The Malay word tarutao means "old, mysterious, primitive." At 150 square km and with mountains reaching over 500 metres high, this rugged island does indeed stir up a primeval sense of awe. It's no wonder that Thailand once banished convicted criminals here, and that the TV show, Survivor, chose this as one of its shooting locations.
First occupied by only a handful of sea gypsies, Thailand sent more than 3,000 prisoners to work camps on Tarutao in the 1930s and '40s. Common criminals were held at Talo Wao on the east coast, but important political prisoners -- including a son of then-exiled King Rama VII -- were interned at the remote Talo Udang site at the island's far southern tip.
Many prisoners perished from malaria, starvation and "cruelty from guards," according to the official DNP website, especially when supplies diminished during the Second World War. A number of survivors became pirates who menaced merchant ships in the Straits of Malacca. At the Talo Wao ruins, an excellent historical trail tells the harrowing tales.
Bike and a beach – what more do you need?
Tarutao was never heavily settled thanks in large part to its reputation as a place of criminals, deadly beasts and treacherous spirits. In 1974, it was officially protected as part of the larger Tarutao National Park
, which also includes Ko Adang
, Ko Rawi and many other islands further west. As the Kingdom's first marine park, its early rangers faced intense resistance from illegal dynamite fishermen who sometimes attacked park boats and buildings with gunfire.
A not too shabby sunset.
Finally emerging from its tumultuous past in the 1990s, Tarutao gradually attracted travellers seeking a mix of pristine jungle and beaches. Even today, it's easy to find an expansive stretch of squeaky white sand all for yourself on the west coast. Apart from narrow concrete roads that only run halfway down to the coasts, the interior remains blanketed in old-growth forest.
A big bridge to a small island.
This steamy jungle is a must for wildlife enthusiasts. On a single bike ride and hike, we saw crab-eating macaques, a wild boar, three snakes, countless butterflies, several types of lizards and hornbills among many other birds. If luck is on your side, you might spot a flying lemur, otter or dusky langur; and if you're really "lucky", perhaps a python, pit viper or cobra.
Unfortunately, the marine life hasn't faired as well. A ranger told us that nesting sea turtles have all but disappeared from Ao Son. On the other hand, several types of jellyfish are fairly common -- do watch out when you swim. The water tends to be choppy and somewhat murky, with much better snorkelling found off Ko Adang or, better yet, Ko Rok further north.
No shortage of trees and stuff.
While snorkellers might want to look elsewhere, hikers and especially cyclists will have a blast on Tarutao. Shrouded in jungle, the mossy western road runs for some 10 km down to Ao Son, while a more central road winds for 16 km through the mountainous interior on its way to Talo Wao. Hiking trails cut inland to gushing streams, though they're not always well marked or maintained.
Of course, Tarutao is not for everyone. Park facilities are basic, with power running only at night, no air-con or hot water, and simple Thai restaurants closing early. While there were exceptions, we've found many park workers to be disorganised, lazy and generally unhelpful.
Plenty enough sand for everyone.
After returning from a 35 km bike ride around 16:15 on one day, we were unable to purchase drinking water because the shop had closed an hour early and the restaurant was opening an hour late. One worker sloughed us off to another until finally a woman generously sold us one of her own iced teas. All of the main drinks coolers had been padlocked by an apparently careless authority figure.
If you stay in a bungalow, it's a good idea to bring some of your own food and drinks along. If you go for a tent, however, the smell of food might prompt some of the brazen monkeys to tear their way in for a bite. In any case, be prepared to rough it while you're here. If you need some creature comforts and pizza after a few days in the wilds, Ko Lipe is an hour's cruise away
Mooch around Ao Molae.
Around the Christmas / New Year holidays, any Thai holiday and even weekends, it's wise to book in advance through the DNP's clunky booking page (link in the accommodation section) if you expect to stay in a bungalow. Tarutao closes each rainy season from April 15 to November 15.
Ko Tarutao is located in the Andaman Sea, just north of Malaysian water off the coast of Satun province in far southwestern Thailand, some 900 km from Bangkok. Boats from Pakbara and Ko Lipe drop visitors at the pier off Ao Phante Malaka in the north, where the 200 baht national park entrance fee is immediately collected.
Once you've cleared the pier, head to the nearby visitor centre. Rangers here speak some English, will provide you with a rudimentary map and show you interior photos of the various bungalow options, both here and at Ao Molae, before checking you in to whatever accommodation you choose or have pre-arranged. Mountain bikes, kayaks and pick-up truck taxis can also be arranged at the visitor centre (see the transport section for details).
A small convenience store selling toiletries, drinks and snacks is found next to the pier and supposedly opens from 08:00 to 17:00. In theory, restaurants at Ao Phante, Ao Molae and Ao Son are open from 08:00 to 14:00 and 17:30 to 20:00. These serve large portions of tasty Thai staples like tom yum soup, som tam, fried rice, curries, stir-fries, whole steamed fishes and pancakes, rice soup or eggs for breakfast. Beer is available, but only instant coffee. Most dishes cost 80 to 120 baht.
From Ao Phante and its expansive beach, a road runs south before reaching a fork. Go right (southwest) and you'll hit the second accommodation zone at Ao Molae and its accompanying beach. South of that stretches Ao Son, an enormous white-sand beach that's nearly always empty. From here, two hiking trails cut three km inland (east) to Lu Du and Lo Po "waterfalls," both more mountain streams than proper falls.
Go left (southeast) at the fork and the road winds steeply upwards before traipsing down to the island's quiet east coast and Ao Talo Wao. South of the historical trail, the old 12-km dirt road to Ao Talo Udang, built by prisoners over six decades ago, has been reclaimed by jungle and is difficult to follow. When we asked an official at the visitor centre if a park ranger could lead us on this trail, she shook her head and told us to take a longtail boat.
There are no ATMs on Ko Tarutao
and payments are only accepted in cash. Our AIS provider cell phone was patchy at Ao Phante and did not work elsewhere on the island. The park rangers can help with minor bumps and bruises, but any serious medical issue will require a boat trip to the mainland, where the nearest hospital and police station are located in La-Ngu.