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Phuket

  • Thailand
  • Phuket
  • 576 km²
  • Thai Baht
  • Thai
  • 386,605
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General Information About Phuket

Area: 576 km² Population: 386,605 Language: Thai Currency: Thai Baht

Location

Phuket island is located in the tropical zone off the west coast of the southern part of Thailand in the Andaman Sea and is connected to Phang-nga province by Sarasin Bridge and Thep Krasattri Bridge. It is 862 km. away from Bangkok by road and one hour and 20 minutes by air.

Area

Phuket is the largest island of Thailand but the second smallest province in area (the smallest being Samut Songkhram). The main island itself has an area of about 539 sq.km., about the same size as Singapore. The total land area of the province, including 39 small nearby islets, is about 570 sq.km.

Climate

It is warm in Phuket all year round with temperatures ranging between 25 – 34°C (77 – 93°F). Phuket’s weather is typically divided into two distinct seasons, dry and rainy, with transitional periods in between. The seasons are dictated by the tropical monsoon, which is characterised by prevailing winds that blow from the northeast for half the year, then reverse and blow from the southwest, producing a dry season and a wet season.

Phuket’s Population

The residents of Phuket comprise Thais who have migrated from the mainland, ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Chao Leh or ‘sea-gypsies’ who are the original inhabitants of Phuket. According to the census, Thai-Buddhists account for 71% of the population, with Malays (24%) and Chao Leh (4%) making up the remainder. The figure for Thai-Buddhists also includes the Chinese who are almost completely assimilated. Some estimates put the percentage of ethnic Chinese at around 35%. The vast majority of the population resides in or around Phuket City and Patong Beach, creating a population distribution along an east-west axis. In March 2007 the Phuket Provincial Administration office reported that there are 313,955 people registered as living in Phuket. However, this figure is likely to be quite a lot higher as this data does not take into account those who live and work in Phuket but are registered as being resident elsewhere, a fairly common occurrence. Together with this are the seasonal workers and visitors of which there are a significant number all year round. Taking this into account, some estimates have calculated a figure as high as 500,000 during peak periods.

Phuket’s Economy

Phuket has the second highest per capita income of any province in Thailand outside of Bangkok. Tourism has dominated the island’s economy for the past two decades. Each year, over 3 million visitors arrive to enjoy Phuket’s natural splendor and many amenities. For much of its history, Phuket’s economy was based on tin mining. Since the fall in the demand for tin in the 1980s and restrictions placed upon tin dredging to protect the coastal waters, the industry’s importance has greatly declined. Rubber became an important part of the local economy at the beginning of the twentieth century when large areas of rainforest were cut down to make way for rubber plantations, many of which can still be seen on the island. Other contributors to the local economy include: Pearl farms; Agriculture and horticulture in the form of coconuts, cashews, tapioca, cacao, rice and pineapple; prawn farming, and the processing of marine products.

Topography

70% of the area are mountains stretching from north to south, while the other 30% are plains, mainly in the central and and eastern parts of the island. There is no important river but a total of 9 brooks and creeks. The west coast are stretches of white sandy beaches which are major tourist developments.

Religion in Phuket

The main religion on Phuket, as in the rest of Thailand, is Theravada Buddhism. Theravada, literally the “Doctrine of the Elders”, is the name of the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, which scholars generally accept as the oldest record of the Buddha’s teachings. Many people in Phuket also practice Daoism, usually together with Buddhism. This is due to the large number of Chinese immigrants who came to work in the tin mines during the 19th century. Several Chinese shrines can be found around Phuket City. During the Vegetarian Festival these are a hive of activity. Thai Muslims make up approximately 35% of Phuket’s population, and many are still concentrated in the area around Kamala, Bangtao and Surin where the migrant Malays originally settled. Despite the smaller number of Muslims, mosques actually outnumber Buddhist wats on the island. The Chao Leh practice their own form of animism, the belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena.

