Phuket Island has experienced human activity for a long, long time but we have no accurate record of it until relatively recently. Essentially, the more distant history of Phuket is rather different from that of the Thai mainland.
While the Thais migrated into Thailand from the north, the original or first peoples of islands such as Phuket almost certainly came from the south. Our only link with these original people today are the Moken, Chao Le or "Sea Gypsies". Several thousand Moken survive today throughout Southeast Asia, and there are two Moken villages on Phuket.
They did not settle in one place and preferred to roam the seas, settling on land only as long as bad weather continued. The seafaring background of these people, which apparently included piracy and slave trading, and their continued dedication to the basic idea of a seafaring life, would suggest that agriculture – the foundation of Thai civilization - was probably not a very important activity on Phuket Island.
When Phuket was settled, the only inhabitants known to us were small groups of Semang Pygmies who lived by hunting and gathering. By the mid nineteenth century they were gone but some still remain in Malaysia.
The first written record or mention of Phuket occurs in the third century writing of the Greek or Egyptian writer Ptolemy, who referred to it as Jang Si Lang, which latter came to be called "Junk Ceylon". His reference indicates that educated people were well aware of its existance although he did not have much to say about it.
For several centuries, it was a part of various southern-based empires such as the Sirivijaya Empire although no one seems to have developed it. It was essentially a resing or wayfaring station for vessles sailing between India, China and Indonesia. Ships would stay in various harbors and coves during periods of bad weather sailing weather.
Malaysian records indicate that Thai control or influence over the island began roughly in the 12th century when King Ramkhamhaeng conquered it from the Sirivijayas, at which time the Thais referred to it as Thalang, although others continued to refer to it is Junkceylon, or "Bukit", a Malay word for mountain.
It wasn't until the usefulness of the massive tin deposits on the island were realized that Thailand or anyone else began to consider actualy developing, administering or controlling the island. By the end of the Thai Sukothai period, royal tin mines were operating in Phuket and the income generated was the major source of revenue.
The sixteenth history is known among Western historians as the "Age of Exploration" and it was during this time that Dutch and French explorers came to Phuket and recognized the bountiful gifts to be found there, as did the British. While the British turned their attentions elsewhere, the Dutch and French began administering parts of the island – the north and west - and a French tin monopoly was recognized by the Thai king in 1685.
European architecture in Phuket town serves as a reminder of a time when European influence on the island was very important. It was during this period when an event happened which (perhaps incorrectly) is celebrated as one of the most important events of Phuket history.
The wife and sister of a dead governor ("the two heroines") rallied the population to resist the onslaught of an Burmese army. European involvement and control – or development - of the Phuket Island economy did not end until World War II, when the Japanese occupied most of the area.
The tin industry, which was central in Phuket history for over 400 years, also attracted the attention of the Chinese, though not as developers or owners. Toward the end of the 19th century large numbers of Chinese migrated into Phuket to work in the mines. Eventually, the Chinese came to constitute the largest ethnic group on the island.
The presence of seven large Chinese temples in Phuket town, as well as many residential and business dwellings, remind all of the importance of the Chinese in the development of Phuket Island. The several Chinese holidays which are celebrated on Phuket Island,, such as the Vegetarian Festival and Chinese New Year, also are reminders of the importance of Chinese settlement.
A historical event during this period which is generally in discussions of modern Phuket history was a bloody "riot" or rampage on the island which happened when Chinese workers, unhappy with wages and working conditions, went on an island wide killing and burning spree.. It is said that the violence was only ended by the intervention of Buddhist monks.
The tin industry and the success of rubber agriculture, introduced into the island in the early 1900's, enabled Phuket to become a relatively rich part of Thailand. In 1910, it became the only part of Thailand to have (some) paved roads.
It became the administrative center for outlying areas such as Krabi, Ranong, and Phang Nga. In 1933, it became a province. The tin industry, however, declined in the second part of the twentieth century and was replaced by a new economic driver, tourism.
The modern era of Phuket history is certainly most closely related to the development of mass tourism, a process which is still in progress. This process, and its effects on society and the environment, are not nearly as well understood as they should be. Too many people have been too busy making money to contemplate these things or study them too much!! Historical analysis is awaited.
It can be said that the development began sometime in the 1970's following the construction of the Sarasin Bridge (1967), which lined the island to the Thai mainland, and an international airport (1976) and was influenced by the development of tourism in other areas of Thailand.
Development quickly shifted from being aimed at "bungalow backpackers" to the construction of massive resorts and hotels to appeal to middle and high end spenders. The beaches were then "discovered" and received good reviews from various Western travel writers, and, in the 1980's, the tourist business became firmly established.
The tourist industry developed relentlessly during the 1990's. The only interruption to this development has been the Tsunami of December 26, 2004, an event which resulted in extensive property damage and loss of life up and down the west coast - which is the most heavily touristed part - of Phuket Island. Today, the disaster is commemorated with plaques and statutes but business has long since returned to normal, and the development continues. See Phuket Island after the Tsunami