Phuket Island: history and main attractions

Phuket in the history of Thailand

The island of Phuket rightfully occupies the most important place among the other islands of Thailand. It is not only the largest Thai island, but also one of the smallest provinces (smaller only Samut Songkram). That’s why it is not marked on the map with the word Koh, which means island. Phuket province includes the island of Phuket and 39 surrounding islands and is equal in area to Singapore.

History of Phuket

How did Phuket come to be?

One theory of Phuket’s origins is that the island was once part of the mainland and separated as a result of tectonic activity. Phang Nga Bay, with its 43 islands and cays, is vivid evidence of tectonic action.

Phuket history

Ancient Map of Siam

Arrowheads that have been found by archaeologists in the Kamal area are more than 3000 years old, which means that Phuket was inhabited several thousand years ago. Whether the descendants of the Stone Age people, some of whom can still be seen here (the Mani and Sakai peoples), lived here is still unknown. They disappeared from Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi provinces. Other early inhabitants of Phuket are called the Sea Gypsies (Moken and Cheo Le) who migrated here from the Nicobar and Andaman Islands and still inhabit the coastal areas. They have their own language, culture and religion, different from the Thais.

streets of old town phuket

Fountain near Ranong Street

The first mention of Phuket

The first settlers may have been nomadic sailors, people from India and Burma in the early Iron Age. Even before our era, Phuket Island was a convenient location for traders traveling from the Indian Peninsula to China. At that time Phuket was known as Manikram, Tamil for “Crystal Mountain” and Hai Leng for “Sea Dragon of the Indian Ocean”. Claudius Ptolemy, in his Geography, compiled in the second century AD, mentions a port in the west of the Malacca Peninsula called Takola, referring to modern Phuket. But now this fact is increasingly refuted, moving the port northward to the mainland, in the area of Phang Nga province.

old photos of phuket thailand

A police station and the first bank

An important port on the Silk Road

Though Phuket was not a major city of the Silk Road, trade ships from Persia, Sri Lanka, Arabia, India, Burma, China and Siam entered the port and made a positive impact on the life of the island. Immigrants – Malays, Indians, and Siamese – began to appear, bringing their culture, religion, and traditions. But until the 16th century, Phuket Island, as well as the entire coast of the Andaman Sea, was attacked by pirates.

Only when the ancient Thai state of Ayutthaya fought with Malacca for control of the strait and trade routes, and when the Portuguese colonists withdrew a little further east, did Phuket appear in the first international written sources under the name Jank Ceylon. And the Siamese records from King Naraya’s time stated the island of Myang Thalang or Thalang Bangkhli. So you realized that Phuket had many names, which are reflected in the name of the Talang Island area and the name of the Jung Ceylon shopping center. The most likely version of the origin of the name Phuket is from the Malay word Bukit, which translates as “hill, mountain”. The island first began to be called by this name during the reign of Rama V. And in 1967 the name was officially changed to Phuket.

old photos of Phuket

Talang Street in 1903

The Tin Era

In the 14th century, tin deposits were discovered in Phuket and Europeans began to flock here: the Portuguese, French, English and Danes, who at first were restricted in their access to the mines. The tin boom was in the 19th century and at the end of the century Phuket became the second most developed city in Siam, behind only Bangkok. Thousands of ambitious Chinese workers flocked to Phuket to work in the mines of European owners or serve under foreigners. The Chinese brought with them traditional culture, religion, and cooking. The new settlers intermarried with the locals and created a distinct culture called baba yaya.

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The ethnic composition of the island changed, with Chinese settlers occupying the middle of the island, pushing the Muslim inhabitants to the coast and north. The Portuguese, by order of the governor, could get full ownership of the mine if they built a street in what is now Phuket Town, and so came Montree Street, Dibuk Street, and others. Over time, many Chinese workers and merchants became rich and built mansions for their families. In 1830 the British ambassador John Crawford wrote of the new settlers, “The Chinese are the most valuable product brought to Siam from China. The influence of the Sino-Portuguese style can be fully felt walking through the narrow streets of old Phuket Town.

Phuket history

Tin mines in the 1920s

Heroine Sisters

Phuket Island’s most important event is the Burmese attack in 1785 and the exploits of the heroine sisters. At that difficult time, most of the men left the island to participate in the mainland war effort. The governor’s wife, Chan (her name is still pronounced Jan), was mourning her untimely deceased husband when news of the impending Burmese attack reached her. The brave Chan, aided by her younger sister, Mook, gathered the women together, shaved their heads and dressed them in men’s clothes. With props made of palm leaves, they all lined up on the rampart blocking the entrance to Phuket. The Burmese besieged the ford for about a month, but then retreated.

