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History: Under the Siamese kings life in Phuket was simple and close to the land

History: Under the Siamese kings life in Phuket was simple and close to the land

Everyday life in Phuket appears to have changed relatively little from the time the island fell under the dominion of the Siamese kings in the 14th century until the reforms of Kings Rama IV and V and the massive influx of Chinese on to the island in the later 19th century.

By Colin Mackay

Sunday 11 June 2017, 12:00PM


In this article we will look at the food, home lives and entertainments of villagers on Phuket during that period.

The People

The people in Phuket during this era appear to have been predominantly Malays mainly ruled over by Thais, with some Mons, Chinese, Tamils, Bengalis, Arabs, Persians and Europeans living amongst them.

The relative acceptance of foreigners, the religious freedom and the relaxed sexual mores in Phuket – as in the peninsula in general – meant that these different groups interbred reasonably freely, and as today, many Phuket locals had the mixed blood of two or more of these different peoples.

It was really not until the 1930s that the concept of a homogeneous nation state of “Thailand” was forged out of the heterogeneous Kingdom of Siam.


In 1864, the French naturalist Henri Mouhot told us, “The hovels of the common peasants are bare and comfortless, the furniture a few coarse vessels of earthenware or wicker work and a mat or two on the floor.”

The main foods for most residents of Phuket would have been coarsely milled rice and seafood with a variety of local vegetables, tree shoots, eggs and fruit.

They also kept ducks, chickens, goats and water buffaloes and hunted the plentiful fowl and wildlife abounding in the jungles.

The locals also ate most things – deer, crocodiles, snakes (boa constrictor being a speciality), gibbons, frogs, worms, turtles, bats, birds, lizards, dung beetles, other insects and ant eggs.

The 17th century Frenchman Gervaise stated, “The curries are very good … but sometimes abominable things are in their vessels, as when they make a curry of rats, bats or animals that have died of disease.”

Another 17th century Persian visitor noted, “The natives are inclined to roast lizards and snakes and this is quite a common practice in Siam. In all the market places you see these repulsive animals on sale instead of partridge and lamb.”

Generally, the plenty of nature on Phuket and the surrounding sea meant obtaining enough to eat was relatively easy.

Recreation, Home Life, Alcohol and Drugs

QSI International School Phuket

Several foreign observers commented that there was little intellectual life in the remote west coast ports of Siam such as Phuket.

The Frenchman Pierre Poivre, who stayed in Tenasserim in 1745, believed this was because “the pursuit of knowledge has become impractical because no use can be made of it for a livelihood.

"All the arts have been neglected because as soon as an individual achieves little success at one of them he is obliged to work solely for the lord or king – who usually rewards him with beatings”.

Recreations on Phuket included lower-brow affairs such as boat races, fishing, kite flying, boxing, puppet shows and, of course, gambling.

One 19th century visitor to Siam mentions that the Siamese “are born gamblers and to make a bet is the delight of everyone, from prince to peasant. They will bet on the results of cock fights, boxing matches, a fight between crickets or combat between their pugilistic fishes”.

In the 1820s the French vicar apostolic in Siam, Jean Baptiste Pallegoix, tells us, “The Thai possess a passion for cock fights despite the king’s prohibition… they bet… and the game often ends up in quarrels, so that after having seen the cocks fight, they end up seeing fighting between men.”

Buffalo, tiger or elephant fights, though rarely staged, were also very much appreciated. Sir Frank Swettenham, a late 19th century governor of the British Straits Settlements, recalls watching a fight staged between a buffalo and a tiger.

It was “a rather sorry affair… an ordinary water buffalo taken from the shafts of a cart, walked quietly to the centre of the enclosure and stood there”. The tiger was then released into the area and “the two beasts stared at each other and the hairs on the buffalo’s neck stood up”.

The tiger, “surrounded by moving shouting people… sought only to get away and started to run round the area keeping close to the fence”. The buffalo then attacked and “judging his enemy’s pace with accuracy, he rushed head down at the tiger, transfixed him with his horns and smashed his body against the palisade”.

The “grievously damaged tiger” was prodded by the spectators “with sticks and umbrellas in an attempt to get him moving again. He was however past that, or any other effort and never moved again”. The buffalo however escaped with only an “unimportant scratch on his nose”.

The Frenchman De La Loubère in the 17th century noted that, “The home life of the Siamese is filled with leisure. Aside from his public duties [compulsory labour or military service for the lord] he hardly works at all, he seldom goes out and hunts and is usually to be seen on his back or on his hunkers eating, smoking or sleeping. The time between meals is occupied with siesta, gaming and gossip. It is women who do the work in the fields as well as buying and selling.”

Many locals, both male and female, cultivated and constantly chewed areca nut with betel leaves and lime, turning their gums, lips and black teeth bright red.

However, for a stronger escape from the hardships of life, some turned to coconut nipa wine or a strong alcoholic drink of fermented rice, brewed by the Chinese and called “arrack” by Europeans.

This wicked liquor, according to many reports, rapidly led to the drinkers’ ruin; they would sell off their wife and children, go into debt slavery and very often die from “a profound drunkenness”. 

They also smoked dope as the Frenchman Pallegoix in the 1850s tells us, “The Thai plant hemp, pick the leaves of it and smoke them… because it excites and causes fantastic dreams.”

Opium became the main drug in use by the locals after the 17th century and consumption increased dramatically with the arrival of the thousands of Chinese tin miners in the region and particularly on Phuket Island in the 19th century.


Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www.historyofphuket.com


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