From roaming sea gypsies and looting pirates, to global trade route stopover and top tin producer, to luxury beach resorts and international tourist destination, Phuket has quite the storied past. Surviving threats of colonization and invasion, and violent wrangling for power, the “Pearl of the Andaman’s” tale takes innumerable twists and turns on it’s way to the present day.
Past, Present, and Future
It doesn’t require an overactive imagination to envision the wild and turbulent past of Phuket’s olden days. Even after undergoing extensive modernization in many respects and receiving millions of tourists each year, many in the west maintain an exotic, mysterious, and idyllic notion of Thailand. While the reality of this image may still partially hold true in the present day, it most certainly did in the past.
Phuket, which has been known by several names including Junk Ceylon and Thalang, may seem historically remote and insignificant, however archaeological evidence has shown human presence for several thousand years and almost certainly stretches back thousands of years further. Early inhabitants consisted of native inland tribes and seafaring nomads, called sea gypsies or chao ley, of which small communities can still be found in Phuket to this day. These ancient peoples were undoubtedly drawn by the bountiful marine life and abundant plants and animals in the dense jungles which provided sustenance.
Due to its proximity to the Malacca Strait along the once bustling Trans-Asiatic trade route, Phuket was a popular stop for maritime traders where they could reprovision and escape storms. In those days it wasn’t all beach umbrellas and mai tai’s; brazen pirates would loot and pillage trading vessels and Phuket was rumored to be a lawless and dangerous place. Regional political struggles were common with overlords vying for power and authority.
The Portuguese arrived in search of resources and created settlements in the 1500s with their architectural influence still evident today. Although already well-known throughout Asia that Phuket held rich tin deposits, it wasn’t until this century that Europeans took note and began grappling for control as production ramped up. Tin wasn’t the only thing the Europeans wanted control of as they repeatedly attempted to establish dominance and colonize the region. Despite the French making some inroads in the 1600s by being granted a monopoly on tin production and even convincing Siamese King Narai to install a French governor, they were sent packing during the Siamese revolution in 1688.
Phuket’s story picks up again in 1785 when the Burmese attempted invasion. The famous tale centers around two sisters who convinced local women to don men’s clothing and join the ranks of soldiers positioned at the city’s walls. Upon seeing what they thought were far more soldiers than expected and a well-fortified city, they retreated. A statue currently stands in the large traffic circle on Thepkrasattri Road memorializing the local heroines.
The 19th century saw a steep rise in demand for Phuket’s tin and thousands of Chinese immigrants poured in to capitalize on the resource. The influx of manpower enabled the island to become the largest producer of tin on earth for a time. Later in the century saw the region stabilize politically and economically in part due to the British colonization of Burma and Malaysia. In came investors and the island’s pace of development increased lending to its current level of modernization. Another century of mining continued until the last processing plant shut its doors in 1992. Industrial mining brought wealth to the region, but at an often controversial environmental cost. In 1985 a plant began construction which would refine tantalum – a byproduct of tin. However, the plant was destroyed by 50,000 local residents in protest to the intense pollution it would have caused. Scars from the open pit mines now dot the landscape in the form of ponds, with some now being used as water hazards at golf courses.
In addition to tin mining, a variety of other industries evolved in Phuket including rubber, palm oil, and fruit production, as well as shrimp, fish, and pearl farming. At one point roughly one-third of Phuket was converted to rubber tree plantations helping to position Thailand as the world’s leading producer which still holds true today.
The modern ideal of Phuket that is sold to tourists can be traced back to 1970s backpackers. Accommodation was limited and standards lacking, but that didn’t last long once word got out of sugar sand beaches and azure tropical waters. Patong was the first to be developed while some other west coast beaches still remain relatively undeveloped. Tourism infrastructure was seeing unabated increase until the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which resulted in approximately 250 deaths in Phuket and some 5,300 throughout Thailand. The country was quick to recover and rebuild, and development reached a fever-pitch once again. While some projects have slowed or halted as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, the majority have continued unfettered. As such, Phuket had the fastest growing population in the country from 2000-2010, boasting over 600,000 residents currently.
Economically, tourism has treated Phuket well, and with ample jobs in the tourism and supporting industries it’s no wonder why the population has boomed. Tourism accounts for nearly 20% of the country’s GDP, and with nearly a quarter of all Thailand’s visitors making their way to Phuket, it’s economic importance is without question.
Especially in the past 20 years Phuket has become a favorite for expatriates from all over the globe with more than 100,000 currently residing on the island. A high standard and relatively low cost of living combined with advanced infrastructure and robust healthcare system makes the Kingdom particularly attractive for older retirees, while a well-educated workforce, a variety of business opportunities, and the second largest economy in ASEAN make it intriguing for start-ups, small business owners, and investors.
Phuket’s future looks promising on several fronts. Infrastructure investment is solid with roads, public transport, electrical grid, water supply, and wireless connectivity undergoing massive improvements. Confidence in continued economic and population growth is high with large entertainment, shopping, and hospitality venues currently under construction as well as housing developments, condominiums, and hotels. The property and real estate market continues to enjoy stable and constant growth and seems to have been relatively unscathed by the covid-19 pandemic.
Looking back, Phuket has been a place of opportunity, intrigue, and diversity. Chinese immigrants toiling in the mines likely had little inkling their future generations would be leisuring on the same island en masse. Phuket has been catapulted into the modern era where a traditional way of life still manages to coexist alongside glitz and glamor and everything in between. Just as the miners had no idea what future Phuket would be like, we too sprint headlong unknowingly with hope and excitement of what the island’s future has in store.
It can not be understated how important tin mining was in historic Phuket. British Colonial Administrator Charles Kynnersley made no mistake when he wrote of Phuket in 1903. He described an intense focus on the mining industry where even agriculture fell by the wayside with nearly all food imported. If a bore revealed a tin deposit, buildings would be demolished and roads would be diverted to make way for a new mine – it was simply too lucrative not to exploit.
Life for the miners consisted of hard work, gambling, smoking opium, and visiting brothels. The now-trendy Soi Romanee was a red light district and it was noted that in 1869 more than one kilogram of opium per man was imported to Phuket.
The combination of global demand, rich deposits, and a burgeoning workforce catapulted Phuket into position as the world’s top tin producer.
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