The Malay word tarutao means "old, mysterious, primitive". With gnarly cliffs, former prison sites, immense beaches and old-growth jungle thriving on mountains that reach up to 700 metres, Ko Tarutao does indeed stir up a primeval sense of awe.
Despite being Thailand’s seventh largest island at 152 square kilometres, Tarutao has never really been settled thanks to its reputation as a place of criminals, beasts and ghosts. The Thai government sent 3,000 prisoners here in the 1930s and ‘40s; common criminals were banished to Ao Talo Wao while political prisoners, including a son of then-exiled King Rama VII, were interned at remote Ao Talo Udang. Supplies ran dry during World War II, when scores of prisoners died and others turned to piracy for survival. At both sites, you can now explore the ruins and learn some of the harrowing tales from the past.
In 1974 the island was officially protected as part of Mu Ko Tarutao National Marine Park, which also includes Ko Adang, Ko Rawi and several other islands found near Ko Lipe, some 45 kilometres further west in the Andaman Sea. As the kingdom's first marine park, its early rangers faced intense resistance from dynamite fishermen who occasionally attacked park boats. The eventual success of the preservationists at Tarutao was a crucial first step towards establishing Thailand’s network of marine parks.
Today Tarutao is a mountain biker’s paradise thanks to mossy roads piercing deep into the wild interior. Trails lead hikers to clear streams gushing amid unspoilt jungle—the island’s highlight, in our opinion. Most visitors encounter macaques, boars and all sorts of lizards, and the lucky ones might also spot flying lemurs, dusky langurs, hornbills and otters. Also keep an eye out for pythons, vipers and cobras. Limestone cliffs rim much of the coastline, but Tarutao’s potential for rock-climbing has not yet been realised.
Each stretching for several kilometres along the west coast, the beaches of Ao Phante Malacca, Ao Molae and Ao Son are great for solitude and sunsets, but are otherwise disappointing compared to many Thai island beaches. Loads of tidal garbage and tiny sand bugs that leave red bites on travellers’ legs make the squeaky white sand difficult to enjoy. The cloudy water isn’t great for snorkelling and small rays and jellyfish can be hazards for swimmers.
The mountainous landscape is thrilling, but you’ll need to be in good shape to get to know it. Expect steep hills and no place to buy drinking water on the 16-kilometre road from park headquarters at Ao Phante to Ao Talo Wao on the east coast, and only a slightly less exhausting ride to Ao Son on the west coast. Private pick-up truck taxis can be arranged but the drivers charge high rates for short trips and are often booked in advance.Accommodation is limited to tents and fan-cooled rooms built beside the west-coast beaches; Tarutao has no privately run resorts. Electricity from solar panels gets switched on only from 18:00 to 06:00, there’s no WiFi and the basic restaurants close at 20:00. While park officials speak some English, don’t expect much beyond the bare minimum of customer service.
If you primarily seek terrific national park beaches and healthier marine life, skip Tarutao in favour of Ko Adang, Ko Lao Liang, Ko Rok, the Similans or Ko Surin. On the other hand, Tarutao is a great option for a stretch of self-guided meditation, yoga, cycling, jogging or jungle trekking—stay here for a month and you’re all but guaranteed to shed some kilos. When you tire of roughing it, you can always hop on a boat to Ko Lipe and its many comforts.
Note that all national park services close each year from May 15 to October 15. While usually quiet, the largest accommodation area at Ao Phante draws noisy locals on occasion—think school fieldtrips and big groups of friends looking to unwind. You may find all rooms full if arriving on a long holiday weekend without a reservation.
Diamond-shaped Ko Tarutao is located 22 kilometres off mainland Satun province in far southwestern Thailand, just shy of Malaysia’s Langkawi. Speedboats running between Pakbara and Ko Lipe drop visitors at the pier off Ao Phante Malacca in the north, where you’ll find park headquarters and the largest accommodation zone.
A ticket to the park costs 200 baht for foreign adults and 100 baht for children; it’s valid for a week so hold on to it if you’ll be visiting Lipe and Adang as well. There are no ATMs on Tarutao and foreign currencies are not accepted.
After clearing the ticket checkpoint at the pier, head to the nearby visitor centre to grab a map, arrange accommodation and perhaps rent a mountain bike. You could then step into the neighbouring museum to see topographic maps and exhibits covering the marine park’s history and ecology.
Park rangers can help with minor cuts and bruises, but a serious injury will require a trip to hospital in the town of La-Ngu on the mainland. A small convenience store at Ao Phante sells snacks, drinks and toiletries from 08:00 to 17:00, and restaurants are located at Ao Phante, Ao Molae and Ao Son. Our Thai provider cell phone had service at all three of these main beaches, but went out of range as we ventured inland.
From Ao Phante and its two-kilometre beach, a narrow road runs south over steep hills for four kilometres before reaching a fork. Go right (southwest) and it’s just over one kilometre to the second accommodation zone at Ao Molae and its accompanying beach. Five kilometres further south from here takes you to Ao Son, a four-kilometre-long beach with a campground but no bungalows, and the trailhead for Lu Du Waterfall.
Back at the fork, go left (southeast) and the road winds very steeply up a mountain before tumbling down to remote Ao Talo Wao and its historical trail on the east coast after 10 kilometres. Bring lots of water if attempting this trip by bike.
South of Ao Talo Wao, the old 12-kilometre dirt road to Ao Talo Udang, located at Tarutao’s far southern tip within clear sight of Langkawi, has been reclaimed by jungle and is difficult to follow. When we asked at the visitor centre if a ranger could lead us on this trail, an official told us to go by longtail boat.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Ko Tarutao. Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Ko Tarutao. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Ko Tarutao. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Ko Tarutao, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 22nd April, 2017.
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