A former penal colony in the far South, once notorious for pirates, now attracts scuba divers and sun-seekers willing to make the extra effort to find somewhere off the beaten track

Published: 2/04/2009 at 11:40 AM

As a child I was told several haunting stories about Tarutao, an isolated prison in the extreme southwestern part of Thailand. When I and my family recently had a chance to explore this Andaman Sea island and its environs, now part of the Tarutao Marine National Park, the experience served to completely change my perspective. Tarutao turned out to be a great place which I’d love to visit again.

Located in Satun province, 973 kilometres south of Bangkok and only 4.8km from the Thai-Malaysian border, Tarutao is best known for its clear, turquoise-tinted seas, spectacularly colourful formations of soft and hard coral, the masses of sea anemones which carpet shallow stretches of seabed and its rich marine ecosystem. The park is also famous for the long, white-sand beaches found on the islands of Tarutao, Adang, Lipe and Rawi.

Getting to Tarutao nowadays is relatively easy and there’s no need to buy a package tour. You’ll need to set aside at least three days for the trip, starting with a flight to Hat Yai. We were lucky enough to have had a whole seven days to spend there, time enough to explore the four main islands.

What we liked the most was an overnight stay on Ko Adang, a very quiet and charming place which is home to various types of birds.

The national park also provides accommodation for tourists: big rooms for two with a shower and terrace, the nightly rate for which is very low compared to that charged on Ko Lipe. Snorkelling gear can be hired and day trips arranged at the park office on Ko Adang.

If you’re after scuba diving and a better choice of bungalows (with hot showers and air-conditioning), entertainment and food, Ko Lipe might be a better option.

The beach in the photo is at the northern tip of Ko Lipe. A tranquil place, it’s good for morning yoga exercises, reading, lazing around in the sun and swimming.

Anyone who’s keen on history, particularly the period between 1938 and '48 when Tarutao was used to incarcerate violent and political prisoners, might like to spend a night there, or at least a couple of hours, and take a ride to the remains of one of the prisons at Ao Talo Wao, 16km from the park headquarters.

You can’t stay overnight on Ko Rawi. There’s a single food stall there which operates only during daylight hours offering basic Thai meals.

The best time to visit Tarutao Marine National Park is between November and April. Make sure you pack sunblock/suntan lotion, swimming gear and a few changes of light summer clothes.

The more adventurous travellers roam the main Tarutao island and its lush green forest, trying to get a feel of its cruel past. Locals hardly traverse this route on foot because of the lingering rumours of spirits lurking in the shadows.

Tarutao was made famous by Survivor reality show series, though the island’s dark side was first portrayed in the novel Pirates of Tarutao, which describes at length the hunger and pain of prisoners who eventually took to piracy.

The main attraction on this 16km jungle road is Ao Talo Wao where around 3,000 hardened criminals and political prisoners were shipped. They suffered from malaria, lack of food and medicine, and harsh prison conditions.

Just before World War II broke out, Thailand’s worst criminals were sent to Tarutao. At about the same time, the lot of Gen Phibul Songkram launched a coup and the vanquished were banished there too. Among the more well-known prisoners on the island were Sor Sethabhut (who later compiled the Thai-English dictionary), and Prince Baworndej, the cousin of King Rama IV, who was leader of a revolt against the government at the time.

Park rangers have recreated the prison site and marked a 2km walkway with signposts explaining the abomination suffered by both prisoners and officers assigned to the island. Under its thick green forest canopy, the eeriness and isolation experienced during the walk do give you goose bumps.

Somewhat oddly, a pavilion built by Survivor producers on an abandoned port adjacent to the entrance of the prison trail gives a glimpse of such painful irony. Beneath Tarutao’s white beach and vibrant ecosystem, lies a horrifying tale of inhumanity.

Apart from Ao Phantaemalaka where the park headquarters is located, there are three other beaches on Ko Tarutao. The first one is at Ao Talo Wao where you might want to walk a two-kilometre historical trail to learn about the isolated prison. The second is Ao Son (shown in the picture) where a long and scenic beach awaits visitors.

Lastly, Ao Moh Lae has a nice beach as well as tourist accommodation (see the smaller picture) which, however, is open only on long holidays such as Songkran. It also has a separate outdoor bath to facilitate those who only visit the beach for swimming.

