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Phuket’s history in 5 minutes

Bungalow on Patong Beach in the 1980s
PHOTO: Bungalow on Patong Beach in the early 1980s

Phuket, one of Southeast Asia’s most popular holiday and retirement destinations, has a rich history dating back to the 13th century when Thai armies from Sukhothai took control of the island from the Sirivijaya Empire based in Sumatra.

The island was strategically located on the trading routes between India and China, making it subject to foreign influences long before other parts of Thailand.

The interior jungle of Phuket was once inhabited by indigenous tribes until they were displaced in the 19th century by tin miners as they deployed the coastal mines. 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 neighboring islands.

Phuket became a major source of tin in the 16th century, generating revenue for the Thai kingdom at Ayutthaya and becoming an important trading post. The island’s abundant supply of tin and its significance as a trading port made the economy flourish. During this time, the first Europeans arrived on Phuket, and the British secured a tin mining concession, almost claiming Phuket as part of the British Empire.

The island’s economy continued to prosper, and the streets of Phuket were lined with handsome buildings constructed in the Sino-Portuguese style by the tin-barons. However, at the beginning of the 20th 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. Phuket’s idyllic tropical beaches and clear warm waters attracted travelers 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.

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 center of the island called Phuket.

The Battle of Thalang is the most celebrated moment in Phuket’s history. In 1785, Phuket was attacked by the Burmese as part of a wider campaign to invade Thailand. The wife of the recently deceased governor, Lady Chan, along with her sister Lady Muk, rallied the people and broke the Burmese siege. Today, their statues can be seen atop a monument at the roundabout in the middle of the island at the intersection of Srisoontorn and Thepkasattri Roads, their last names.

Patong, located on the west coast of Phuket, is the island’s most famous, sometimes infamous, beach destination. It is a bustling town with a lively nightlife, bars, restaurants, and shopping centers. Patong beach is known for its soft sand, clear waters, and a range of water sports activities. The town is a popular destination for tourists, particularly those seeking to experience the island’s vibrant nightlife.

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