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The people of Phuket

Phuket has a population of 200,000. Phuket Town, with a population of about 63,000, is located on the East Side and Patong Beach, whose population varies widely depending on the time of year, is located on the West Side.

The residents are Thais who migrated from the mainland, Chinese who arrived to work the tin mines, Muslims of Malaysian extraction -- many of who come to work the rubber plantations -- and Chao Nam or sea gypsies -- who may have occupied the area for a millennium or more.

The Chinese now comprise 35 percent of the island's population. As elsewhere in Asia, many of the Chinese have made the transition from providing cheap labor to being merchants. The Chinese have inter-married with native Thais and have largely been assimilated into Thai culture. Today the descendants of the early Chinese settlers are responsible for much of the trade and commerce that take place on the island.

About 35% of the Thais living on Phuket are Muslims. Concentrated mostly around Surin and a few other big villages, they work as rice and rubber farmers.

One of the most interesting groups of people who have lived on Phuket are the Sea Gypsies, traditionally a nomadic peoples who traveled from cove to cove, staying until the fish and other resources were depleted. They then moved on, allowing the cove to re-establish its former ecological balance before returning to repeat the cycle.

Their history and cultural lifestyles are hard to trace, as they do not have a written language. Sea gypsies are said to have originated in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands between India and Burma.

They are generally darker skinned and heavier with curly black hair. They speak their own language and follow their own animistic religion.

Sea Gypsies consist of three groups. The Mokens still prefer their ancestral sea nomad-style of living and are commonly found occupying the islands north of Phuket. The Orung Laut and the Moklens have settled on coastal areas. There are three Sea Gypsy villages in Phuket. The one located at Rawai is thought to be the oldest and is visited by busloads of tourist's everyday. Another village is located 8km north of Phuket Town at Sapam Coast, and a third village is located on Siray Island, which is accessible by bridge from Phuket Town.

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