It used to be Thailand’s version of Devils Island, the infamous French prison off South America. Like it, Koh Tarutao was malaria-wracked, surrounded by sea and totally removed from public scrutiny. Fortunately, things do change. The French are long-gone from Devils Island, as are the malaria and crocodiles from Tarutao. Gone too are its prison guards and convicts, and the bizarre tale of how they teamed together during World War II to become pirates.
The Mu Koh Tarutao-Koh Adang archipelago on Thailand’s far southern Andaman coast is a 52-island National Park group that’s lush with jungles and looped with beaches. You can reach its main, namesake island, Tarutao by a two-hour speedboat ride from the Trang province port of Pak Bara. Stepping from the pier you find yourself on an untrammeled shore where there is not a single 7/11, ATM, bling spa, go-go bar, tailor’s pimp or jet-ski in sight.
Instead, Tarutao gives you arms-wide expanses of silica sands, a bottle-green sea, basic bungalows, jungle roads and, at the end of the day, a cold beer and plate of pad thai at a beachside canteen. What more do you want? OK — a big, fat book and some smart company.
The uninhabited archipelago is as far south as you can go in Thailand waters. (Malaysia’s Langkawi Island is just five kilometres away.) The islands’ towering rock formations and crystal waters are part of Thailand’s first National Marine Park and, with the exception of little Koh Lipe island, are still off the radar for large groups and massed day-trippers.
The reward for making it all the way here from the crush of the Big Mango or throng of Phuket is the pure simplicity of the place. The bonus is sea-eagles, macaques, monitor lizards and beaches that are mercifully, perfectly “unimproved”. Behold Thailand, the original, unplugged.
Koh Tarutao, the largest island (at 152 sq km), has bungalow clusters near the National Park headquarters at Phante Malacca arrival pier, and on Ao Molae and Ao Son beaches. The bungalows are basic and priced accordingly, from about $20 a night. Mine, on the Molae beachfront, has a decrepit but adequate bathroom, a clean bed with mozzie net and, booming in the rafters, the world’s loudest gekko. The generator gives us five hours of electricity each night. You need to book in advance, or you can hire a tent from the park office and camp beneath the stars and son talay trees.
It wasn’t always so snoozy. At one time Tarutao was the Asian version of French Guyana slammer known as Devils Island and the made famous in the book and movie, Papillion. Between 1938 and 1949, up to 3000 Thai convicts at a time were incarcerated on Tarutao, with a 30-km sea moat, complete with sharks and crocodiles, separating them from the Satun mainland.
Housed separately to the common criminals was a group of rebel Thai officers and aristocrats who’d been exiled to the island after a failed palace coup in 1932. One of them, So Setabutra, compiled the first Thai–English conversation guide while cooling his heels here. His Siamese-English Conversation book allowed you to practice timeless exchanges like, ‘Are you a stranger here?’ /‘Yes, I arrived in Bangkok only this morning.’ /‘Then I would advise you to go by tricycle.’ And, ‘I heard there is a nude show in Bangkok. Can you tell me where it is?’
During Japan’s World War II occupation of Thailand, food supplies from the mainland were severely rationed and starvation set in on the prison island. In desperation, some convicts and guards turned to piracy in the nearby Strait of Malacca, but with success their raids on passing Malay and Penang trading boats became increasingly bold and violent. So successful were they at pillage that even when the war ended they continued their trade. The pirates were eventually routed in 1946 by a 300-strong British Royal Navy force that attacked from Malaya.
The prison closed in 1948. Today you can cycle or hike to Ao Thalo Wow where the main prison stood. The original structures were long ago reclaimed by the jungle or looters but well-kept walkways lead to several reconstructed buildings and illustrated signs show images the daily life and death in this tropical purgatory
If you’ve revelled in unsullied Tarutao and its character-building early nights, then the contrast at nearby Koh Lipe might either appeal or appall. Lipe (pronounced Lee-pae), Thailand’s southernmost island, was not included in the National Park as it was already home to Chao Lay sea gypsies who, over time have leased much of their land for tourist developments. An hour’s boat ride south from Tarutao you step onto Lipe’s busy Pattaya Beach and are instantly funneled into a consumption gauntlet known as Walking Street.
Pizza, convenience stores, dive shops and cool bars come at you (but no ladyboys, coyote dancers or doof-doof blare). The sois are alive with restaurants, stalls and lodges. There’s not a macaque or monitor lizard in sight. Instead, you find little motorbike taxis, burning sunsets, walk-out reefs, snorkeling and diving trips, and hot water in the shower. Ornithology on Lipe would be more about The Eagles than sea-eagles, but it’s still great fun. The lagoon is the colour of Tahitian turquoise and Devils Island was never like this.
Getting There: Fly or bus from Bangkok to Trang; then road transfer to Pak Bara for the speedboat to Tarutao. Accommodation: see Thai National Parks (www.dnp.go.th). Season: November—April. (National Park islands are closed during monsoon. Koh Lipe remains open.) www.kotarutaothailand.com; www.kohlipe.net