LearnThaiwith Us!Start Learning!
It’s hard to imagine, but it’s still possible to find a white, sandy beach all to yourself on a Thai island. Rather than compete with bucket-schwilling backpackers or selfie-snapping packaged tourists, here you can hike, cycle, spot wildlife, and just relax. You won’t find any chain hotels, knick-knack shops, or fast food restaurants here, either. Believe it or not, reggae cover bands and mediocre EDM don’t blast from speakers here; rather, only the sounds of the waves crashing and birds chirping can be heard. Welcome to Ko Tarutao (เกาะตะรุเตา), a national marine park in the south of Thailand. Near the border with Malaysia, the island’s name actually comes from a Malay word meaning “old and primitive.” You won’t find many creature comforts here, but those seeking to get off the beaten path and get out in nature will love this small, rugged island. Here’s all you need to know about Ko Tarutao and visiting:
Back in the 1930s and 40s, Tarutao was a remote prison housing a few thousand criminals and political prisoners. Included in that list was Sittiporn Gridagon, the son of then-exiled King Rama VII. On our visit, we were told that the location was chosen due to the presence of sharks and crocodiles in the waters around the island – an obvious deterrent to inmates considering attempting an escape. When supplies from the mainland were depleted during World War II, many died of disease and starvation. Surviving prisoners and guards got together to mutiny, soon taking up piracy.
Thankfully, you won’t encounter any prisoners, pirates, or sharks on Tarutao these days. You can, however, explore the former prison grounds on your own. Head to the other side of the island to Ao Talo Wao to visit the historical trail through the former prison. A boardwalk takes you by the old dilapidated buildings, and a few signs provide a glimpse into the rough life that prisoners led here. It’s a bit eerie, but it’s quite interesting and definitely worth a visit.
As Tarutao is a protected national park, all accommodation is owned and managed by the park. Visitors have a choice between simple, rustic bungalows or camping. The park has tents all set up that you can rent, or you can bring your own if you prefer.
There are a few different areas with bungalows – most of them are located near the park’s headquarters, while a few more can be found a few kilometers south. There are one and two bedroom bungalows available, but keep in mind that none of them are equipped with A/C, WiFi, hot water, or any other creature comforts. It’s quite simple and rustic, but it’s comfortable enough. Just be sure to not keep any food in your bungalow, as you may attract visitors…
You won’t find many people on Tarutao, but you will encounter an abundance of wildlife. The island is home to crab-eating macaques, wild boars, hornbills, dusky langurs, flying lemurs, and much more. If you’re so inclined, bird watching trips leave from the park’s headquarters early in the morning.
As I mentioned above, you have to make sure not to keep food in your bungalow or tent. We didn’t, but a macaque still decided to come on up to our porch and steal our bug spray. Worried it would poison him – and also concerned about how many mosquito bites we’d get without it – we traded him for a bottle of Pepto-Bismol pills. As they were in a child-safe bottle, we thought he’d eventually give up and just drop it. After much effort, the cheeky monkey finally got it open and proceeded to scarf down pills. Needless to say, he wasn’t too happy or comfortable after that.
Near the drop-off point and the park headquarters, there’s a little museum with a few simple displays. It’s nothing special, but it’s worth checking out before you begin exploring.
Quality mountain bikes can be rented from the park headquarters, so pick up some wheels and head out to explore the island. It’s about 8km of hilly road to the former prison sight, so bring plenty of water and sunscreen for the ride.
If you’d like to take a hike, there’s a short and scenic trail near the visitor’s center that heads up to a great viewpoint. It takes about 20-30 minutes, and it’s a good place to spot wildlife or take in the sunset.
Another option here is taking a short boat ride through the mangroves to visit a cave. It’s nice and scenic, and a good break after you’ve burned all your energy cycling and hiking.
After all that, you may want to just chill out. It’s quite possible that you’ll find a totally empty beach here, so sit back, relax, and enjoy it! You won’t find any shops, bars, or restaurants along these beaches, so be sure you get your meals and drinks in the designated times from the two restaurants near the bungalows.
A visit to Ko Tarutao is definitely not for everyone. If you’re looking for luxury, shopping, or nightlife, this is not the place for you. However, if it is peace, quiet, adventure, and nature that you seek, this is one of the best places in Thailand. Having spent two weeks visiting Ko Tao, Ko Pha-Ngan, and Krabi, we were thrilled to arrive in Tarutao and escape the crowds for a few days. Cycling, hiking, swimming, and relaxing for four days was the perfect end to our trip in southern Thailand trip, and the perfect last stop before heading into Malaysia.