Modern day Phuket Island may aptly be described as the cultural antithesis of areas like Chiang Mai and Isaan, northern provinces that have (for the most part) been spared the ethnic-degradation that too often accompanies throngs of vacationing beach-goers. It has a history that dates back well over 3,000 years to its earliest Neolithic inhabitants, whose creativity can still be viewed on various cave walls around Phang Nga Bay. A rich tin mining industry, developed around the 16th century, led to an influx of foreign influences in the region, so much so that today, for better or worse, you’ll find very little remains on this island that has not been affected by its international popularity. Shucks. But before we get all “woe is Phuket” on you, let’s take a look at what a culturally-minded traveler can safely expect to experience on this beautiful, crowded stretch of Thai real estate.
Phuket’s biggest religious landmark is also one of its most recent, i.e. the unmistakable 45 m tall Big Buddha located atop the southern hills of the island. This gargantuan statue is made of white marble and, touristy or not, is certainly worth a visit. There are also plenty of impressive temples to check out here, including Wat Chalong, Wat Khao Rang and the giant Reclining Buddha of Wat Srisoonthorn. North of Phuket Town on the main Thepkasattri Road visitors can pay their respects to the revered Lady Chan and Lady Mook at the Heroines Monument and Shrine. The story of their leadership in the fight against Burmese invasion has become legendary on Phuket, and is certainly good info to get acquainted with before going.
If you’d prefer to take a more active role in the island’s cultural goings on, head to Phuket Town (Phuket City, these days) and start on Soi Romanee or the Phuket Weekend Variety Market. Yes it might seem slightly cliche by now, but relatively inexpensive Thai shopping experiences like this (and many more) are a good way to get a feel for local life and commerce in the region. Feeling a bit more ambitious? Then plan your visit around September/October’s 9-day Vegetarian Festival (it varies from year to year). A tradition of Chinese origin, it’s a safe bet that you’ll never again see so many cheeks pierced with so many strange objects in your life. Which just goes to show that, though Phuket is overripe with tourism, you can still participate in some more-or-less “authentic” traditional experiences during your stay. You’ll just have to dig a little deeper to find them.