Phuket has always been a lure for peoples from beyond its shores. The earliest written mention of the island, some 1,800 years ago, appears in the works of the Greek geographer Ptolemy. In his Geographia he mentions that when making a trip from Suwannapum to the Malay Peninsula it was necessary to pass the cape of Junk Ceylon – the name that appears on maps of Thailand until quite recently.
The early history of the island is vague. Indeed, much of the later history is, too; the Siamese archives were burned when the then-capital, Ayutthaya, was destroyed by the invading Burmese in 1767, and most of the history up to that time was sourced from the writings of visiting foreigners.
What is known, however, is that Phuket, along with much of the Andaman coast, was rich in easily-mined tin, a much sought-after metal in the bronze age – most bronze was an amalgam of copper and tin. It was also rich in animal products, spices, pearls and ambergris, for centuries an essential ingredient in perfumes.
Initially most trade with Phuket would have been with India. In the summer months traders would ride the southwest monsoon to the island and six months later they would return, pushed by the northeast monsoon. Others would follow: the Arabs, and then, later, the Europeans.
In the 16th century, by which time Phuket was under domination from Siam’s southern capital, Nakorn Sri Thammarat (then usually known as Ligor), a Dutch trading post was established to harvest tin resources. Although the northern and eastern areas of the island remained in Siamese hands, the western and southern regions were administered by the Dutch.
Other nations became interested in Phuket due to the growing importance of tin. The French began to show great interest in Phuket and one of their number, medical missionary Brother Renée Charbonneau, was appointed governor of Phuket in 1681.
The British were also interested in the area, particularly the East India Company. Capt Francis Light, a freebooter with links to the company recommended Phuket as a potential base for trade but this was turned down. (He had more success when he recommended Penang. And founded the city there.
After the fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese in 1767, Phuket was briefly in limbo until the military campaign by King Taksin drove the invaders out of much of Siam. The Burmese counter-attacked in 1785 on several fronts. One of these was a drive to take Ligor, using Phuket to anchor the army’s supply line (and take slaves and pillage as much of the island as possible).
Light spotted the incoming fleet and warned his friend Kunying Jan, wife of the island’s recently deceased governor who, with her sister Mook organised a stout defence of the island capital of Thalang. On March 13, after a month long siege – and after their army outside Ligor had been defeated – the Burmese left.
In recognition of courage, King Rama I awarded Jan with the title of Thao Thep Krasattri, an honorific usually reserved for royalty, while her sister became Thao Sri Suntorn. Today the two are fêted as The Heroines and their vistory commemorated by a monument on Thep Krasattri Road, the island’s main north-south highway.
In the 19th century demand for tin saw a massive resurgence with the invention of the tin can and the use of tin as a barrier against rust for other manufactured goods such as metal roofing. Chinese labourers flocked to the island in huge numbers. The cultural influence of the Chinese came to dominate most of the island’s interior, though the southern and coastal areas remained predominantly the preserve of Muslim fishermen.
In 1876 two sects of Chinese workers, unhappy with their wages and working conditions, began a bloody rampage of theft and murder across the island. The locals rallied to Wat Chalong, where the head monks gave shelter to the people. The monks, Luang Pho Chaem and Luang Pho Chuang, convinced the miners to end their rampage and brought the uprising to a peaceful end. Statues of the two monks still stand in Wat Chalong and many Thais come to the temple to pray to them for guidance and good luck.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Phuket’s prominence continued to increase as the administrative centre of a monthon (region) that included Phang Nga, Krabi, Ranong, Trang, Satun and Takuapa. With the advent of the constitutional monarchy in 1933, Phuket became a province and has been ruled by an Interior Ministry-appointed governor ever since. With the advent of plastics for packaging in the 1960s, combined with the increasing difficulty and cost of retrieving the remaining resources, the tin industry went into gradual decline, though the signs are still everywhere; there are no natural lakes on Phuket – every lake is a former tin mine.
Happily for the island, in the 1970s its beautiful beaches and fantastic marine scenery were discovered by backpackers, and the island swiftly became one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations. With the construction of a modern airport and easy road links with the rest of Thailand, the island blossomed and by the 1980s it had become a world-renowned resort destination.
Since the island had hosted foreigners for centuries, the cultural infrastructure for tourism rapidly grew into a what it is today – Thailand’s most sophisticated resort.
Its lasting allure enabled it to overcome its most disastrous episode, the 2004 Asian Tsunami, which wreaked devastation on the island’s west coast, particularly Patong and Kamala. Some 900 people died or disappeared and a further 1,100 were injured.
Being such a high-profile resort area, full of Westerners and their cameras, Phuket became the centre of the media frenzy that followed. The island recovered swiftly, however, and it is now hard to detect any signs of the destruction, though the towers of the tsunami warning system remain as reminders on the beaches.
Today Phuket continues its long history of welcoming foreigners as Thailand’s most popular tourist destination. More than three million tourists come to Phuket each year, drawn by its beaches, its world-class diving and snorkelling and its vibrant night life. There’s a thriving market for holiday homes – some of them extremely luxurious and expensive, and many available for rent. It hosts a world-class regatta in December every year, and is increasingly a venue for other international sporting events.
Yet it retains much of its traditional character, especially in the old centre of Phuket Town, with is Chinese-European flavour and in its fishing villages. Even the curious Moken sea gypsies have survived and still eke out a subsistence living hardly touched by the maelstrom of tourism.