Phuket’s Geography

Phuket lies off the west coast of Southern Thailand in the Andaman Sea, approximately 890km from Bangkok. It is Thailand’s largest island at 550sq km, roughly the same size as Singapore, and is surrounded by many smaller islands that add a further 70 sq km to its total land area. Phuket is separated from the mainland by the Chong Pak Phra channel at its northernmost point, where a causeway connects the island to the mainland. Phuket is quite hilly. There are a few peaks above 500m, the highest being Mai Tao Sipsong at 529m. Many of these are covered in lush jungle. The lowlands consist of rice paddies, plantations of rubber, pineapple and coconut as well as the only significant area of rainforest remaining on the island, which is now protected as Khao Phra Thaeo Park. The most beautiful beaches are found on the West coast, separated by rocky coves and headlands. The east coast comprises limestone shoals with only a few sandy beaches while spectacular limestone islands adorn the horizon. Coral gardens full of exotic marine life dot the emerald waters surrounding the island, although sadly much of Phuket’s coral has been disappearing due to environmental pressures and human activities.

Administration

The only island province of the country, Phuket is divided into 3 administrative units called amphoe (county) - Amphoe Muang, Thalang and Kathu.

Language

Central Thai is the official language and used in business and tourism areas. People in general use southern Thai dialect, which sounds more succinct and is spoken faster than the central Thai. English is understood in tourist areas.

Public Holidays in Phuket

Government offices and most commercial offices will close on public holidays. Small shops may also close though most larger shops and department stores will remain open. Bars and pubs are usually obliged to close on royal and religious holidays.
  • January 1st - New Year’s Day
  • February (lunar) - Magha Puja*
  • April 6th - Chakri Day
  • April 13th - Songkran, (3 day holiday)
  • May 1st - Labour Day
  • May 5th - Coronation Day
  • May (lunar) - Visakah Puja*
  • July (lunar) - Asanha Puja*
  • July (lunar) - Khao Phansa*
  • August 12th - HM the Queen’s Birthday
  • October 23rd - Chulalongkorn Day
  • December 5th - HM the King’s Birthday
  • December 10th - Constitution Day
  • December 31st - New Year’s Eve
*Thai Buddhist holidays are based on the lunar calendar so the exact dates vary every year. Buddhist Holidays

Songkran:

Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year when images of the Buddha are bathed and water is sprinkled on the hands of monks in order to cleanse and purify. Children also show their respect by performing this ritual on elders. Generally, people sprinkle water on each other as a way to confer blessings. Songkran is also the premise for a huge water fight. The mayhem usually lasts for one day in Phuket, as opposed to three days or more in other parts of Thailand. But if you venture outside on the 13th of April, expect to get soaked.

Visakah Puja:

This is the most important date in the Buddhist calendar as it celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha on the same day, the first full moon in May, except in a leap year when the festival is held in June. All over the country, Thais visit the temples to listen to sermons by revered monks and make merit. In the evening, worshippers take part in a candle-lit procession, in which they walk around the main chapel of the temple three times.

Asanha Puja:

This falls on the full moon of the eight lunar months. The ceremony commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon, which took place in the Deer Park near Benares, after he had attained enlightenment. Since this occasion marks the first ever ordaining of a Buddhist monk, many Thais choose to become ordained on this day.

Khao Phansa:

This is the day after Asanha Puja and marks the start of the Buddhist Lent, which lasts for three lunar months. During this period monks are not allowed to venture outside the temple grounds. This was originally to prevent monks from trampling on crops as they went out to receive offerings from the people. On Khao Phansa day, worshippers make donations in the form candles and other necessities to temples.

Magha Puja:

This Buddhist holiday falls on the full moon of the third lunar month. Magha Puja commemorates the gathering of 1,250 enlightened monks to hear the preaching of the Buddha. These monks were all ordained by the Buddha, and all arrived to hear the sermon without prior arrangement. The ceremony culminates in a candle-lit procession around the main chapel of the temple. Wat Chalong has a particularly beautiful ritual.

Culture and History Phuket

Early History

Located on trading routes between India and China, Phuket was subjected to foreign influences long before many other parts of Thailand. Ships would anchor in the safe harbours of Phuket and wait for the northeast monsoon winds which would allow them to proceed to India.The interior jungle was inhabited by indigenous tribes until they were displaced in the 19th century by tin miners. 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 neighbouring islands.

