Once Thailand’s very own Alcatraz, paradisaical Koh Tarutao now has just enough ‘must-see’ spots to fit on the back of a cigarette paper. And that’s half the appeal.
It would be romantic to think of remote Koh Tarutao as a Wi-Fi-free Eden, a place that’s perfect for sea turtles and beach bums—but this jungle-clad island in the Andaman Sea was once Thailand’s Alcatraz.
As I cycle along in the morning sun on Tarutao’s only road—a narrow, 12-mile concrete path that winds through the hills and rainforest—out of nowhere, a crocodile saunters onto the trail just ahead of me. But wait; there are no crocodiles here! The convicts killed them all decades ago, right?
I do a double take on the two-meter-long creature. It is in fact a monitor lizard—but the size of a young saltwater croc. (We’ll get back to the crocs and cons soon.)
Such is Koh Tarutao, the largest island (at 94 square miles) in the Mu Koh Tarutao-Koh Adang archipelago that sits 18 miles off southern Thailand’s Andaman coast in Satun province. Your company here (besides a few other travelers, mega-lizards and day-trippers) is mostly dusky langurs, sea eagles and macaques.
You’ve long-hauled—by air, road and sea—from Bangkok, probably via Trang and Pak Bara port, to reach Tarutao’s unlogged forests and a shoreline that’s looped with endless beaches. The few facts you might pick up en route include that this archipelago is Thailand’s second Marine National Park (established in 1974), it has 52 islands, and the waters around it host an estimated 25 per cent of the world’s tropical fish species.
If Koh Tarutao has a ‘must-do/must-see’ tick-list, it might (almost) cover a cigarette paper. Which is the fundamental attraction of being on a jungle island like this. No cars, nail bars, mega-malls, mini-marts or signature-dishing chefs. No endless downloads of digital gossip. You’re not in Phuket anymore, Yo-Yo.
Then, where to sleep? Thailand’s National Parks department manages the only accommodation, consisting of basic cabins located at Ao Pante Malacca, Ao Molae and Ao Son bays. Or you can hire a tent from the park headquarters and camp under the stars and casuarinas almost anywhere you like along the island’s Edenic west coast.
I opt for a $30-a-night beachfront cabin on Ao Molae whose beach is a half-mile arc of barefoot adventures and sunset light shows. My cabin features a decrepit bathroom and a clean double bed with mosquito net. The ceiling, however, conceals the world’s loudest gecko whose random and unrequited nocturnal booms wake me way too often.
Just along the beach, an open-air café that serves good, down-home Thai food. The boss rents me a mountain bike for $10 a day (way overpriced by Thai standards) that, nevertheless, becomes my transport of delight for roaming the island’s unsung beaches and unplugged bays.
The buildings that once housed the inmates are long gone, devoured by the jungle, but well-kept, new walkways allow visitors to roam the former hell-hole prison site.
From 1937 to 1948, Koh Tarutao was Thailand’s equivalent of Devil’s Island, the infamous jail operated by colonial France off the coast of French Guiana, South America. A malaria-wracked, crocodile-infested gulag, Tarutao held up to 3,000 Thai convicts at a time. When Thailand was occupied by Japan in World War II, rations of rice and other staples for the island were severely cut.
Starvation set in and the desperate prisoners turned to begging from passing Malayan trading vessels out of Penang and Langkawi. When the skippers’ charity inevitably dried up, the prisoners, in cahoots with their own guards, turned to armed piracy. Their raids grew increasingly savage, with boats being pillaged and burned, and crews murdered. The prison guards even sold the excess loot for profit on the mainland.
The buildings at Ao Thalo Wow, on the island’s east coast, that once housed the inmates are long gone, devoured by the jungle, but well-kept new walkways allow visitors to roam the former hell-hole prison site. Of the several reconstructed buildings I find there, the one to give any claustrophobe the creeps is a low, dark, brick structure in which a prisoner could only lie, but not stand, during a lengthy stretch of solitary confinement.
Scattered around the old prison grounds, I find signs that illustrate the daily life and death struggle in this tropical purgatory. One shows a common punishment, during which a prisoner had to carry on his shoulder for hours a heavy ship’s anchor made of steel and wood. He eventually collapsed from exhaustion. However, as the caption points out, over time the wily convicts hollowed out the wooden section of the anchor to lighten both it and their sufferings. Upon realizing the ploy, the guards provided a concrete anchor.
On the lighter side, a group of 70 Thai political rebels—military officers and Bangkok aristocrats who had plotted to overthrow the monarchy in 1932—were also confined on the island, although separately at Ao Talo Udang at its southern end. They took no part in the piracy raids. One prisoner, a grandson of King Rama VII, turned his aristocratic green thumb to developing a new cucumber variety, while another, So Setabutra, a British-educated Anglophile, compiled the first Thai–English phrasebook and dictionary.
His book, published and in use for decades after the war, has helpful sections covering (un)common interactions, such as In the Ball-Room, On a Tricycle and In a Beer Hall. His conversational English icebreakers of the day included, “Are you an officer?”, “Where did you fight?” and “Can you take me to see a woman?” To greet someone, one just gave a best-of-British, “Hullo, old chap!”
The Pacific War finished with the defeat of Japan in August 1945 but despite the bitter protests from Malay and Chinese traders in Langkawi and Penang, the raiders continued to plunder passing boats. The new Thai government was in disarray and had greater priorities elsewhere. A force of 300 British Royal Navy commandos was assembled in nearby Malaya and invaded Tarutao, routing the brigands during a brief battle in March 1946. The prison governor was given a 15-year jail sentence—not to be served on his former island.
And while there are only a few remnants of the old prison left—and no guards to keep you locked in—any visitor willing to make the journey might still find it tough to escape the clutches of paradisaical Koh Tarutao.
Want to check in to the paradise prison of Koh Tarutao? You can fly to Hat Yai or Trang from Bangkok, from where you’ll need to catch a boat. There are several boat operators depending on where you depart from; find out more here.
One of Australia’s leading travel writers, John Borthwick's work appears in The Weekend Australian, Fairfax Traveller and color magazines—all of which keeps him too long away from surfing good waves or hiking some gob-smacking coastline.