Travel Phuket

Tourist information for Phuket, Thailand

History of Phuket

Travel Phuket

Throughout it's history, Phuket has always been a welcoming beacon, a jewel set in the crown of the Andaman Sea. From the arrival of the 1st Century BC Indian merchants to today's vacationers and retirees, Phuket's beauty and mystique have been a siren song for those seeking paradise.

Even Hollywood hasn't been immune to the beckoning of the Phuket region, capturing breathtaking vistas on film in the classic James Bond movie, The Man With The Golden Gun, and more recently, The Beach, on location at the Phi Phi islands, just off Phuket's coast.

Early history

Early in Phuket's history, original locals included now-extinct tribes of pygmies, who called the fertile, virgin triple-canopy rainforest home. Comprised of hunters and gatherers, the pygmies lived off what Mother Nature and their heavenly surroundings provided: meat, fruit, nuts and berries.

Other early inhabitants included the chow lair, a nomadic people populating the coastal areas and living off the sea’s bountiful underwater crops of fish and seafood.

A trading post

Phuket was known for centuries as an important trading post on the eastern shore of the Bay of Bengal, with busy ports seeing shiploads of goods come and go, along with their merchant crews from Arab and Malay worlds, as well as India, Burma, China and Siam.

When large tin deposits were discovered in the 16th Century, Phuket was colonized by Portuguese, French, and British traders looking to set up shop. A century later, the British were contemplating control of the vital trade passage through the Strait of Malacca, using Phuket as their base of operations.

The heroines of Phuket

The British sent Captain Francis Light to scout the area, and Light became embroiled in Phuket's most important historical event when he spotted Burmese forces returning to Phuket. Just a year earlier, Thai forces had successfully defended Phuket, fending off the Burmese intruders.

Captain Light alerted the governor's office of the impending invasion. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, the governor had recently passed away. His wife, Kunying Jan, took the reins, and together with her brave sister Mook, assembled Phuket’s military. As legend tells it, the two women spearheaded an operation that disguised local women as men, making the military force seem like a huge, impenetrable and invincible army to the Burmese.

In the face of a formidable foe, the Burmese still attacked, but quickly withdrew after a short siege. Kunying Jan and her sister were awarded the 'Thao Thep Kasattri' by King Rama I, a title of nobility usually reserved for royalty.

The Heroines Monument on display at the Thalang roundabout pays homage to these two courageous women who are a part of Phuket's history.

The tin boom

Tin-mining took off with a bang in Phuket in the 19th Century, attracting thousands of Chinese laborers looking for work from the European mine owners. A traditional folk, the Chinese workers brought their spiritual beliefs and culinary talents with them, teaching the locals and passing them along. Eventually, inter-marriage with the Thai inhabitants of Phuket created a new culture called the 'Baba'.

With roots firmly in the tin mines of Phuket, many of the Baba became merchants themselves, and brought their newfound riches to Phuket Town. They built mansions and mammoth homes for their families, showcasing fine Portuguese and Chinese accents and influences.

Many of these incredible 'Sino-Portuguese' architectural displays have been restored to their early splendor, and today visitors can enjoy their fine craftsmanship and get a sense of history with a walk through Phuket Town’s Old Town district.

Beachcombers and bathers

Tin and rubber held fast as Phuket's dominant industries for years, until the first elite sun-seekers appeared in the 1970's, coming to play in Phuket's topaz waters and bask in the warm sun at a sparkling new Club Med in Hat Kata. Phuket also became more accessible by air from the mainland, with Thai Airways offering daily flights from Bangkok, opening the door even wider for tourism.

The tourism industry spread like wildfire throughout the island, with the largest concentration of resorts and hotspots established in Phuket Town and Patong.

Swarms of tourists, from heiresses and Oscar-winners to everyday, average people, visited Phuket over the years, bringing in the tourist dollars and keeping the industry strong until the Tsunami hit the island on December 26, 2004, leaving carnage in its wake, a dark day in the history of Phuket.

The Tsunami – death and destruction

The hardest hit areas included popular Patong Beach and several other west coast towns, which suffered major destruction and killed 250 people. Phuket's economy sputtered briefly, and within about a year, Patong had rebuilt - a shining new Phoenix rising out of the ashes.

Just a year later, few scars of the damage remained, and 80% of the tourist business returned to Phuket, jump-starting resort development once again.

Today, tourism and rubber are Phuket's primary sources of income. Vast rubber tree plantations cover Phuket's inland areas, providing the raw materials for rubber production, helping Thailand retain its status as the world's top rubber producer.

Island paradise

Patong and Phuket Town, along with the surrounding magical Phi Phi Islands bring visitors from around the globe to Phuket, giving them a tropical taste of life in paradise. Shimmering white crescent beaches, sparkling blue water, and indulgences of every kind cater to young, old, families and the elite alike.

Shopping, eating, swimming, world-class diving, or simply relaxing at the bar with an exotic, refreshing beverage - no matter what your definition of paradise, Phuket’s sure to come close.