Phuket first became part of a Thai state during the thirteenth century when Thai armies from Sukhothai wrestled control of the island from the Sirivijaya Empire based in Sumatra.

Phuket Island was assumed by geologists to be once part of the mainland in the form of a cape sticking out into the Andaman Sea but millions of years later the cape was gradually eroded by natural forces and finally detached from the main land. The cape was mentioned in a book written around the year 157 by Claudius Ptolemy, a famous Greek philosopher, that to travel to Malay Peninsula by ship, the travellers had to pass a cape known among them as Junk Ceylon. It was located between latitudes 6 N and 8 N which is the present site of Phuket Island. Junk Ceylon was at that time visited by merchants of several nations including India, Persia, and Arabia because the island offered a bay that protected its harbour from the wind and monsoon, making it a good stopover. Moreover, it had plenty of tin ore deposits that fetched high prices at that time because the mineral was much wanted by some foreign countries.

Junk Ceylon was later known among the locals as Thalang, which was also the name of the main town in the north of the island. In 1785, Thalang town was besieged by the Burmese troops invading the coastal area but Chan, the widow of the governor who had just died, and her sister Muk rose to the occasion by jointly shouldering the successful task of defending the land for over 30 days until starvation forced the enemy to retreat. Due to their heroic deeds, noble titles were bestowed on Chan and Muk as Thao Thep Krasattri and Thao Si Sunthon respectively. In 1966 a monument was erected at Tha Ruea Intersection, 12 km to the north of Phuket Town in memory of the sisters, who are still highly respected by Phuket people nowadays.

However, 24 years later, the Burmese succeeded in taking Thalang and many Thalang people fled to Phang-nga and Krabi. In 1825, some of them returned and re-establish a town on a new location but soon they moved back to their original site because of its better location for rice farming. This return of Thalang people did not make their town as important as in the past. Instead, the area in the south of the island (Phuket town today) grew quickly and became the centre of tin trade at that time. Known as Phuket, it was elevated to be a town in 1850. More people immigrated from Thalang and the nearby communities to Phuket. In 1894, Phuket was promoted to be a monthon (an administrative unit of that time). An important person who constructed Phuket as a modern city was Phraya Ratsada, who was appointed to govern Phuket monthon in 1902. His contributions also included improving the welfare of the locals, and setting up a network of markets in the countryside. In 1916, Phuket became a province. It was not until 1967 that Sarasin Bridge was built to connect the main land with Phuket.

Though the tin mining industry has played a specially important role in the economic development of the island province, it has declined especially after 1985 when the price of tin fell by half. The decline has also been due to the gradual decrease in the deposits after centuries of exploitation. So, Phuket had to look for a new industry on which to base its future economic development. Fortunately, its natural beauty was soon discovered and there was a boom of tourism in 1980's, which has lasted up to the 21st century

Tin & Rubber

Phuket is first mentioned as a major source of tin in the sixteenth century when the island became an important source of revenue for the Thai kingdom at Ayutthaya, as well as an important trading post. It was also during this period that the first Europeans arrived on Phuket.

Due to Phuket’s abundant supply of tin and its importance as a trading port, the island’s economy continued to prosper. The British secured a tin mining concession and nearly claimed Phuket as part of the British Empire, opting instead for Penang due to its safer harbours. Phuket’s streets were lined with handsome buildings constructed in the Sino-Portuguese style by the tin-barons, many of which can still be seen in older quarters of the town.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the island’s interior still remained relatively untouched. Much of it was still covered in ancient rainforest. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, large areas of the island were cleared to make way for rubber plantations, irreparably altering the landscape of the island.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Phuket has been settled since about 100 BC. Before that, more than 3,000 years ago, unidentified Neolithic people of the sea left petroglyphs (rock drawings) on islands and mainland sites north of Phuket.

Indian, Chinese, Thai and European trading vessels have for thousands of years plied the Andaman Sea, and Phuket was a regular port of call for provisioning and repairs. At the same time, commodities from timber and tin to pearls, ambergris, ivory, birds' nests and rhinoceros horn drew traders.

The first actual inhabitants, it is thought, were negritoes. Mons from what is today known as central Thailand followed. A later migration from western India brought Dravidians to Malaya, the mainland north of Phuket and, almost certainly, Phuket itself.

Sometime after that, mainland Thais settled on Phuket and Muslim fishing people from Malaya came north to establish coastal villages on Phuket and neighbouring islands such as Koh Racha and Koh Phi Phi. Their descendants are also still to be found in Phang Nga Bay, just north and east of Phuket, where Koh Pannyi -- inappropriately referred to as the "Sea Gypsy Village" in English -- a community built on stilts out over water, is a popular tourist attraction. For much of its history, it was known as "Junkceylon", "Junsalaomm", "Ujong Sylang" and other variations of the same -- probably a corruption of tanjong, which is Malay for "cape" or "peninsula" and salang, the local name of the island or the people who were living there. (There is some evidence that Phuket, a thousand years ago, was still connected to the mainland by a strip of land.)

From the late 18th century onwards, large numbers of Chinese settlers began to appear, most of them drawn by tin mining. (Around half the current population is ethnic Chinese) This soon caused what is now Phuket Town to swell to prominence, and, even today, some of the most charming architecture in the town is a mixture of Chinese and Portuguese elements.

There has long been a European presence on the island. From the 16th century, the Dutch, Portuguese and French were given royal permission to trade.

The island has been under the jurisdiction, however remote, from the time of King Ramkamhaeng and the Sukhothai Kingdom (AD 1279-1299), of a number of Siamese states, including, around the 16th century, the kingdom of Ayutthaya, the last great capital before the ascendancy of Bangkok.

Religion & Festivals

Thailand, according to some wisdom, is Buddhist in religion, Hindu in culture, Sanskrit in its classical literature, Brahminic in its rites, and - given that Thai tribes migrated from southern China 1000 years ago - Chinese in origin. It is also true that these are only half-truths, though they do point to the complex elements that have defined modern Thailand.

So far as religion goes, about 95 percent of the population is at least nominally Buddhist. There is also a sizeable Muslim minority, mostly resident in the southern provinces. Popular Buddhism, as well, has assimilated elements of both Brahminism and animistic beliefs that predate either of the former religions.

Sea Nomads

One distinctive feature of the Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga area are the "longtails", wooden craft characterised by upswept prows and their "tails" - big stern-mounted diesel engines mounted on swivel joints and trailing long propeller shafts.

The Chao Le, the so-called "Sea Gypsies", are traditionally a nomadic sea-faring people with a language and culture distinct from that of the mainstream Thai. A permanent settlement of Chao Le is found on Koh Sire, 4km east of Phuket Town.

Muslims

Where the longtail boats don't belong to Chao Le, they are operated by another distinct ethnic group, the Muslim villagers that inhabit islands such as Koh Raya Yai. Many of these people originally came up the coast from Malaysia, bringing with them a tradition of small-scale fishing. But these people find other ways to supplement their incomes. Look for ropes and bits of bamboo scaffolding on cliff faces in the area, particularly round Koh Phi Phi. These have been left there by locals who brave dizzying heights and dark caves to collect swiflet nests to supply a lucrative Chinese market for birds' nest soup.

Chinese

Many of Phuket's ethnic Chinese families were first attracted to the island in the early part of this century by the tin-mining industry. Their influences colour everything from town architecture to the calendar of festivals. Whereas the Muslim settlers from the south, most of them fishing folk, tended to establish their own distinctive villages along the coast, the Chinese have been people of the interior of the island, of the towns.

Other Ethnicities

Arabs, Indians and Europeans are among those who have also left their influences. Early Portuguese traders and merchants settled here, for example, and vestiges of their presence are still to found in the charming Sino-Portuguese architecture of many of the local buildings, especially in Phuket Town. Today there is a thriving community of expats, complete with an international school and an English-language radio station.

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