Phuket can trace its history back 2000 years when traders from India started trading with South East Asia. Over the next 2000 years Phuket has traded with the world and explains why it has become an international hub. Influence from Europe, China and countries around the Indian Ocean rim is visible in most parts of Phuket today.
About 70 percent of Phuket is mountainous; a western range runs from north to south from which smaller branches derive. The highest peak is Mai Tha Sip Song, or Twelve Canes, at 529 meters, which lies within the boundaries of Tambon Patong, Kathu District. The remaining 30 percent of the island, mainly in the center and south, is formed by low plains. Streams include the Khlong Bang Yai, Tha Jin, Khlong Tha Rua, and Khlong Bang Rong, none of which is large.
Tin mining has been a major source of income for the island since the 16th century. Chinese businessmen and Chinese workers were employed in the mines. Most were Hakka Chinese and their influence on Phuket culture and cuisine can still be felt today. Since the 1980’s, tin mining has been banned in Phuket.
Since the early 1980’s the tourism business has been Phuket’s chief source of income. Hotels, restaurants, tour companies, and souvenir shops are much in evidence on the west coast. Tourism creates annual revenues of approximately 90 billion baht (2.75 billion USD).
However, while once all-importance tin mining has ceased, tourism is by no means the island’s only activity. Agriculture remains important to a large number of people, and covers by far the most part of the island. Principal crops are rubber, coconuts, cashews, and pineapples.
Shrimp farming can be seen along the east coasts. Pearl farming is also important. Phuket’s fishing port is at all time filled, and processing of marine products, mainly fish, makes a significant contribution to the economy.
With so many healthy industries supplying income, construction has become a major factor in employment. This range from massive public works projects, large office buildings and hotels, and housing estates with hundreds of units, down to single family homes, apartments and additions.
Phuket’s economy rests on two pillars: plantations (making Thailand the biggest producer of rubber in the world) and and tourism with its related businesses. The income from tourism exceeds 5 billion USD a year (2012).
Official population in Phuket is just above 300,000, but the actual number is somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000. This numbers includes those who are registered as living in Phuket. Phuket’ s attraction as a center of economic activity has resulted in many living on the island whose registration is elsewhere. The total population of Phuket varies considerably depending on the time of year.
The most important ethnic group amongst the population of Phuket is the Thais who have moved on to Phuket from their original homes in the mainland thanks to the high economic growth rate for many years.
Coming a close second are the Chinese who migrated to Phuket to work at the tin mines to which Phuket owes much of her industrial fame. Today, the Chinese account for almost 35% of the population of Phuket. The Chinese of Phuket originally came from the Hokkien region of China. They arrived to work the tin mines in the mid 18th century.
As they did elsewhere in South East Asia, they made the transition from providing cheap labor to being merchants. They have assimilated into the Thai culture. Today the descendants of the early Chinese settlers control much of the trade and commerce on Phuket. Some of the earlier tin mine owners have branched out into the tourism sector and controls hotels, golf courses and large real estate projects.
In recent years Phuket has become very popular for Chinese tourists from the mainland. They visit very often during the “green season” – not so interested in beaches and sun, but more sightseeing and enjoying shopping as well as good food.
The Muslims who had originally arrived from Malaysia and Indonesia also account largely to the Phuket population. Indonesian-Malayan culture is quite apparent in southern Thailand and also in Phuket. They are mostly concentrated around Surin Beach, Koh Kaew and a few other big villages, they work as rice and rubber farmers. In Phuket, muslims of Malaysian extraction came largely to work on the rubber plantations.
Sea Gypsies (Chao Nam)
The Sea Gypsies, called Chao Nam, represents the largest ethnic group of the population in Phuket. The Gypsies were nomadic tribes of people who traveled from coast to coast in search of fish and other natural resources along the eastern part of the Indian Ocean. When the resources of a certain area were exhausted, the group would move on to a different coast, in order to carry out their activities. Consisting of many sub-groups, the Sea Nomads still proudly hold on to their ethnicity and rich heritage even today.
Foreign residents (Farangs)
Phuket is also home to a large number of foreign residents from around the world. Most stay on short term visas and make frequent trips to neighboring countries ever 30 or 90 das. Approximately 30000 foreigners are estimated to live more or less permanently in Phuket – many married with children. There is also a large population of visitors from Europe who stays during the cold winter season in Europa, especially Scandinavians and Germans.
Burmese laborers have since the early 1990s worked in construction, the fishing industry, at plantations and more lately in resorts and as maids in Phuket. Most work illegally, but the Thai government has issued more than 120,000 work permits for Burmese in Phuket.
Many have lived here for years and speak Thai fluently. In recent years they have taken on a more independent role, opening and running their own businesses. This is expected to continue with the start of the AEC (Asean Economic Community), a South-East Asian version of the original European Community, scheduled to take off in 2015.
The island is divided into three districts, Thalang in the north, Kathu in the west, and Muang in the south. Thailand’s system of government relies upon a strong central authority, thus the Provincial Governor is a civil servant appointed by the Interior Ministry in Bangkok, as are the Nai Amphoe, or District Chief. The cities of Phuket and Patong have their own city governments, with elected city councils, the leading members of which serve as mayor. There are also elected provincial, district, and sub-district, or Tambon councils. The local constabulary is part of the Interior Ministry.