Since early times Phuket has been a melting pot of races and ethnic beliefs. The early populations were made up of hunters and gatherers. When trade routes opened and people began to travel more freely the island hosted a multitude of nationalities. Sub continental Indians, Arabs, Malay and Mokken sea nomads all arrived to make their cultural mark but with the advent of tin mining in the 18th century the demography of the island changed radically. Hokkien Chinese migrants from Penang, seeking employment in the tin industry, arrived in large numbers and subsequently intermarried with locals, adding a persuasive Chinese hue to the multi ethnic mix on the island. At this point Phuket Town became the island’s capital and centre of administration, superseding Thalang. With the recent decline of the tin industry many mines were abandoned, leaving ugly scars and craters on the landscape. Happily, many of these eyesores have been converted and assimilated into golf courses and hotel grounds. The result is quite spectacular and a triumph for local environmentalists. In the early eighties, tourism replaced tin mining and rubber as the island’s major industry.
For historians, the best place to see architectural evidence of Phuket’s 18th and 19th century melting pot and financial boom is Phuket Town itself, with its Sino-Portugese style buildings. Whole streets of this mode of architecture exist downtown and exotic rubber and tin-financed mansions are to be found ensconced in the rapidly growing suburbs of this sprawling provincial capital. Phuket Town may not be the prettiest sight but it’s certainly the place to check out the recent history of this island.