Phuket boasts a long and fascinating history. The island has been home to colourful mix of communities over the few centuries, which means guests staying at one of Phuket's private villas can enjoy cultural attractions to complement the natural beauty.
The colourful shophouses of Phuket’s Old Town provide an eye-catching window into Phuket’s fascinating past
Originally founded in the 1st century BC by colonists from India, Phuket has, over hundreds of years, played host to an eclectic mix of nationalities, from Thais, Chinese and Malays, to Indians, Nepalese and Eurasians.
Thanks to its rich natural reserves, the island has long attracted explorers and traders from across the world. Its position in the Andaman Sea also made the island an important strategic location – particularly for its proximity to the Malacca Straits. The tin mining boom of the 19th century attracted a huge number of Chinese settlers to the island, who brought plenty of their own traditions and customs with them.
There’s an array of places to go and activities to take part in for those that want to delve deeper into the island’s intriguing past. We take a closer look at some of the Phuket’s most important cultural influences.
Visitors keen to learn more about the unique heritage of Phuket’s original community should plan a trip during the annual Baba mass wedding festival
A stroll through Phuket’s Old Town is perhaps one of the best ways to discover the Baba community’s fascinating heritage. ‘Baba’ refers to the descendants of Peranakan Chinese or Straits-born Chinese who came to the island seeking a new life, particularly during the tin mining boom of the 19th century. Female members of the community are known as ‘Nyonya’.
In terms of cultural events, the Phuket Baba wedding festival is perhaps what this community is most well-known for. To this day, each year around June, a mass wedding festival showcases the elaborate wedding preparations of Phuket’s Peranakan Chinese. Colourful street processions, animated parades and vivid decorations are just a few of the highlights visitors can look forward to. The colourful garments worn by the bride and groom often form one of another of the most memorable images of a traditional Baba wedding.
For the bride and groom, the day consists of a succession of important ceremonies and rituals. The couple will pay homage to the heaven and earth in a special ceremony, where they bow in front of a heaven and earth altar or the groom’s family ancestors’ altar. There will also be a wedding tea ceremony, where the newlyweds kneel in front of the groom’s parents and offer them tea. Both of these ceremonies have played an important role in traditional Chinese culture for hundreds of years.
If you’re visiting Phuket, it’s also well worth sampling some authentic Baba cuisine, which comprises a tasty medley of dishes influenced by Thai food, Hokkien Chinese cuisine and Malay flavours, too. All of these culinary repertoires combine to form a mouth-watering blend of flavours that establish the perfect balance between sweet, spicy and salty. Some of the most famous dishes include oh-aew (white jelly made from Chinese herbs and bananas, served with red beans and ice), mee hokkien (stir-fried Hokkien noodles) and moo hong (salted boiled pork).
The Chinese Jui Tui Shrine plays a pivotal role in Phuet’s annual Vegetarian Festival
In addition to the various festivals and culinary treats Chinese settlers brought to the island, they also helped to create some of Phuket’s most striking architecture and cherished shrines. Shining with traditional character, Phuket’s Old Town is once again the place to go to make the most of this. This culturally rich district is home to an array of stunning shop houses, hidden printing shops and galleries, charming cafes and museums. There’s also a number of impressive Sino-Colonial mansions dating back to the 19th century, most of which were occupied by the island’s tin mining barons.
For those keen to visit an authentic Sino-Colonial mansion in Phuket Old Town, Baan Chinpracha is the place to go. Situated at 98 Krabi Road, this visually striking residence has been transformed into an informative museum where visitors have the chance to see how Phuket’s wealthy used to live.
In terms of sites of spiritual significance, the Old Town’s Chinese Jui Tui Shrine plays an important role in Phuket’s annual Vegetarian Festival (see box, below). Located on Soi Phuthorn just off Ranong Road, this shrine tends to attract those keen to boost their physical health through prayer. The Shrine of Serene Light is also worth a visit. Founded in 1891 by the Hokkien Chinese, this architecturally distinctive temple is tucked away up a small alley. Plumes of incense and Taoist wall etchings infuse the space with a deeply spiritual atmosphere.
Phuket’s Muslim community
This mouth-watering curry is one of the most popular dishes amongst Phuket’s Muslim community
Like many other parts of Southern Thailand, Phuket is home to a large Muslim community. Unlike Chinese settlers that historically inhabited the interior parts of the island, Muslim settlers from the south typically established distinctive fishing villages along the coast of the island.
Descendants of these settlers can be found throughout Phang Nga Bay, including those living in the floating village of Koh Panyee. Built on stilts over the water, this intriguing settlement has become a cultural hotspot for tourists exploring the region from Phuket. Situated a 20-minute boat ride from Phang Nga province’s Surakul pier, Koh Panyee is home to a plethora of huts and houses built over the shallow sea. A laid-back day spent here provides a glimpse into the simple, wholesome lives of this community. The village is also home to a number of excellent seafood restaurants and handicraft shops.
On Phuket Island itself the main hub of the Muslim community is around Patong Beach. For those searching for some traditional local fare, the bustling Arabic quarter south of Bangla Road is home to an excellent selection of halal restaurants. Massaman curry – which translates to ‘Muslim’ curry – is one standout dish not to miss out on. A delectable concoction of coconut milk, bay leaves, sugar, cinnamon and tamarind sauce forms the base of the curry, while potatoes, beef and roasted peanuts give it a wonderfully filling heartiness.
Don’t miss: Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival
Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival takes place every October, and is one of the most intriguing events on the island’s calendar
Phuket’s annual Vegetarian Festival is, without doubt, one of the most captivating events on the island’s cultural calendar. The event began about 150 years ago when many of the Chinese tin miners working in Phuket’s Kathu District fell ill with a fatal disease – including the Chinese opera performers that had been hired to entertain the local families. Eventually, it was realised that they had forgotten to pay homage to the Nine Emperor Gods at the start of the ninth Chinese lunar month. The following year, the Chinese refrained from eating meat, drinking alcohol or quarrelling. The disease died out, and every year since, the people of Phuket have celebrated what has evolved in the Vegetarian Festival. During the event, the streets are lined with food stalls and visitors can watch one of the many colourful processions through the streets. However, the facial piercing and fire walking that some of the festival’s participants engage in are perhaps the most intriguing element for visitors. This year’s festival runs from 20th – 28th October.
Keen to delve deeper into Phuket’s intriguing cultural heritage? Then you shouldn’t miss the following:
- The Amulet Market in Phuket Town is situated in a small alley just off Rassada Road. It attracts locals Buddhists and tourists alike.
- To learn more about Phuket’s unique history and culture, head to the Phuket Cultural Centre at the island’s Rajabhat University. The centre is home to a three-floor exhibition that showcases an array of captivating items, from vintage tin-mining tools to Thai shadow puppets.
- If you’re keen to enjoy as much of Phuket’s culture as possible, then booking onto a guided tour of the Old Town could be a smart choice. This kind of excursion will provide a glimpse into the history of the region, as well as highlighting many local historical landmarks.