King Rama I, on learning of such a feat, bestowed the title of Thao Thep Kasatri Chan and the title of Thao Si Sunthong on her sister Muk. One of the main streets on Phuket Island is now named Thep Kasatri after Chan, with a monument to the two heroine sisters and the nearby Si Soonthong Temple in honor of the Muk. Every year on March 13, the Heroes’ Day is celebrated, and Thais passing by the monument are sure to greet the “vayem” sisters.

Phuket Island

Monument to the Heroine Sisters in the 1950s

Other activities in Phuket

In parallel with tin mining, other industries developed in Phuket: the cultivation of the Hebei tree, shrimping, and fishing. These industries were mainly carried out by the Siamese and the Malays. Rubber trees appeared on the island in the early twentieth century thanks to the Governor of Trang Province – Phraya Ratsad. At that time, rubber plantations accounted for 40% of the island’s vegetation, but today they have been reduced to only 30%.

History of Phuket

Tin mines in the 1920s

Rising from the ashes

In the twentieth century, the tin mines were depleted and the value of tin on the world market fell off. During the Japanese occupation, trade and business in the country declined, and a few Chinese families stayed afloat in Phuket. Thanks to their hard work and skills Phuket island revived. In today’s society, many influential people are of Chinese descent. For example, the current governor of Phuket is one of the descendants of Chinese immigrants.

How to get to the islands

Car ferry between Phuket and the mainland

By the 80s it was impossible not to appreciate the environmental damage from the byproducts of tin processing, then the locals staged mass actions against the construction of new plants. In 1992, the last tin mine was closed. Ironically, tin mining was the beginning of tourism. On the site of the tin mines were built golf courses and the famous hotel complex Laguna. However, there are almost no natural lakes in Phuket, all reservoirs were formed as a result of tin mining.

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History of Phuket

A family of Chinese immigrants in the national dress in 20s.

Tourism in Phuket

The first small number of tourists began to appear in Phuket in the early 20th century. John Carrington wrote in 1906 about Phuket Island: “One of the most beautiful and charming places in the world. As with most Asian resorts, mass tourism in Phuket was founded by Europeans in the 70s. The Sarasin Bridge was built in 1967 to connect Phuket with the mainland, and in 1976 an international airport was officially opened, allowing American soldiers, and later American tourists, easy access to the paradise island on vacation.

Bridge from the island to the mainland.

Sarasin Bridge.

In 1975 the first hotel on Patong, the Patong Beach Hotel, was built. At that time the beach, the most developed now, was like a small village with bamboo huts, a dusty road and a completely wild beach. The pass from Patong to Karon was quite dangerous because of rockslides and the fact that in the rains the clay road was spreading. Over time, asphalt was paved, traffic lights were installed, more hotels were built, shopping malls appeared – Phuket discovered a new source of income.

Phuket history

The bridge connecting Phuket with the mainland in the 1970s.

The tsunami in Phuket

After Catholic Christmas, on December 26, 2004, Phuket was hit by a tsunami that killed more than 500 people on the island. As the Thais say, “the sea breathed in and out. Due to ordinary ignorance, a lack of warning systems and, unfortunately, the negligence of the Earthquake Administration, no warning was issued. “Such a warning will create negative feedback in the tourism industry in case the tsunami does not happen,” the ministry decided. Patong and Kamala beaches, where waves reached 5 meters high, were particularly affected. But the worst was the coast of Phang Nga province and south of Ranong, where the wave height reached 11.6 meters. This disaster affected the lives of everyone in Thailand. The grandson of King Rama IX who was on a yacht off the coast of Khao Lak was killed. But thanks to the efforts of volunteers and the Thai government, which day by day rebuilt the island of Phuket, Phoenix has risen from the ashes. Today, all beaches have warning signs and warning systems are in place.

History of Phuket

Phuket Island Airport

Modern Island

In recent years, Phuket Island is experiencing a new round of development of the tourism industry. Built hotels, new shopping centers, new attractions for guests of the island. The Thai government has planned some projects related to the improvement of Phuket. The airport has a budget of 180 million dollars, by March 2015 it will be able to receive 12.5 million passengers a year. A new Conference Center will be built in the Mai Khao area with a capacity of 5,000 people. In 2014, we are all looking forward to an underground tunnel at the Central Festival Shopping Center intersection that will relieve traffic in Phuket Town. Two one-way tunnels through the mountain to Patong Beach are in the process of being approved by the administration. Phuket is changing for the better.

buffalo on patong in thailand

Patong in 1979.

