Island of Splendor: Phuket
First published in Bangkok Post 1985; New Straits Times Mar 6 1986
The sun-baked southern island of Phuket, washed by the Andaman Sea, has been well-known for more tan 350 years since the days of Ayuthaya. Back in those days, it was not the miles and miles of sunny beaches, the blue sky, the swaying tropical palms or the exotic maidens that attracted visitors to its shores. The draw was more mercantile than aesthetic.
The Dutch, the French and the English already knew of the island’s rich tin deposits and coveted the valuable ore. Even the Burmese launched an attack but were repulsed by the islanders. This episode is commemorated by a memorial to the two Siamese heroines, Tho Tepchatri and Tho Sisomporn, whose statues outside the town greet all visitors to the island.
In the early days the island was known as Talang. Locally it was called Thongkha or Thoongkha, after a species of grass. Later it became known as Phuket from the Malay word ‘bukit’, meaning hill, a possible consequence of the fact that there are many Thais of Malay descent in the south.
However, there was not much of a town in those times, not until the annexation of Penang island by Captain Francis Light of the East India Company for the British crown in 1786.
The subsequent development and growth of Penang into a free port under the British saw the rise of modern Phuket. Many Hokkien Chinese from Penang came to settle in Phuket and made their fortune from tin.
Penang then was the emporium for European goods. Two steam ships, the Matang and the Tangah plied between Penang and Phuket every week carrying goods and passengers between the two islands. Untill recent years the tin ore from Phuket was sent to the Eastern Smelting Company in Penang for smelting.
Mr.Peh, the 70-year-old owner of the British-style On On Hotel in Phuket recalled “In the old days everything came from Penang, oranges, apples, machinery, cars, and even ice.
“I was sole agent for those Italian marble tables you sometimes see in the local coffee shops.
they cost only 500 baht apiece in pre-war days. I still have about 10 of them. People have offered me many thousand baht for one but I refused to sell them. They are antiques.”
He added that building materials and even the builders’ teams came from Penang to construct the houses and the mansions of the rich. The On On Hotel was built by his father about 60 years ago as a family mansion with many guest rooms to house business friends from Penang.
Thus it has come about that today the old town of Phuket with it’s Sino-Portuguese architecture and British-style mansions looks similar to Penang. Phuket has also the distinction of being probably the only town in Thailand with a good drainage system.
As for the people, when it was time for schooling, they went to Penang. When it was time to get married, it was again to Penang that they would go to get a young Nonya bride.
Such was the close link that once existed between the two islands, that the first Thai words that the people of Penang learnt were “Pai nai, pai Khongkha (Khongkha being the Penang pronunciation of Thongkha).
Today things have changed. Penang is no longer a free port and tin prices have hit rock bottom. Ironically due to modern red tape on both sides of the border, people are neither so free nor goods so easy to move from the one island to he other.
“When Penang was a free port, you could get everything from all over the world at cheap prices,” said Murusamy, an Indian Chettiar, now a cloth merchant in Phuket.”I used to go to Penang once a month to order my textile goods, but not anymore. The textile shops in Penang are now bankrupt. Now I only go to Penang once a year during Taipusam to visit friends and relatives.
“And the flow of business has reversed. Phuket is now sending textiles from the Bangkok factories to Penang.”
Phuket today is the most delightful place in the kingdom. Apart from it’s famous beaches and scenic offshore islands, the town and the people have a unique character of their own. It is one of the most cleanest and most peaceful places of the country. The people are charming and friendly and the women among the fairest in the land.
The people of Phuket, descendants of Hokkien, Malay and Siamese ancestors through centuries of assimilation and intermarriage, proudly identify themselves as “Luk BaBa” for the men and “Nyonya” for the women in tribute to their unique dual heritage.
While loitering around the town, enchanted by it’s unhurried and peaceful pace, I ventured into a shop selling crafts and antiques and immediately I was caught up in many hours of conversation with the shop keepers.The proprietor, Woravuth Lim, who is an artist and his charming wife insisted that i join the family for dinner.
On another occasion when I happened to be in the Muslim village on Had Karim (Karim beach), fascinated by the coconut-picking monkeys, I was befriended by old grandma, Riya Noongchit, 66, who later invited me to her house for a drink of fresh coconut.
Before I left grandma Riya pressed on me a passport photograph of herself as a memento. This handsome old grandmother’s face shines with all the serenity of this enchanting, hilly but richly endowed island.