Millions of holidaymakers visit Phuket every year for a tropical escape and leave with sunburns, smiles and sand between their toes but, sadly, little idea of the island's rich history and culture. Aiming to shore up the knowledge gap are two museums, the Thalang National Museum, just east of the Heroine's Monument, and the Phuket Mining Museum in Kathu.
The Mining Museum takes some effort to reach but once you're there you can't miss it. Housed in a large pink Sino-Portuguese style building with a courtyard and fronted by a park and lagoon, it's a rather incongruous sight in this remote, jungle-clad area of Kathu.
In planning a museum there must be decisions to be made initially on how far back into the past to go. In this, the Mining Museum leaves nothing to chance, ambitiously starting from the beginning of time. Or, to be more specific, the origin of the sun, illustrated in a colourful hall with big dangling planets.
From the space hall you enter a cave-like tunnel lined with pictures of prehistoric creatures until you come face-to-face with a hominid – well, an ape-like, wild-eyed mannequin with matted black hair, crouched in a cave, stone-age tools in hand. Further along there's a more modern caveman clad in a rather fashionable-looking leopard-skin loincloth, holding a spear, looking none too pleased to see you. At this point you start to wonder: Where's the tin?
The next hall answers this, featuring the museum's best installation, an elaborate miniature diorama of an open-pit tin mine operation in action. Hundreds of tiny workers are seen working busily on the site, illustrated in great detail and whimsy.
While this and other, larger scenes depict some hard-working souls toiling in the mines – you can even see the sweat glistening on their arms – others show those who obviously didn't pull their weight in Phuket's drive to tin-toned glory. In one hall highlighting the arrival of the Chinese by sea, you walk a plank between two large wooden ship models. Peek inside one of the boats, and you'll spot a layabout, having a snooze on the deck. Further along in the Chinese culture hall there's a man lazing on a platform bed, sucking on an opium pipe.
Some indoor and outdoor displays have explanatory signs in Thai and English, while some are in Thai only. Others have peculiar English phrasing, and some have no accompanying text at all. The museum gives you some idea about Phuket's economic and cultural development, but in a world with encyclopaedic information and vivid imagery available at the touch of an iPad screen, it falls a bit short in entertaining and informing − youngsters especially. And though it's only three years old, there's already a distinct feel of neglect about the place.
Thalang National Museum, built more than 20 years ago, also depicts scenes of times past with life-sized mannequins, the main one featuring the legendary Phuket Heroines, Lady Chan and Lady Mook, whose clever battle tactics saved the island from invading Burmese forces in 1785. Another scene shows King Rama I honouring the sisters for their bravery and bestowing them with the titles Thao Thepkrassatri and Thao Srisunthorn.
A small but informative place, the museum highlights the geology, geography and people that have shaped the culture of Phuket and the Andaman region. The main entrance hall features exhibits of Thai history in general, including its ties to the ancient Khmer Kingdom, as well as the Indian influence on the Andaman region’s culture and religion. Standing in the main hall is a 2.35-metre, 9th century statue of Vishnu, found in the forest of Kapong district of Phang Nga, a stunning example of India’s ancient link to the area.
The Hokkien Chinese influence on the island’s commerce, architecture and culture is displayed in the third hall, with shopfront scenes offering a peek into the daily life and business of Chinese families. Muslim and Chao Lay (Sea Gypsy) cultures are featured in the final exhibition hall, including a scene of a sea gypsy boat-floating ceremony. In an outdoor display are more sea-gypsy artefacts including model thatch-roof huts and a traditional fishing boat.
Earning our vote as Phuket's most bizarre museum display is the Tsunami Exhibition Hall. Outside under a tin roof are long-tail boat bits, a crunched-up car and other items salvaged from tsunami wreckage, arranged in a way that looks like, well, a trash heap. And there are mannequins, of course! Mannequin body parts are strewn among the wreckage, a head here, a torso there.
The takeaway from this tableau is that tsunamis smash stuff, but not much else. Given the impact the 2004 Asian tsunami had on tens of thousands of people across the region, much more could have been done to memorialise this disaster.
PHUKET MINING MUSEUM
Moo 5, Kathu-Na Koh Road (Route 3013), Kathu; about 3.5km west of British International School on the way to Loch Palm golf club
Tel: 088 7660962
Open Monday-Saturday 9am-4pm
Admission: 100 baht adults, 50 baht kids
THALANG NATIONAL MUSEUM
Moo 3, Srisoonthorn Road (Route 4027), Thalang;
100 metres east of Heroines’ Monument
Tel: 076 311426, 076 313397
Open Wednesday-Sunday 9am-4.30pm
Admission: 100 baht