Phuket in the world rankings

For the international community, Phuket’s successes have not gone unnoticed. More and more foreigners are choosing to invest in development projects on the island. Among them are millionaires mentioned by Forbes magazine: New Zealanders Richard and Christopher Chandler, Hong Kong resident Alan Zeman, Finnish Formula 1 star Kimi Raikkonen, a British citizen of Indian origin Gulu Lalwani who opened the famous Royal Phuket Marina.

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International magazines and the world community vied with each other to include Phuket and its hotels in the list of the best places to stay in Southeast Asia. Phuket was ranked 10th among the Best Destinations in the World in 2011 by Condé Nast Traveler, where resorts were rated according to 10 criteria, and topped the list in both Quality for a Reasonable Balance and Hospitality. Two Anantara Phuket and Amanpuri hotels have once again made the Best Hotels in the World list, while Six Senses Yao Noi Beyond Phuket was selected to Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold Hotel List 2012. International portal Tripadvisor mentioned several family hotels in Phuket in 2012: The Chava Resort, Marriott’s Phuket Beach Club, Outrigger Laguna Phuket Resort & Villas, Marriott Mai Khao Beach, Destination Surin Resort and Spa, Andara Resort and Villas, which were included in the list of 10 best hotels in Thailand. However, the list of other awards is endless.

History of Phuket

Talang Street, 2011

In conclusion, I would like to add that Phuket Island is not just a world-famous resort, but here is a unique history that has gone through the centuries. None of the popular resort destinations can boast such interesting, glittering, and sometimes sad experiences behind them as Phuket Island.

Phuket Island: the days of the past and the present

Paradise Island, located in the heart of the Indian Ocean, is rightly called the “Pearl”. In terms of area, Phuket is comparable to Singapore, from north to south the land stretches only 48 kilometers, and from west to east – 21 kilometers. The waters of the Andaman Sea bathe the small, but nevertheless rich in historical events island. Each year, millions of tourists come to Phuket to join the unique mixed culture and experience the colorful atmosphere of Southeast Asia.

Phuket: the days of the past and the present

The territory of modern Phuket was inhabited many thousands of years ago.

They say that several thousand years ago Phuket was part of the mainland – a peninsula in Phang Nga Bay. But under the years of erosion, part of the land separated from the mainland. Thus formed Phuket and a few more very small islands located in the area. Today, one of the smallest provinces in Thailand has one large and 39 tiny islands.

Excavations conducted by archaeologists on the island, as well as in the neighboring provinces of Phang Nga and Krabi proved that people came to these lands many thousands of years ago. Scientists have found that the territory of modern Phuket was inhabited by such nationalities as Thai Mai and sea gypsy tribes Chao Le. (Chao Le in Thai means “people who live in the sea”). Phuket was a true paradise for these people with its abundance of seafood, fish, fresh fruits and herbs. Today, the Chao Le still live on the island and their villages can be found on Phuket’s sightseeing maps. They are located mostly in the southeastern part of the island. Engaged mainly in fishing and trade in pearls, seashells and traditional souvenirs, made from the shell and pearl material, which, by the way, in the surrounding waters, quite a lot.

Phuket: the days of the past and the present

Over time, Phuket was settled by Malays and Thais who came from the central and northern territories. The first mention of the island in manuscripts, made around 157 AD, is attributed to the Greek philosopher Claudius Ptolemy. He called the island Jank Ceylon or, to be precise, “Jang Si Lang.” Later, this name was simplified, and ancient maps of the Siamese state referred to the island exactly as Jank Ceylon. The locals called their island Tcha Lang (Talang in modern parlance), which means “cape”. Indeed, if you look at ancient maps, the shape of the island resembled a cape. Later, however, Talang was renamed in Phuket. But even today, one of the largest areas in the north of the island has the same name Talang. Scientists believe that the modern name of the provincial center comes from the Malay language and means “Bukit” – a hill.

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Phuket: the days of the past and the present

Since ancient times, the island has been a popular stopping place for merchants who brought their goods from India, Persia, Arabia, Sri Lanka, China, and Siam. Chinese merchants came to love and develop the island before Christ, so the Chinese presence has left a significant mark on Phuket’s architecture as well as the appearance of the locals.

A popular Indian Ocean trading port

Since ancient times, Buddhism and Islam have peacefully coexisted here, which, of course, made the history and culture of the island unique.

Phuket has always been rich in natural resources. This fact, coupled with the advantageous geographical location, which allowed it to become a popular place of international trade, of course, attracted the conquerors of different countries. However, despite repeated attempts, the “Pearl of the Andaman Sea” has never been colonized.