This giant ghost crab is holding a small shrimp, but it couldn’t get inside the hole after sensing danger because there was a bigger ghost crab already hiding there. A fight ensued between the two, as you see in the picture. The result, the intruder had to leave and find another home.

These long-tailed boats are operated by the Lipe Boat Club. They pick up passengers from arriving speed boats which stop at a floating pier near the island. Each visitor is charged 50 baht for the short trip to Lipe and 100 baht to Adang. Seen in the picture is Pattaya Song Beach in Lipe, known as a place for entertainment boasting a bar, pool and parties. Another good thing about Pattaya Song is that the sand here is powdery white. Ko Lipe is small and you can also walk from one beach to other beaches. There is a cute bakery shop which sits among the trees in the back of Sunset Beach. Their pastries are tasty and not pricey. There is also a temple and a school on the island.

Ko Khai is an icon of Tarutao Marine National Park. Some boat operators _ plying between Pak Bara and Ko Lipe stop here briefly so that visitors can capture the island on their cameras. The speedboat (smaller picture) can take around 60 passengers.

Sunset at Ko Adang is second to none. The beach is good for swimming and the bungalow comfortable with clean beds and bathrooms. The park only turns on the lights 6pm to 1am. The food here has more variety than what you’d find in the restaurant on Ko Tarutao.

Recommended dishes are Pla Thod Yam Takrai (deep fried fish with spicy and sour lemon grass dressing (250 baht). It comes with a big fish and many types of herbs.

In the morning, the beach at Ko Adang is full of hermit crabs. We saw them crawl to the sea and tried to snare them for their colourful shells while waiting for the sun to rise. Be careful when walking the beach for you might step on them, even if you meant no harm.

Diving is a must-do activity around Ko Lipe and Ko Adang, the former also good for scuba diving, while snorkellers have a choice of small and big loops. The cost is 1,200 baht per trip at Ko Adang and 1,500 baht at Ko Lipe, while the charge for big loop is 2,000 baht. One long-tailed boat can take eight people. The price does not include diving gear which costs 50 baht an item for a snorkel, a life jacket or a pair of fins.

Recommended is the big loop and start your journey around 8:30am. Also carry your own lunch and drinking water. We were fortunate in that our boat driver knew his way around dive spots with strong current. He prepared a long rope from his boat and led the way such that we could swim in a group against the strong current.

A day-long snorkelling excursion covers eight spots. The more impressive is not the famous Jabang channel, but the spots around Ko Phai and Ko Phung. Marine life forms, soft and hard coral make the seabed around Ko Phai seem like an aquarium. The water is also shallow and clean. Swim slowly and you will notice various fish, including clownfish, spring lobster and moray eel.

Around Ko Phung, on the other hand, the beauty is lent by sea anemones, colourful soft and hard coral. There are purple and soft coral, green reef, and weird-shaped fish. Water current at this point is strong and there are a lot of sea urchins too, but it is worth a dive and the sight is jaw-dropping.

Every boat ferrying divers stops at Ko Hin Ngam to let visitors admire round-shaped rocks (top right), and Ko Rawi which has white sandy beach and free shower service using water sourced from a nearby fall.

Tarutao Marine National Park is an archipelago of 51 islands covering an area of 1,490 square kilometres. Pronounced a national park in 1974, eight years later Unesco declared it an Asean Heritage Parks and Reserves.

To get to Tarutao, fly or take a train to Hat Yai. Once there take a public van (100 baht per person) or hire a taxi (1,500-1,800 baht) to Pak Bara pier in La Ngu district of Satun.

At Pak Bara, you have two choices: a speed boat departing at 11:30am and ferry at 1:30pm. During holidays, there is another speed boat service at 10:30 am. Ferry ride either way takes about one hour and a half.

It is wise buying round-trip tickets (1,200 baht) for they allow you to jump from or to Ko Tarutao, Ko Lipe and Ko Adang. One-way ticket is priced at 650 baht. Departure times from Lipe to Pak Bara are at 9:30am and 1:30pm.

During monsoon season from late May to mid-October, boat services are available to Lipe, but on Fridays only.

Advance room booking is recommended.

Contact Tarutao Marine National Park at 074-783-485 and 074-783-597 or email [EMAIL=“”] for more information; web site:

Bron: Bangkok Post /