by Stefan Link

Long before Leonardo DiCaprio ever read a script about them, Thailand’s islands and beaches have been well known for their tropical beauty. This reputation has helped to attract millions of visitors each year who arrive hoping to find a seashore paradise of lush jungle and quiet sand. As word spread Thailand began to become a victim of its own success as beach after beach became discovered by vacationers. Bungalow and restaurant operations began appearing in increasing numbers to accommodate more and more tourists as development went nearly unchecked. However, just a little off the beaten path and safe from development is one of the largest marine parks in Thailand and an adventure waiting to be had.

Tarutao National Park consists of fifty-one islands in the Andaman Sea, off Southern Thailand’s West Coast and is divided into two main groups. Tarutao, the largest of all the islands as well as the more numerous islands of the Adang-Rawi group lying forty kilometers to the west. Of all of the islands in the park, Tarutao is the most accessible but can only reached after a ninety-minute boat trip from Pak Bara, on the mainland. Ferries continue service to the more Western Islands but due to the rougher seas from the monsoon season, sailings to any of the park’s islands can only attempted between November and April.

The hilly topography of Tarutao Island is covered in lush green rainforest and crisscrossed by streams, providing an ideal home for the abundance of wildlife found here. Even near the boat dock at park headquarters crab-eating macaques are frequently seen combing the mangroves for an easy meal. Also near park headquarters dusky languers (a threatened native monkey) can be viewed playfully swinging from tree to tree as they make their way through the forest canopy. Many other animals make their homes here as well including bats, wild pigs, and otters. Over one hundred species of bird call the island home, drawn to the safe shelter provided by the forest and cliffs. Hornbills, kingfishers, and sea eagles among others thrive in this rich oasis. Several varieties of sea turtles are found in the surrounding waters, including the leatherback, the largest in the world. The turtles use the parks numerous secluded beaches to come ashore and lay their eggs to carry on their ancient cycle of life.

Hiking around Tarutao island is a great way to become familiar with its natural features and enjoy the outdoors . A wide dirt track departs from park headquarters and is used by the staff to transport supplies to campgrounds around the island This path sees only the occasional truck and is a safe, easy way to experience the sounds of the jungle and the island‘s other landscapes. Short side paths also lead to quiet stretches of clean beach, hundreds of yards long and hikers can follow the shoreline around the rocky headlands at lower tides to even more secluded beaches. Farther on, the trail passes through an abandoned coconut plantation that has fruit still growing wild on the trees. The path eventually terminates at a marker, which indicates a choice of two streams, which can be followed, all the way to the waterfalls which feed them. It is challenging to follow one of the well marked paths over and around the rocks lining the streams but a swim in the cool, deep pools of the falls is a refreshing reward for all the effort. One of the shortest of the park’s foot trails is also one of the most scenic. It takes just twenty minutes to reach the summit of the cliffs right behind park headquarters. The peak is an excellent lookout point with views of some of the other islands of the archipelago and of the deep blue waters and mangroves of Tarutao’s largest stream flowing nearby.

The longest trail on the island takes hikers on a rugged all day journey through the jungle to what remains of one of the notorious prison camps that were built in 1938. The island was deserted at that time and its natural barriers helped to imprison several hundred common criminals and political prisoners. The isolation that made escape nearly impossible led to disaster during the Second World War. Supply ships ceased to bring provisions to the men, and illness and starvation eventually began to take a heavy toll. In desperation both prisoners and guards alike began to raid passing ships for supplies in order to keep from perishing. Basic survival quickly turned to greed with the ease of their piracy and soon raids were happening with regularity as plunder was being sold on the mainland by prison officials for large profits. The waters of these straights soon became the most feared in all of the region and only the landing of three hundred British marines could end the scourge of piracy. After this terrible era ended, the camps were abruptly closed and Tarutao Island was left uninhabited once again.

Accessible by a two hour ferry journey further west from Tarutao sit the more numerous islands of the Adang-Rawi group. Beneath the surface of the warm, clear waters is found some of the best snorkeling and diving in all of Thailand. The tropical waters support a vibrant reef ecosystem with a variety of corals and a quarter of the all of the tropical fish in the world. The amazing colors of this marine environment with its brilliant reds, deep blues, bright yellows, bold purples and multitude of other hues are stunning and a real pleasure for the eyes. The experience is as if swimming in your own aquarium.

Excursions can be easily organized with other travelers right on the beach and up to eight people can charter a long tail boat. A full day’s tour is inexpensive and can visit a handful of different snorkeling or diving sites to enjoy the diversity of each location. A full tour also will include stopping at several close-by uninhabited islands for exploration of their coastlines or a picnic on their quiet beaches. Charters can also be arranged for a day of fishing, an afternoon sail around nearby islands, or to find a pristine beach to relax upon, away from all traces of modern life.

Boat hire and accommodation can all be easily found on Ko Lipe, the only island in the park on which private development is permitted. Under a turn of the century treaty a group of Chao Lay (native sea gypsies) were allowed to settle the island which later became part of Tarutao National Park. While other settlers who came to these islands in more recent years were forcibly removed by park rangers during a serious of sometimes violent confrontations during the creation of the park, the Chao Lay were left alone to practice their unique culture and continue their traditional ways of life. They sustained themselves by roaming neighboring islands harvesting fish, shellfish, and adding to their diets with vegetables grown right on Ko Lipe. Today the Chao Lay have established small restaurants, beachside bungalows, and boat taxis and charters to accommodate visitors. Far away from “civilization” the slow pace of life here is relaxing and enjoying a fresh tropical fruit plate and a smooth coconut shake from the porch of your own bungalow while watching the sun retreat for the evening is one of Ko Lipe’s simple pleasures.

The park has plenty of activities to offer people who love the outdoors. From camping and hiking to fishing and diving it is possible to enjoy many pursuits within Tarutao National Park. There is a natural, easy going atmosphere in the air because the absence of development and with it many of the conveniences of modern life have kept the islands almost suspended in time. The coming of the monsoon season and the cycles of the sun signal the passage of time until the unfortunate day when the journey must come to an end. While a visit to Tarutao National Park ends on the ferry back to reality on the mainland, the memories gained are not easily forgotten. These small islands off the coast of Thailand are what tourist brochures boast about but in truth rarely exist, a simple island paradise away from it all.
This originally appeared in the summer 2003 edition of Travelsearcher.