Phuket might seem like one large tourist resort colonised by foreigners with little interest in anything other than beach cocktails, but this charming island has its own distinctive past that blends with southern Thai culture. A strong Chinese influence is mixed with Malay and Muslim backgrounds that thrive in the hinterland.
Thai culture is distinctive and unique – undiluted by colonisation – and you needn’t go far on the island to experience its rich legacy of artistic expression and religious icons. Phuket Town has some fascinating remnants of the tin mining wealth left over from a previous era of prosperity. Meanwhile, many hotels put on displays of Thai dance, music and art, adding to the authentic experience of visiting this country.
Cultural Identity in Phuket
Phuket’s culture bears the stamps of the island’s long history as a stop over point between India and China. The island has been in the hands of many different rulers over the centuries and the adaptable and inquisitive people have adopted many traditions and influences into the native Thai culture. Chinese festivals, Sino-Portuguese architecture and Malaysian Muslim foods have all become an integral part of the Phuket culture.
Walk down the street in Phuket Town and odds are you’ll be surrounded by compelling Sino-Portuguese architecture, the storefronts will have Chinese characters spelling out the names of family deities, and you might hear a mosque in the distance, calling the faithful to prayer. Thai culture emphasises flexibility and examples of the ethnic and cultural diversity of Phuket can be found everywhere you look.
Thais are a people with a profound appreciation of beauty and expressions of this impulse range can be found in every nook and cranny of the island. From the elaborate decorations on temples to the graceful and intricate movements of Thai dance, aesthetics are a part of everyday life in Phuket.
Phuket is home to one of the few permanent settlements of Chao Ley, commonly known as ‘Sea Gypsies’. This ancient, nomadic culture of fishermen are a distinct people with their own language and customs. They maintain a way of life that has endured for thousands of years and have several unique and fascinating rites and festivals.
Although modern Phuket is associated mostly with tropical beaches and tourism, several attractions have been developed to display the island’s rich heritage in Thai culture. Phuket Fantasea is a fun-filled family attraction with 140 acres of playgrounds and adult edutainment, including a 45-minute cultural show centred around a legendary epic with live elephants and a colourful acrobatic cast.
There is also the Thalang National Museum in Phuket Town – a commendable attempt to chart the island’s history and ancient sea culture through displays of vanishing traditions, such as ancient Thai houses and practices. Also of cultural interest is the Thai Village and Orchid farm, which similarly helps preserve ancient Thai lifestyles through song, dance, costume and displays, as well as a wonderful collection of orchids, for which Thailand is famous.
In addition to drawing on pleasing Thai presentation for their room and exterior decor, many of the hotels on the island also offer cultural evenings where you can witness graceful Thai dance and the exquisite costume that goes with it. This is accompanied by a traditional Thai orchestra and sumptuous southern Thai food, with it’s ever-present ingredients from the sea. This is one treat not to be missed in Thailand.