History of Phuket

Phuket has a rich and diverse history that dates as far back as the 1st century when Phuket Town was founded by Indian Merchants. The name Phuket is said to be a derivative of the Malay word, bukit, which means ‘hill’ and is a reference to the island’s appearance from a distance. However, other sources claim it was formed from the Thai words for ‘mountain’ and ‘jewel’, being phu and ket respectively. Prior to this, Phuket was called ‘Jung Ceylon’, a reference that is evident on historic European navigational charts and an alteration of the Malay Tanjung Salang words for ‘Cape Salang’. Later, it was called ‘Thalang’, a name that still remains in one of the island’s districts before finally settling on the name it is known as today.

Phuket’s idyllic position along a major maritime trade route, as well as its valuable natural raw materials such as tin, gained the attention of a number of nations in the past.

In the 17th century the Dutch and English displayed their interest in trading. Towards the end of the century, the French were exporting the most amount of tin, and Siamese King Narai decided to appoint a French governor to oversee Phuket in an attempt to rid the Dutch and English influence on the island. The French were later expelled following the Siam Revolution in 1688 where they attempted occupation one year later but to no avail.

In 1785, the Burmese saw a battle that eventually ended in their defeat when the wife of the deceased governor of Phuket Province, Than Phu Ying Chan and her sister, Khun Muk defended the isle by dressing as male soldiers and forming a powerful army. In honour of these brave siblings, King Rama I awarded them each with royal titles and they are recognised to this day for their courage and fearlessness in a commemorative statue known as Heroine’s Monument, which can be seen on the roundabout along Thepkasattri Road.

Phuket’s tin mining industry continued to grow and was a booming business by the 19th century, which saw a large influx of Chinese migrants arrive to work for the European mine owners. The Chinese began mixing with Thais by initially sharing their knowledge and traditions, and eventually through inter-marriage whereby a new culture was created that is known as ‘Baba’.

The Chinese labourers ultimately became merchants themselves and so their riches grew where they built impressive Sino-Portuguese mansions that are still evident throughout Phuket Town. Today, tin mining ceases to exist on the Andaman Isle where natural resources that continue to thrive are rubber plantations and palm oil production. Nowadays, Phuket’s main source of income comes from tourism. The island first sparked the interest of keen sun-seekers in the 1970’s and produced the beginning of another boom.

Resorts began popping up in Patong and Phuket Town at first, eventually spreading into other parts of the isle. Today, Phuket continues to grow by expanding its opportunities in business and tourism, while still maintaining its soulful charm and charisma.

Phuket History Overview:

Early History: The earliest inhabitants of Phuket were most likely indigenous sea nomads. Archaeological findings also suggest influence from ancient India, reflecting early trade routes.

European Interest (16th – 18th Century): The Portuguese were the first Europeans to show interest in Phuket in the 16th century. The Dutch and the English followed, primarily lured by the island's tin resources. This also led to frequent conflicts, with the Burmese attempting invasions, and the Thais consistently repelling them.

Tin Mining Era: Phuket was a significant tin-producing area, with both open cast and dredging operations. The tin mining industry attracted many Chinese labourers in the 19th century, significantly influencing the cultural and demographic structure of the island. These Chinese immigrants integrated with the locals, leading to the establishment of the local Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya community.

Phuket's Heroines: One of the most celebrated tales from Phuket's history is the story of two local women, Thao Thep Kasattri and Thao Sri Soonthorn, who in 1785 rallied local residents to repel a Burmese invasion. During the annual Heroines Festival, their bravery is celebrated.

Rubber Plantations: After the decline of tin mining in the late 19th and early 20th century, rubber became a significant export for Phuket. The rubber trees were initially brought in by the British, transforming Phuket's economic landscape once again.

Tourism Boom: The latter half of the 20th century saw Phuket emerging as a prime tourist destination. Its beautiful beaches, warm climate, and rich culture attracted visitors from around the world. The 1980s onwards witnessed a significant boost in tourism infrastructure, making it Thailand's premier tourist hotspot.

2004 Tsunami: On December 26, 2004, Phuket was one of the areas tragically affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Thousands lost their lives, and significant damage was inflicted on the island's infrastructure. However, Phuket displayed resilience, rebuilding and recovering remarkably in the subsequent years.

Modern Day Phuket: Today, Phuket remains a major global tourist destination. Its vibrant mix of beaches, luxury resorts, cultural sites, and historical landmarks make it a must-visit. The island's rich history is evident in its architecture, especially in Phuket Old Town, with its Sino-Portuguese buildings, temples, and museums.

The history of Phuket is a testament to its strategic importance in the region, its resilience in the face of adversity, and its adaptability to changing economic landscapes.