Long before tourism became the mainstay of Phuket’s economy, the island had developed into a thriving community, based on another decidedly less attractive, if equally lucrative, activity – mining. In the latter 17th century, the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, in what was then the ‘developed world’, led to an explosion in the demand for tin. It was determined that Phuket had extensive deposits of ore, and that these were conveniently situated near the surface, accessible to what was then somewhat limited mining technology – not much more than picks and shovels. This had a profound impact on the island, where commercial activity hitherto, had been restricted to agriculture and sporadic, regional trading.
There were cultural impacts, too. The mining entrepreneurs found the local farmers and fishermen did not take readily to the work of excavation of the ore so Chinese workers were brought from Hokkien province in China, where mining expertise was more advanced. Such was the scale of industrial activity, that the Chinese labourers settled here and brought their families to join them. Over time they intermarried with the indigenes, and Chinese animist thinking became fused with the local Buddhist cum Vedic belief system and enriched the island’s customs, religious architecture and festivals. It’s this multi-ethnic admix which has resulted in Phuket’s rich and exciting cultural inheritance, today.
Tin mining also left its mark on the landscape. The island is dotted with small lakes and ponds, which are the results of surface mining. These days, the government and private developers have joined hands to turn these stagnant pools into delightful features of the countryside, stocked with fish, surrounded by lawns, lush tropical gardens and expensive hotels and villas. Laguna is only the best known and most exclusive.
Now, for those of you who are interested in earlier aspects of the island’s history, a visit to the newly opened Mining Museum is well worthwhile. It’s located on the road which leads past Loch Palm Golf Club on the way to the British International School. Development of the project is still a work-in progress, but it’s now open to the public. All the signage and information displays are in English and Thai, and there are helpful bilingual guides on hand to make visitors welcome.
The main building is constructed in the Sino-Portuguese style, with stuccoframed, shuttered windows, old style arches and a large interior courtyard, in a fashion which can still be found today in Phuket Town’s Chinese quarter. In the courtyard, you’ll find an example of the old ‘Sorng Taeo’; a woodframed passenger transport of former times. Motorised equivalents are still a common feature on the island, today.
Moving on you’ll encounter a fascinating replication of mining techniques, prevalent more than two hundred years ago.
Next is a gallery called the ‘Secret Pearl of Andaman’ which showcases stones, beads, jade, jewellery, combs made of buffalo horn, and even a ‘tin’ currency called ‘dibuk’ coins, all of which are the archeological and historical detritus of the old Kathu mining community.
The final section is called the ‘Journey of Chinese Merchants’ and is built to replicate a Phuket street of yesteryear, full of delightful artifacts like ancient sewing machines, oriental pharmacies, strident, scarlet shrines and even a shadow-puppet theatre. The wax sculptures of Ba-Ba Hokkien Chinese/Thai traditional weddings, are bijoux masterpieces.
After a week of sun-worshiping, hedonistic self-indulgence and downright sloth, it’s time to re-charge the intellectual batteries. Back when the Chinese were digging out the tin, a tour of Europe’s museums was ‘de rigor’ for aristocratic adolescents. It’s a practise much in neglect, nowadays. Why don’t you make a start with the Phuket Mining Museum? It’s its own reward. Don’t miss it.
Entrance fee: adults - 100 baht; children - 20 baht; students - 10 baht. The museum is open on weekdays from 9:00am to 4:00pm. Tel: +66 (0)86 470 7767. Email: [email protected]