Phuket has a very rich and varied history which stretches back thousands of years. It was even mentioned in classic literature by the famous Greek philosopher Ptolemy, who remarked that ships on route to the Malay peninsula had to pass Junk Ceylon as it was known in those times. This name can still be seen on old Siam maps today, but has since been eclipsed by the modern day moniker Phuket, which is derived from a Malay word that means hill. Previous names also included Koh Thalang, which is still a town in the northern district. There have been many outside influences on Phuket throughout the ages, both eastern and western, and it was an important and essential trading post with the Arabs, Malays, Indians, Burmese, Chinese and Siamese, being a convenient stopover and a sheltered haven for traders’ boats.
The old colonial powers that competed for strategic control of Phuket in the seventeenth century included the Dutch, English and French, but it was the French that eventually triumphed and curried favour with the powers that be in Siam, who were keen to reduce the unwelcome influence of the English and Dutch as they were already well established in Asia. Eventually however, the French were expelled in 1688, followed by another unsuccessful attempt to recapture the island later. Three hundred years ago Phuket even had Portuguese traders and residents, who introduced chilli pepper and built homes and businesses in the traditional style, which can still be seen in Phuket Town today.
Burmese Invasion Repelled
Perhaps the most important and well known historical event in Phuket took place in 1785 when a Burmese invasion was repelled by local residents, led by a woman named Than Phu Ying Jan and her sister Mook. Legend has it that they persuaded the island’s women to pose as male warriors, to frighten the Burmese away thinking that they were outnumbered and stood little chance. The Burmese were eventually defeated, not least by hunger and starvation, and the month long siege ended on March 13. The two women quite rightly became local heroes and were bestowed honorary titles by King Rama I. Today, they are still highly respected in Phuket, and a fitting monument to them has been erected at the Tha Ruea intersection about 12 kilometres north of Phuket Town.
Tin Mines and Rubber Plantations
Phuket has long been an important area for mining and rubber plantations, and saw a massive surge in its wealth especially when tin mining and trading grew in the region. Around this time, many Chinese arrived from Penang, Malaysia over 100 years ago and built extravagant homes in the impressive Sino-Portuguese style, mainly in and around Phuket Town. Phuket’s west coast was never previously settled much, because locals were somewhat apprehensive that the Burmese might invade again and they were also wary of the tigers and other nasty beasties that roamed around the western side. Nowadays, the tin mining industry has all but disappeared, as it became less viable after the collapse in the tin prices late in the last century. Rubber and palm oil plantations can still be seen all over the island and remain an important source of income for local farmers.
Modern Times and Tourism
Early in the twentieth century, Phuket’s national and regional importance was recognised when it became a province in 1916. Later, with the rise of international tourism and the availability of cheap and convenient air travel, Phuket become a popular destination as travellers began to notice its outstanding natural beauty and the ease by which it can be reached. In 1967, the massive Sarasin Bridge was constructed to link north Phuket to the mainland at Phang Nga, providing an essential land bridge which encouraged even more visitors and led to increased development on the island, as it was now easier than ever to reach. As a result tourism flourished, hotels and resorts sprung up, and people moved there and visited in droves, transforming the island into the Phuket that we see today.
The 2004 Tsunami
No account of Phuket’s recent history is complete with mentioning the impact of the devastating tsunami that occurred on December 26, 2004. Much of Phuket’s western coast, beaches and towns suffered massive damage and at least 250 people died in Phuket alone. Places such as Patong Beach were hit hard and almost wiped out in one fell swoop. Fortunately, Thai people and the residents of Phuket are extremely resilient and immediately made efforts to repair the extensive damage and get businesses and tourism back to normality quickly. Today, there are few remaining signs of the physical damage caused by disaster except on some remote beaches, but it’s a tragic event that scarred many and will stay in the minds of the people of Phuket and Thailand permanently.
Phuket Today and Tomorrow
Nowadays, Phuket is just as busy as ever and continues to attract hordes of tourists. The future certainly looks bright as long as the excessive pace of development can be curbed and controlled sensibly. Some might say that it’s already too late but there are still plenty of unspoiled and beautiful spots to be found all over Phuket. In 2011, a second bridge named Srisoonthorn opened which links the island to the mainland. It’s perhaps an ominous sign that there appears to be no abate to the heady pace of development. However, the last few years have experience a slight drop in visitor numbers caused by the political turmoil in Thailand and the global financial crisis, but things soon rebound and Phuket seems to be on track to retain its crown as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand.