From quasi-colonial part to world-class resort island, Phuket remains a force to be reckoned with.
Long before Phuket’s attractive beaches had earned the island its “Pearl of the Andaman” sobriquet and spawned a multi-million-dollar tourist industry, an entirely different resource supported the economy on Thailand’s largest island.
The 810-sq-km island’s abundant deposits of tin, widely sought after in both Asia and Europe for smelting with copper to produce bronze, drew traders from all over the world. As the extraction and export of the utilitarian mineral expanded in the 18th century, European and Chinese traders developed a port city among the verdant hills near Tongkah Bay. Although tin mining attracted a few Siamese from the north, the main influx for both labour and commerce consisted of Chinese, Malays, Indians and Europeans from the British Straits Settlements to the south.
The new settlement was called Tongkah, after the bay, but this was eventually superseded by Bukit, the Malay name for ‘hill.’ Years of exposure to Thai speech transformed this to ‘Bhuket,’ which was only officially changed to ‘Phuket’ in 1966.
Another commodity was added to the cargo holds of trading ships after rubber trees were first plated on Phuket in 1903, and the island developed a culture all its own, combining Chinese and Portuguese influences with that of the indigenous ocean-going chao naam and southern Thais.
By the late 1960s the tin industry in southern Thailand declined as resources dwindled and many dredging companies closed shop. Rubber cultivation, meanwhile, spread to neighbouring provinces in southern Thailand.
As tin and rubber traders faded into the background, they were replaced by intrepid backpackers attracted by the Andaman island’s long, broad, sandy beaches, limestone cliffs, forested hills and tropical vegetation. The 1967 construction of Sarasin Bridge replaced the ferry service from the mainland and made the island readily accessible by road. The first beach lodging came along in the early 1970s when a budget guesthouse attached to a laundry on Patong Beach began renting rooms for the princely sum of 10 baht a night.
Phuket began courting a more upscale market with the 1980s arrival of Club Med on Kata Beach, followed by the more lavish Phuket Yacht Club on Nai Han Beach and Le Meridien on Karon Noi (Relax Bay). By the early 2000s, inexpensive beach bungalows had been replaced by a wide variety of resorts around the island. Increased road traffic forced authorities to build the larger Thepkasattri Bridge alongside the old one (which has been kept as a pedestrian-only bridge much favored for evening strolls and recreational fishing).
In contrast with rampant development along coastal areas of the island, Phuket’s interior still offers many hectares of land devoted to the cultivation of rice, rubber, cashew, cacao, pineapple and coconut, as well as Phuket’s last bit of island rainforest. Khao Phra Thaew Royal Wildlife and Forest Reserve covers a mountain range towards the northern end of the island and protects 2,333 hectares of evergreen monsoon forest. Jungle hikes to Ton Sai and Bang Pae waterfalls are a popular activity in the reserve.
Although there are many places to dive around Thailand, Phuket is the primary centre for the Thai scuba industry and nearby waters boasts some of the world’s top dive destinations. The island is ringed by good to excellent dive sites, including several small islands to the south and east: Ko Hae, Ko Raya (Noi and Yai), Ko Yao (Noi and Yai), Hin Daeng and Hin Muang (also known as Shark Point as it is a habitat for harmless leopard sharks).
Excursions further afield to Phang-Nga Bay islands to the east, and to the world-famous Surin and Similan islands to the northwest, are also for the most part operated from Phuket. A few outfits also provide live-aboard trips to islands in the Mergui Archipelago off the southern coast of Myanmar.
Phuket, along with nearby Phang-Nga and Krabi provinces, offer such stunning scenery and anchorages that it is now considered Asia’s top cruising destination. All manner of leisure watercraft, from 80-year-old wooden sloops to the latest high-tech mega yachts, can be found moored among the island’s four privately owned marinas, government marina and deep sea port at Chalong Bay, where the government provides a one-stop service for immigration and customs for any boat or ship arriving in Phuket.
“Luxury yachting is definitely booming in Phuket and is set to grow in coming years,” says Adam Frost, founder and owner of Seal Superyachts, a company providing a wide range of services for mega yachts.
“Traditionally superyachts would restrict themselves to the Mediterranean for summer, and then cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean, in order to escape the bite of the European winter. However, in the last decade or so many yachts have dropped the Caribbean from their itinerary and chosen to come out to Asia instead.
“This season we’ve seen approximately 30 superyachts call at Phuket and the surrounding region,” says Frost. “I expect that average will double within the next five years.”
Several Phuket companies offer inflatable canoe and kayak tours of scenic Phang-Nga Bay, entering semi-submerged caves inaccessible by motorized boats.
For the culturally inclined, Phuket Town’s historic district has developed into a major attraction following successful preservation and restoration projects launched in the mid-2000s. Century-old tiam choo (Hokkien for “shop house”) designed in the typical Straits Settlement architectural style also seen in Penang, Melaka and Singapore, line several downtown roads. Along Thalang Road, home to 141 original shop houses, the burial of electrical and phone cables has increased the street’s visual appeal immeasurably. Cables along Deebuk and Krabi roads are thankfully undergoing the same procedure now. Several art galleries are flourishing in the neighborhood.
Old Phuket is a much-favoured hunting grounds for authentic local cuisine, including ba-mee moo (chewy egg noodles served with fragrant smoked pork), khanom jeen topped with a choice of naam yaa (spicy fish curry) or kaeng khiaw-waan (sweet green curry), moo hong (braised pork, served with rice) and mee hokkien (a noodle dish made with seafood). At Abdul Rotee on Thalang Road, the fez-topped owner griddles fresh rotis (round flatbread) to serve with delicious southern Thai curries.
Following the general trend towards more refinement on the island, a host of more ambitious eateries offer world-class dining. Siam Indigo in the old town serves Thai dishes with a French twist, while The Boathouse on Kata Beach is renowned for fresh seafood dishes drawn from international as well as Thai cooking traditions. Acqua on Kalim Bay is highly acclaimed for modern Italian cuisine, while Diavolo at the Paresa Resort Phuket on Kamala Beach provides high-class Italian with a view from ‘millionaire’s mile.’
One of the most exciting recent additions to Phuket’s dining scene is Aziamendi at Iniala Beach House, found just across the Thepkasattri Bridge in Phang-Nga and overseen by famed Michelin-starred Basque chef Eneko Axta.