“The island was, some few years ago, divided into two provinces, called Salang [Thalang] and Poket. Before the division, the island consisted of only one province called Salang, the principle inhabitants of which were Malays, with a few Siamese, and they cultivated rice and caught fish sufficient for their own consumption.
“The Governor of the island was then Phra Phalat. He was sent to Poket when it was only a fishing village and being an enterprising sort of man he determined to see what treasures were concealed beneath the soil and was so far successful as to find something which he thought would in a few years amply repay the outlay which he might make … The Chinese soon flocked in numbers to Phuket and Phra Phalat furnished them with funds to commence work and the place prospered and grew apace.”
Access into Kathu at the time was up the crocodile-infested Klong Bang Yai, the stream (now very silted up and in most places encased in concrete as a stormwater culvert in Phuket Town) which runs down from Kathu past Sam Kong (by the Tesco Lotus store) into Phuket City, past the Thavorn Hotel and then enters the sea at Saphan Hin (the bay here was known formerly as “Bukit” or “Tongkah” Harbour).
Small flat-bottomed boats poled supplies, equipment and people up this river, through thick jungle, to the primitive Chinese mining camps being set up in clearings (in the area around Get Ho village in Kathu today). By 1800, about a mile up this Klong Bang Yai from the sea, far enough inland to deter pirates, a ramshackle Chinese shanty port town appeared to supply these prospectors and miners with food, equipment, opium and gambling and to smelt their tin ore. This settlement became known as “Bukit”, “Poket” or now “Phuket” town.
By the early years of the 19th century, tin production in the region had increased to around 400 tonnes a year. Some years as much as 40 tonnes was transported to Bangkok as tax and much of the rest was used to buy weapons and cloth, which also had to be transported to Bangkok.
Due to the constant threat of piracy, it was unsafe to ship these valuables via the Strait of Malacca to Bangkok. Instead, they were usually sent by the old trans-peninsular route overland from Marid Town (Thap Phut today) in Phang Nga by river boat upstream, then carried by elephant or ox carts over the Khao Sok Pass (near the Ratchaprapa Dam today), then downstream by river to Surat Thani, where they were loaded on to junks for Bangkok.
The route was arduous and slow and many goods were lost en route. For example, one late 18th century Thai document tells us that the governor of Takua Thung in Phang Nga, who, as a gift for the King, brought from India a shipload of “piece goods and silver vessels enameled in various colours as used at court… The Governor had all these valuable things conveyed under his personal supervision to Tha Khao Sok.” There, they were loaded on boats to go downriver to the Bay of Bandon on the east coast, but “owing to a sudden flood in the river, the Governor’s boat sank and all the enameled ware was lost.”
Many other goods were lost in the crossing, both to the river and to dacoits and bandits, who preyed on these trans-peninsular trade convoys.
In 1804, Phraya Surindr-raja, a respected Thai commissioner for the region, set about building a new and easier route “for the conveyance of Royalties in kind and other dues over the peninsula… as the Khao Sok route was hardly practicable on account of the numerous rapids and [water] falls in the streams, hence crown property had gone many times lost… The King approved of the scheme and granted elephants for the purpose… to cut a track through the jungle from Pak Phanom to Phang Nga.”
A squabble soon arose with the viceroy of Ligor and Phraya Surindr-raja about who would collect tolls along a section of the road that passed through Ligor’s lands, a squabble which Phraya Suridr-raja won. This was a first early sign that Phuket, with its increasing wealth from tin, was beginning to challenge the traditional dominance of the ancient city of Ligor. This newly cleared route reduced the peninsular crossing time to four or five days. It also meant that Bangkok’s previous remote and distant rule over Phuket was becoming closer, as the island became more valuable.
(Note: Around the early-to mid-19th century, visitors and foreigners started to refer to the ancient city of Ligor – today called Nakhon Sri Thammarat in Thai).
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