even Trang’s best-known monument—a Clock Tower with a curious shape—is a typical structure from the late fifties or early sixties. The pride surrounding Trang’s vintage icons tells a lot about the way local people enjoy their old fashioned life. Positioning Trang as Thailand vintage capital could be the way to finally give an identity to the town, helped it to emerge out of the shadow of Phuket and Krabi, and ultimately attract more tourists.

“We know that Trang should welcome more foreign travellers although we still understand that the city is better shaped for a niche market. We will never have mass tourism and this is not altogether bad,” mused Karuna Dechatiwong, Director of the Trang Office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. She feels that ‘vintage tourism’ could indeed be an interesting positioning. “We already have some events such as the ‘Moon Worshipping Festival’, the ‘Trang Cake Festival’ or the ‘Vegetarian Festival’. But it is true that we need a very original, and a bit funky event which would definitely attract quality curious travellers.”

In 2015 Trang received 1.16 million tourists, a far cry from what Phuket or Krabi would receive in one year, and from that total only 10% came from abroad. Trang could very well be a true discovery for lovers of a more authentic Thailand.