History of Phuket
Located on trading routes between India and China, Phuket was subjected to foreign influences long before many other parts of Thailand. Ships would anchor in the safe harbours of Phuket and wait for the northeast monsoon winds which would allow them to proceed to India.
The interior jungle was inhabited by indigenous tribes until they were displaced in the 19th century by tin miners. The coastal areas were inhabited by Chao Leh, sea-gypsies who made their living through piracy and fishing for pearls. Although threatened by development, Chao Leh villages can still be found along the coast of Phuket and neighbouring islands.
Phuket first became part of a Thai state during the thirteenth century when Thai armies from Sukhothai wrestled control of the island from the Sirivijaya Empire based in Sumatra.
Tin & Rubber
Phuket is first mentioned as a major source of tin in the sixteenth century when the island became an important source of revenue for the Thai kingdom at Ayutthaya, as well as an important trading post. It was also during this period that the first Europeans arrived on Phuket.
Due to Phuket’s abundant supply of tin and its importance as a trading port, the island’s economy continued to prosper. The British secured a tin mining concession and nearly claimed Phuket as part of the British Empire, opting instead for Penang due to its safer harbours. Phuket’s streets were lined with handsome buildings constructed in the Sino-Portuguese style by the tin-barons, many of which can still be seen in older quarters of the town.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the island’s interior still remained relatively untouched. Much of it was still covered in ancient rainforest. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, large areas of the island were cleared to make way for rubber plantations, irreparably altering the landscape of the island.
Tourism began on the island in the 1970s with the first beach bungalows at Patong beach. During this time Phuket was a haven for backpackers. Phuket’s idyllic tropical beaches and clear warm waters attracted travellers from all over the world to the island. This was facilitated by the building of an airport in the mid-1970s.
Today, tourism is by far the island’s biggest industry with over 3 million tourists visiting the island annually, making Phuket one of the most popular travel destinations in South-East Asia.
Origin of the Name “Phuket”
The name Phuket is derived from the Malay word bukit, meaning hill. The island was previously named Junk Ceylon on European charts, a corruption of the Malay Tanjung Salang meaning Cape Salang. Later it became known as Thalang, after the name of the main town on the island. The island did not come to be known as Phuket until quite late in its history when the administrative centre was moved to a mining town in the centre of the island called Phuket.
The Battle of Thalang
The most celebrated moment in Phuket’s history is when the people of Phuket (then called Thalang), drove away Burmese invaders who were laying siege to the island.
In 1785, Phuket was attacked by the Burmese as part of a wider campaign to invade Thailand (then called Siam). The wife of the recently deceased governor, Lady Chan, along with her sister Lady Muk, rallied the people and broke the Burmese siege.
On hearing of these valiant deeds, the king bestowed honorific titles on these two heroines. Today, their statues can be seen atop a monument at the roundabout a few kilometres north of Phuket City.
To learn more about the history of Phuket a visit to the Thalang National Museum is highly recommended.
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