Phuket: the days of the past and the present

In the Middle Ages, Phuket has been actively developing and was a very popular trading port, which attracted European and Asian merchants. Foreign merchants discovered large deposits of tin on the island and built mines for mining it. The Portuguese, Dutch, British, Indians and Chinese are only a small part of the nationalities that sought to settle and live on Phuket. Since the beginning of the 16th century, the south and west of the island were ruled and developed under the influence of foreign merchants, while the central and northern parts of the island were governed by a Thai governor. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Thais had almost succeeded in liberating the land from foreign invaders when another attack came from the northwest – Burmese aggression.

The feat of the island’s defenders

The Burmese, who at that time were a strong state with a strong army, had long dreamed of capturing Phuket’s paradise territories. Repeated attempts to conquer Ayutthaya (the name of the ruling state in what is now Thailand) by the Burmese came to nothing, so they decided to plunder the defenseless southern parts of the kingdom.

Phuket: the days of the past and the present

Phuket was the main goal of the Burmese, so they gathered an army to take the island. Just at that time there were mostly only women and children on the island, because almost the entire male population had gone to war.

Luckily, the Phuketans were warned in time about the impending attack by a passing English navigator, Francis Light. The women, led by the widow of the governor of Chan Island and her sister, Mook, were promptly cut short and dressed in men’s military garb. The Burmese were frightened by the many thousands of troops that suddenly appeared in the distance and were forced to retreat. So Chan and Mook became national heroines. King Rama I gave the women titles – Thao Thep Kasatri Chan and Thao Si Sunthong Mook. One of the island’s main streets was named after the elder sister and a monument to the two heroine sisters is located at its busy crossroads, with a museum not far from it named after the younger sister, Si Sunthong.

To this day, Thais remember and honor the feat of the sisters, as evidenced by the holiday in honor of the heroines, celebrated annually on March 13.

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Phuket: the days of the past and the present

However, a few years later, the north of the island was still looted by the Burmese and the houses were almost destroyed. After that, the Talang district lost its main significance, and the main economic and political life of the island moved to the south. The development of tin deposits and the construction of mines located in the southern part of the island began apace. The 19th century saw an increase in the global demand for tin that triggered a real boom and peak of development activity in the region. Phuket became the second most developed region in Siam, surpassed only by the capital of the kingdom.

Rastada’s reign: the tin boom and the development of geweaves

At that time, the island was governed by Governor Praia Rastada. During his reign the head of the island made many useful changes. He allowed foreign miners to develop mines in Phuket on the condition that they built a quarter in Phuket Town and created an appropriate infrastructure. So again Chinese and Portuguese settlers flocked to Phuket.

Phuket: the days of the past and the present

They built mines, neighborhoods, and infrastructure that best affected Phuket’s development. The island began to prosper and people became wealthy. The governor changed the health care system, improved social conditions for the poorest residents. The appearance of Phuket Town also changed as the Chinese and Portuguese built houses for themselves and their families there. Phuket received a unique architectural fusion of traditions – the Chinese-Portuguese style, which attracts tourists to the city to this day. Another significant achievement of the Governor is the importation of gewean trees. The plants took root very well in the local climate, giving rise to a new line of business for Thai families – latex plantations and latex products. Latex, along with tin, became the most exported product from Phuket.

Phuket: the days of the past and the present

After several decades of the tin boom, production of this product began to decline due to the “tin crisis” that broke out in the world market. The mines began to close. Tin was replaced by cheaper and more advanced materials. In addition, the active operation of mines had a negative impact on the environment. In the 80s of the 20th century the last tin mine was closed, and the former tin pits were replaced by lakes. But long before that time the locals were forced to look for new directions.

Phuket today

Since then, Phuket has turned to the world of tourism. And it did not go wrong. Today, 80 percent of the island’s total revenue comes from the tourism industry. Each year, the travel industry attracts an estimated 6-10 million people from all over the world to the island.

Phuket: the days of the past and the present

Tourists are attracted by the magnificent beaches, developed infrastructure, luxurious hotels, relative affordability and the rich history of the island. The uniqueness of Phuket is that over the centuries, the island has skillfully absorbed different cultures, religions, historical events. Today, tourists from different countries rush to join at least a little of this spiritual wealth and cultural heritage, to become part of the vibrant history of a paradise land in the heart of the Indian Ocean. You can learn more about the historical and cultural heritage of the “Pearl” of the Andaman Sea, visit the Museum of History, located in Talang, near the monument to the heroines of Phuket. We also recommend a visit to Phuket Old Town – the very heart of Phuket Town. Almost every shop in these streets, be it a cafe or a store, is a treasure trove of interesting and useful information.

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