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The Island of Phuket has a long recorded history. A chronicle dating back to A.D. 1025 indicates that the island's present day name derives in meaning from the Tamil manikram, (crystal mountain) (which is equivalent to the Thai words phu , meaning mountain, and ket, meaning jewel). Many modern tourist brochures often refer to Phuket as the Pearl of the South.

However for most of history, and especially on old European maps, it was known as Junk Ceylon (or variations thereof). This is thought to be an english corruption of the cape of Jang Si Lang, which was recorded by a third century A.D. geographer en route to the Malay penninsular. And most geologists believe that the area known as Phuket today was once a cape that extended into the Andaman Sea before becoming detached from the mainland over time. As a complete aside, the new hotel and shopping complex (opening in 2006) in Patong Beach, Phuket bears the name Jung Ceylon for historical reasons no doubt!

Other early accounts sometimes refer to the island as 'bukit' (the Malay word for mountain). King Ramkhamhaeng named the island "Cha Lang", (then the capital city on the island), which evolved to "Thalang". During the reign of Rama V (1868-1910) the island was officially named as Bhuket, and in 1967 the spelling was changed to the present day Phuket.
Phuket was first inhabited by Negritos who lived side by side with sea gypsies from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Moken or Chao Lay people of the sea). The Sea Gypsies gathered shellfish as they roamed from cove to cove. Portuguese seafarers arrived in the early 16th century to seek ship masts from the forests, rhinoceros horns for markets in Europe and to buy pitch to caulk their boats. The Portuguese established settlements and their presence is reflected in the Sino-Portuguese architecture in Phuket Town.
In economic terms, Phuket's history has been shaped by tin mining, rubber, agriculture and tourism.
It is known that tin was discovered a couple of millennia ago in the Kathu district of Phuket and was mined until 1992 when the last mine on Phuket closed. Cassiterite (the principal ore of tin) was found in abundance in Phuket and the neighbouring Andaman coast (noteably from KhaoLak to TakuaPa).

As a perfect stopover sheltering traders from monsoons, Jung Ceylon welcomed merchants from India, Persia, Arabia, Burma, China and also Siam. By the 18th century, the island was a popular trading port for tin with Portuguese, Dutch, English and French traders flocking to the island. This contributed to making the development of mining so unprecedented, but it was not until the mid 1800's that demand for tin really surged, although Phuket's tin abundance was well known to the rest of Asia in the 13th century and to the first European arrivals in 1512. Tin was widely sought after and was regarded as an extremely valuable commodity not only by the Thai Kingdom, but by all Oriental and European powers. Its main importance was the formation of bronze by smelting with copper. Bronze and other related alloys have been used for all kinds of weapons, body armour, coins, roof tiles, cannons, temple bells and religious items, and more recently for anti-rusting coatings, tin cans, foils and electronics. It is only in the last twenty years that new high-tech composite materials have forced the decline of tin.

Thousands of Chinese migrated to Phuket to work in the tin mines where conditions were adverse and labour intensive. History was made at Wat Chalong in 1876, when a riot involving 25,000 migrant workers was quelled by two temple abbots who rallied with the local people. However Chinese businessmen and miners did eventually enjoy thriving business wealth, and most settled in Phuket.

In 1909 the search for tin took to the seas. The Australian Edward Thomas Miles brought the first tin dredge to Phuket in that year. In 1969, the Tin Mining Monument (shaped like a large drill bit) was erected at Sapan Hin, Phuket Town on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of tin dredging in Phuket.

Blocks of pure tin were used as currency and were considered as legal tender to pay taxes in Phuket until the democratic revolution in 1932.

The tin mining business has repeatedly come under fire throughout its long history in Thailand. The environmental impact of early mining was considerable. Open cut tin mines devastated the pristine landscape of Phuket and eventually angered residents. In 1985 construction began of a tantalum refinery, a valuable metal by-product of tin processing. The procedure would have significantly damaged air and water quality, but a 50,000 strong citizen protest broke into chaos resulting in the destruction of the plant.

