People & Culture, Phuket

People & Culture

People in Phuket

Phuket’s extensive history has resulted in its diverse mix of ethnicities. Centuries ago, it was an important trading hub for Dutch, English, and French ships. Thousands of Chinese labourers were drawn to the tin mines on the island and their descendants remain, resulting in Phuket having the highest percentage of ethnic Chinese in Thailand now. Peranakans (“Phuket Babas“), or straits-born Chinese, are part of this community too. Malays also make up a large portion of the currently population as their ancestors thrived on the southern and coastal areas of the island as fishermen.
Other minority groups include the northern hill tribes, as well as Cambodian (Khmer) and Vietnamese refugees in the east. Sea gypsies, also known as Chao Leh, are a nomadic tribe living in Ban Sangka-Ou, in the southeast of Lanta Yai. Supposedly the very first dwellers of the Andaman coast, they still live close to the sea in their independent, tight-knit villages.

Just like most of Thailand, Buddhism is the dominant religion in Phuket. Many also practice Daoism and Islam. There are numerous shrines, temples and mosques around the island. The Chao Leh believe in their own form of animism, which is the worship of spirits believed to inhabit natural objects and phenomena. There is also small numbers of Christians and Hindus.

In addition to their hospitality and generosity, Thais are also known for their strong attention to social hierarchy. Seniority is a core concept in Thai culture and elders are always revered.

Languages in Phuket

Thai is the chief language in Phuket, with four regional dialects in use. Other languages include Lao, Chinese, Malay and Mon-Khmer. English is taught in schools and used frequently in government and commerce. Basic English is also widely spoken in areas with high tourist traffic. The Chao Leh retain their own language from the Malay-Indonesian family; this has no written form.

Design & Architecture

Although Phuket’s beaches are well-known, the busy Phuket city with its old architectural quarter, is often overlooked. Many resort hotels bear a structural resemblance to Penang, a former British Straits Settlement in Malaysia. Walk down the streets to appreciate the beauty of the Sino-Portuguese buildings (the Chinese row houses), the Sino-Colonial mansions, the ornate Chinese and Thai temples, and the public markets in old Phuket Town.

A five-footway, a sheltered walkway formed by joined front verandahs and framed by a series of arcades, is a common characteristic in Chinese row houses in Phuket. The facades are reminiscent of European neo-classical and Renaissance-style stucco designs. Their interiors and carved wooden furniture are a combination of Chinese, European and Straits Chinese motifs and fixtures. A long stretch of well-maintained Chinese row houses can be found along Thalang Road, formerly the most important trading street in the province. Some belong to coffee shops and diners, like China Inn Cafe and Restaurant. The same elaborate motifs can also be observed in the numerous Chinese shrines around the island.

By the late 1930s, the architecture in Phuket had evolved into a Sino-Colonial style that still incorporated decor from the earlier years. Early Chinese settlers, including Kor-Sim-Bi Na Ranong, Governor of Phuket and Sino-Thai businessman, were responsible for building intricately decorated hybrid mansions with their exquisite latticework at the entrance, narrow structures, arched windows and doors supported by Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns. You can see several examples of these along Dibuk Road, like Phuket Philatelic Museum, Phuket Provincial Hall and Nakorn Luang Thai Bank.

Many of the mansions and shophouses have been lovingly restored. Some still serve as residences for local families.

Cultural & Legal Restrictions

Like many people in Asian countries, Thais are extremely mindful of the concept of ‘face’; being able to maintain their own dignity and reputation is crucial, while ensuring the same for others. Losing your temper in public is considered a loss of face and should be avoided. Staying polite and lighthearted helps to diffuse social tension.

In Thailand, the head is considered the most spiritual body part, while the feet are considered the dirtiest. Locals make every effort to ensure that unclean feet are never cleaned in places where they wash other parts of their bodies, except in the shower. Do be mindful not to rinse your feet in washbasins meant for hands. Thais consider the bottoms of the feet to be offensive, so bear in mind not to point the bottom of your foot at someone when sitting on the floor or lying down. Stepping over people, food and books is also frowned upon; in fact, books are one of the most revered secular objects in Thai culture.

Patting a child’s head is a common act of friendliness and does not cause any offence, but this is different for adults, who will see it as a sign of disrespect and a violation of personal space. It is customary to remove all footwear before entering a house or temple. This applies to some shops and offices too; just look out for a collection of shoes at the entrance and add yours to the pile.

All statues and images of Buddha are considered sacred, so do refrain from posing with them or engaging in any behaviour that will deface or disrespect them in any way. Taking images of Buddha, deities and some antique artefacts from the country is prohibited by law, unless approval from the Fine Arts Department in Bangkok is given.

In general, visitors should be mindful of their conduct at places of worship. Revealing clothing at a temple or mosque is unacceptable. Legs, shoulders and cleavage should be covered at all times. If you are going to a mosque, long sleeves and headscarves are expected for women; men should wear hats. Pay attention to signs at the entrance that will show you what appropriate and inappropriate clothing is.

Buddhist monks are a common sight around Phuket and the rest of Thailand. As part of their vows, contact with women is strictly forbidden. Females are expected to make way for passing monks so that accidental contact does not happen; when passing an object or making a donation, a woman has to first give it to a man, who will in turn give it to a monk. Alternatively, you can place the objects at his feet or on a special cloth laid out for this purpose.

Thais are very patriotic and show tremendous respect for their beloved King and the Royal Family. Any show of disrespect. whether verbal or written, is a violation of the Lese Majeste laws and provides grounds for arrest – this includes vandalism of Thai currency. Do stand up whenever you hear the national anthem, for instance, in movie theatres of during a public event with a member of the Royal Family present.


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