Your best bet is to head to Satun and get a ferry from Pak Barra. There is no airport in Satun so you’ll need to fly in to Trang or Had Yai first and get a minivan (firstname.lastname@example.org; 074 783 222; 200B per person). Alternatively, fly to Langkawi in Malaysia and jump on a speedboat from there (about 1,200B).
You’ll need to contact the National Park office in Bangkok (www.dnp.go.th) to reserve a room in advance. Rooms go from 1,000B a night or there are cheaper camping options.
Electric is only on during the nighttime. Rooms have no electric points, so charge all your batteries before you arrive. There is a 200B entry fee as it’s a national park. If you have a Thai driving licence, you pay just 40B. This pass is good for seven days and includes all the islands within Koh Tarutao National Marine Park.
On the wooden reception desk sits a copy of National Geographic from November 1980. It tells of the bachelor Prince Charles, the fight to save elephants and about an African tribe’s circumcision rituals. It also tells a lot about the reception: this is not a place that needs to keep up with the tines.
Koh Tarutao has been the same for centuries, a glorious final bastian of unspoilt natural beauty in Thailand’s deep south. Those who make the effort to get here (and it is a bit of an effort) are rewarded by pure simplicity and isolation. No 7-Elevens, no ATMs, not even a hotel (the only accommodation is at the National Park’s headquarters). Beaches stretch unimpeded, the waters are translucently turquoise and the inner jungle is spectacular.
Within our first five minutes a wild boar had wandered into the camp, an eagle swooped high overhead and a troop of monkeys scampered past. Yards from the main office is a path that leads to Ta Boo, a viewpoint that overlooks the entire Ao Pante. The climb takes only 20 minutes and for the most part is up well-chiselled stone steps, but there are a couple of sections where you need to be reasonably fit to get across.
Just east of the main office is Tam Jaroke (Crocodile Cave). Apparently, saltwater crocs used to inhabit this expansive labyrinth. A bridge used to allow people to walk through, but after it collapsed it was never rebuilt and so now longtail boats take visitors to the entrance, where a canoe awaits. The three-person canoes can go deep inside the low-ceilinged cave, where some care is needed to avoid the stalactites that hang down and nearly touch the water. There are no crocs to worry about anymore, but the cave is home to a few snakes and hundreds of bats. There is no illumination aside from the headlamps that canoeists wear as they make their way through the gloom, which gives the place an eerie, isolated feel.
Elsewhere on the island, attractions are scant. It is possible to take a speedboat out to a tiny island between Tarutao and Koh Lipe, but it will cost about 3,000B so you may want to persuade some fellow travellers to go with you. The main attraction here is simply the remote beaches, which really are deserted. If you get up at dawn, the only other lifeform there is likely to be an eagle searching out breakfast.
Prison and Pirates
One reason Koh Tarutao gets so few visitors is due to its past. In the 1930s a prison was built here. Those cons who did come from Bangkok were told crocodiles and sharks surrounded the island, making escape an unlikely prospect. Conditions were horrific and of the 3,000 prisoners brought there, only 1,200 made it out alive. Nurses and doctors demanded goods in return for treatment, food conditions were scarce (one bowl of rice a day) and malaria was rife. Among the prison’s most celebrated inmates were So Sethaputra, author of the first Thai-English dictionary; the grandson of King Rama VII, Sittiporn Gridagorn, who developed a new cucumber strain during his time on the island and Luan Sarapiwanit, who swam out to a fishing boat and escaped.
Guards abused their positions, eventually getting the prisoners to become pirates and raid passing Malay ships. The attacks grew more and more violent, with the loot taken to the mainland and sold off. Once the war was over, Penang got pretty annoyed with its ships getting targeted and asked the British navy to lend a hand. British troops took less than a day to take control of the island as the guards legged it. Today there is a well-kept walkway and a few remnants of the prison, though it’s the information boards that are the most revealing. You can cycle down to the prison remains or hire a truck from the national park headquarters for 600B.