Paradoxically, tin mining in Phuket has played a helping hand towards tourism - namely the gentleman's game of golf. Tin miners used to excavate freely and cut canyons into the virgin countryside. After the mining died out, the fabricated terrain of sections of Phuket Island proved to be perfect locations for a number of golf courses. However it did require ingenious designers to devise means to rejuvenate barren acidic land and exploit the ungainly angles of the miners' strokes, to develop some of the most challenging and scenic holes in the world.

The first golf course in Phuket opened in 1989, over a reclaimed tin mine site.

Natural Rubber is obtained from the white milky fluid (latex) found in many plants. Commercially the most important plant is the Hevea Brasiliensis tree, an original native of the Amazon jungle of South America. In 1877 Henry Nicholas Ridley, in Singapore, developed a method to propagate them rapidly and tap them for their lucrative white sap. The Hevea Brasiliensis trees are most productive within a narrow belt extending to approximately 1000 km on either side of the equator.

The first rubber trees were planted in Phuket in 1903 and cultivation expanded to consume nearly one third of the island.
The latex is extracted (tapped) by making a series of rotating cuts in the bark, and it is collected in a small cup. Most prime cultivators and tappers were, and are, Thai muslims. Rubber planters are typically small holders, each family cultivating perhaps only 16 rai of land. The wealthy families were preoccupied with the riches of tin mining, whereas the poorer families found rubber to be an attractive prospect. With rubber plantations, after an initial three years of hard work and a further four year wait, one could then settle back and enjoy a releatively easy living for perhaps decades. The tappers usually work from 2.00 am until dawn, and their lamps can be seen flickering like fireflies. Thailand is the world's biggest rubber producer.

Prior to 1980, Phuket was quite isolated and obsure, even though it regularly contributed more than other provinces to the national revenue. Thereafter it initially became an undiscovered getaway spot for tourists.
Today it is a world class destination with its stunning beaches and picture-perfect landscape.
Nowadays, although tourism and rubber plantations are the two pillars of economy, other products contribute significantly to the economy. Pearls are commercially farmed along with shellfish and abaolone. Phuket's fishing port is at all times full. Prawn farming is a thriving business on the east coast. Cashew nuts, dried coconuts (copra) and fruits and pineapples also play their part in the economy.
Chinese culture and heritage - the Sea Dragon Hai Leng Ong

Phuket is the province with the highest percentage of ethnic Chinese in the country. This impact can be seen with the island's decidedly Chinese-influenced architecture, cuisine, temples and culture.

According to a Chinese legend, Phuket is a golden sea dragon emerging from the Indian Ocean. Tradition holds that this dragon, Hai Leng Ong, is duty-bound to protect Phuket and its visitors, sustaining life and prosperity in business. This is one of the four Great Dragon elements in Chinese legend which has a duty to protect the ocean as commanded by heaven.

The dragon's supposed snout is Laem Phromthep, in the south of the island. Its legs are on the east coast. Its spine is on the west coast. And its tail, from beginning to end is at Baan Tachatchai.

So important to Phuket's history is Hai Leng Ong that a large monument of the dragon is a feature attraction at Queen Sirikit Park in Phuket Town. The Sea dragon monument of Hai Leng Ong was built in 2006 to join the national celebrations of HM the King's 60th Year since his Accession to the throne. The year also marked HM the King being the world's longest serving monarch.

Typically, on the last day of the first lunar month or on the last day of the Chinese New Year, (and often coinciding with the Old Phuket Town Festival) a ceremony is performed at this monument by Chinese descendents to convey their thankfulness to the god for protecting humans.

Phuket Sea Dragon and monument - Hai Leng Ong

** Photo Guide within navigation matrix **   Heroine's Monument     rubber plantation     Tin Mining Monument

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