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Though it’s a small and humble attraction, the Thalang National Museum reveals a side of Phuket that’s unknown to most visitors coming here for their sun-drenched tropical holiday.
Found just 100 metres east of the Heroines’ Monument roundabout off Phuket’s main thoroughfare, Thepkrassatri Road, the museum is set in leafy green surrounds with a large car park out front. The first display in the main entrance hall shows a collection of ancient artefacts unearthed in the Andaman region, including a two-metre-tall statue of Vishnu from the ninth century, found in a forest in Phang Nga province just north of Phuket.
The next hall shows life-sized wax figures arranged in a diorama of the War of Thalang in 1785, an important historic moment in Phuket’s past. It tells the story of the heroic sisters Lady Chan and Lady Mook, who used clever battle strategies to ward off an invading Burmese army and save the island. These are the sword-wielding women seen on the nearby Heroines’ Monument, where most locals driving past will pause to wai (bow with hands pressed together) or stop to place garlands at the base of the statue to pay homage. The sisters were later given the titles Thao Thepkrassatri and Thao Srisunthorn by King Rama I.
A display of Phuket’s Hokkien Chinese culture is in the third hall. Since arriving to Phuket nearly 200 years ago to work in the tin mines, the Chinese immigrant population has emerged as the island’s most powerful ethnic group, now largely in control of Phuket’s business and politics. Like other parts of Thailand, the Chinese have integrated with the local culture, and many of the island’s most colourful festivals, including the infamous Phuket Vegetarian Festival, were born from its Chinese community.
Further evidence of the Hokkien culture’s enduring influence on Phuket’s architecture, cuisine and commerce may be seen if you wander around the Old Town district of Phuket Town.
The final exhibition hall is dedicated to Phuket’s Muslim and Chao Lay (Sea Gypsy) cultures, including a wax-figure tableau of a sea gypsy boat-floating ceremony. With Thai Muslims making up about one-third of Phuket’s population, their culture seems a bit under represented here. Outside, next to the museum building, are some Chao Lay traditional houses and boats, looking a bit neglected.
The museum’s oddest display, the Tsunami Exhibition Hall, is also outside. Set under a tin roof is a collection of broken-up, smashed items salvaged from the December 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that hit Thailand’s Andaman coast. It’s really little more than a kitschy trash heap, and a woefully inadequate memorial to the millions of people affected by the giant waves. Much more could have been done (such as at Baan Nam Kem).
Overall, Thalang National Museum is a cheap and cheerful introduction to Phuket’s culture and history, and not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon. A complete tour takes no more than an hour, so it makes a good stopping-off place for a brief visit if travelling out to Phuket’s east coast.
The Khao Phra Thaeo National Park and Gibbon Rehabilitation Project are found just a few kilometres east, while further east are Ao Por pier, Bang Rong pier and Ao Po Grand Marina where you can catch a boat to Ko Yao Noi, Ko Naka and other islands in Phang Nga Bay.
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