About 70 % of Phuket is mountainous. The main mountain chain runs north-south
behind the west coast beaches. The highest peak is Mai Tha Sip Song, or Twelve
Canes, at 529 metres. The remaining 30 % of land consists of low plains, mainly
in the centre and south, and streams.
Phuket's climate is dominated by the monsoon winds that blow year round and ensure
that the weather is always warm and humid. There are two distinct seasons, rainy
and dry. The rainy season begins in May and lasts until October, during which
time the monsoon blows from the southwest. The dry season is from November through
April, when the monsoon blows from the northeast. March has the highest average
temperatures of 33.4 degree Celsius. January is the coolest month, when nightly
lows dip to 22 degree Celsius.
The early 1980's were a turning point for Phuket. The once all-important tin
mining industry expired and the tourism industry has since been Phuket's chief
source of income. Hotels, restaurants, tour companies, and souvenir shops have
sprouted along much of the west coast.
However, tourism is by no means the island's only activity. Agriculture remains
important to a large number of people and covers much of the island. The principal
crops are rubber, coconuts, cashews, and pineapples. Prawn farming has largely
taken over the east and south coasts. Pearl farming is also important. Phuket's
fishing port is always full, and the processing of fish and marine products makes
a significant contribution to the economy. As a consequence of so many healthy
industries generating income, construction has become a major factor in employment.
Construction projects range from massive public works projects to office buildings
and hotels as well as large and small scale housing development.
The size of Phuket's population varies considerably depending on the time of
year, although the official census shows 231,206 people registered as Phuket
residents. Additionally, the island receives about three million visitors per
year and there is a sizable community of seasonal and temporary workers from
other parts of Thailand.
The ethnic makeup of Phuket is roughly 35 % Chinese (14 % countrywide) and 35
% Muslim (4 % countrywide) and the Chao Nam, or sea gypsies.
The Chinese population of Phuket originates from the Hokkien region of China.
The Chinese arrived to work the tin mines, but as elsewhere in Asia, they made
the transition from providing cheap labour to being merchants. They married native
Thais and assimilated into Thai culture. Today the descendants of the early Chinese
settlers are responsible for much of the trade and commerce on Phuket.
Indonesian-Malayan culture is quite apparent in southern Thailand. Concentrated
mostly around Surin 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
The Chao Nam or Sea Gypsies are traditionally a nomadic people and there are
three Sea Gypsy villages in Phuket. Little is known of their history and traditions
as their language is not written. They follow their own animistic religion and
are generally darker skinned and heavier with curly black hair. Sea Gypsies are
said to have originated in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands between India and
With a history stretching back at least one thousand years, Phuket was a way
station on the route between India and China as well as a wealthy tin and rubber
manufacturing centre and a major trading city.
The Dutch established a trading post during the 16th century. The island's northern
and central regions were then governed by the Thais, and the southern and western
areas were given over to the tin trade, which was operated by a number of western
countries under a power sharing relationship with the Thai monarchy.
The Burmese made many attempts to occupy the Thai kingdom that continued until
Burma became a British colony. After a successful invasion, the Burmese were
driven from the country in the late 1760s. They later sent a fleet to raid the
southern provinces and take slaves to Burma. This led to Phuket's most memorable
historic event. A passing sea captain sent word that the Burmese were en route
to attack. Forces in Phuket were assembled and led by two heroines, Kunying Jan,
wife of Phuket's recently deceased governor, and her sister Mook. After the Burmese
were forced to depart in 1785, King Rama I bestowed noble titles upon the sisters
in recognition of their heroism.
During the 19th century large numbers of Chinese immigrants arrived as labour
for the tin mines. The ethnic makeup of the island's interior became predominantly
Chinese, while the coastal settlements remained populated chiefly by Muslim fishermen.
Under Rama V, Phuket became the administration centre of a group of tin mining
provinces called Monton Phuket. In 1933, when the government changed from an
absolute monarchy to a parliamentary system, the island became a province.
The tin ore became depleted and world tin prices fell; the mining merchants
turned to tourism around 1980.