Long before Phuket’s beaches brought tourist dollars to the island, an entirely different resource supported the economy
In the days 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 here. It was the island’s abundant deposits of tin, widely sought after in both Asia and Europe for smelting with copper to produce bronze, that originally 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 The new settlement was called Tongkah, after the bay, but this was eventually superseded by Bukit, the Malay name for ‘hill.’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 visiting trading ships after rubber trees were first planted 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 the 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. By the early 2000s, inexpensive beach bungalows had been replaced by a wide variety of resorts around the island. The increased volume of road traffic also forced authorities to build the larger Thepkasattri Bridge alongside the original Sarasin Bridge (which has been kept as a pedestrian-only bridge much favoured for evening strolls and recreational fishing).
Phuket Mining Museum
If you want to “dig deeper” into the history of the tin trade in Phuket, the Phuket Mining Museum, which opened in August 2009, is the place to go. Although it’s a bit out of the way—located in Kathu (once a major area for this industry), on the road between Loch Palm Golf Club and British International School—it’s an interesting diversion and features elaborate displays ranging from scale models of tin mines, to a recreated scene in an opium den (just be aware that most of the signs and descriptions are only in Thai). Looking at these very realistic, and often life-sized dioramas makes one aware of many of the hardships the local citizenry once endured.
Moo 5, Khatu-Nakoh Rd.
Open: Mon-Sat, 8am-4pm, Tel: 088 766 0962
Non-Thais: B100 (B50 child), Thais: B50 (B20 child)