Archaeological evidence suggests that Phuket has been settled since about 100 BC. Before that, more than 3,000 years ago, unidentified Neolithic people of the sea left petroglyphs (rock drawings) on islands and mainland sites north of Phuket.
Indian, Chinese, Thai and European trading vessels have for thousands of years plied the Andaman Sea, and Phuket was a regular port of call for provisioning and repairs. At the same time, commodities from timber and tin to pearls, ambergris, ivory, birds' nests and rhinoceros horn drew traders.
The first actual inhabitants, it is thought, were negritoes. Mons from what is today known as central Thailand followed. A later migration from western India brought Dravidians to Malaya, the mainland north of Phuket and, almost certainly, Phuket itself.
Sometime after than, mainland Thais settled on Phuket and Muslim fishing people from Malaya came north to establish coastal villages on Phuket and neighbouring islands such as Koh Racha and Koh Phi Phi. Their descendants are also still to be found in Phang Nga Bay, just north and east of Phuket, where Koh Pannyi -- inappropriately referred to as the "Sea Gypsy Village" in English -- a community built on stilts out over water, is a popular tourist attraction. For much of its history, it was known as "Junkceylon", "Junsalaomm", "Ujong Sylang" and other variations of the same -- probably a corruption of tanjong, which is Malay for "cape" or "peninsula" and salang, the local name of the island or the people who were living there. (There is some evidence that Phuket, a thousand years ago, was still connected to the mainland by a strip of land.)
From the late 18th century onwards, large numbers of Chinese settlers began to appear, most of them drawn by tin mining. (Around half the current population is ethnic Chinese.) This soon caused what is now Phuket Town to swell to prominence, and, even today, some of the most charming architecture in the town is a mixture of Chinese and Portuguese elements.
There has long been a European presence on the island. From the 16th century, the Dutch, Portuguese and French were given royal permission to trade.
The island has been under the jurisdiction, however remote, from the time of King Ramkamhaeng and the Sukhothai Kingdom (AD 1279-1299), of a number of Siamese states, including, around the 16th century, the kingdom of Ayutthaya, the last great capital before the ascendancy of Bangkok.
Religion & Festivals
Thailand, according to some wisdom, is Buddhist in religion, Hindu in culture, Sanskrit in its classical literature, Brahminic in its rites, and -- given that Thai tribes migrated from southern China 1000 years ago -- Chinese in origin. It is also true that these are only half-truths, though they do point to the complex elements that have defined modern Thailand.
So far as religion goes, about 95 percent of the population is at least nominally Buddhist. There is also a sizeable Muslim minority, mostly resident in the southern provinces. Popular Buddhism, as well, has assimilated elements of both Brahminism and animistic beliefs that predate either of the former religions.
One distinctive feature of the Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga area are the "longtails", wooden craft characterised by upswept prows and their "tails" -- big stern-mounted diesel engines mounted on swivel joints and trailing long propeller shafts.
The Chao Le, the so-called "Sea Gypsies", are traditionally a nomadic sea-faring people with a language and culture distinct from that of the mainstream Thai. A permanent settlement of Chao Le is found on Koh Sire, 4km east of Phuket Town.
Where the longtail boats don't belong to Chao Le, they are operated by another distinct ethnic group, the Muslim villagers that inhabit islands such as Koh Raya Yai. Many of these people originally came up the coast from Malaysia, bringing with them a tradition of small-scale fishing.
But these people find other ways to supplement their incomes. Look for ropes and bits of bamboo scaffolding on cliff faces in the area, particularly round Koh Phi Phi. These have been left there by locals who brave dizzying heights and dark caves to collect swiflet nests to supply a lucrative Chinese market for birds' nest soup.
Many of Phuket's ethnic Chinese families were first attracted to the island in the early part of this century by the tin-mining industry. Their influences colour everything from town architecture to the calendar of festivals. Whereas the Muslim settlers from the south, most of them fishing folk, tended to establish their own distinctive villages along the coast, the Chinese have been people of the interior of the island, of the towns.
Arabs, Indians and Europeans are among those who have also left their influences. Early Portuguese traders and merchants settled here, for example, and vestiges of their presence is still to found in the charming Sino-Portuguese architecture of many of the local buildings, especially in Phuket Town. Today there is a thriving community of expats, complete with an international school and an English-language radio station.