sign in a cave in Laos

18 July 2008

Tarutao Park - WildAsia 2006

Tranquil and Teeming Tarutao Park

[Published on wildasia 2 Oct 2006]

The name means "old, mysterious and primitive" and it was once a haven for pirates, a penal colony and a detention centre for political prisoners. Despite its dubious history, Tarutao is a beautiful tropical island with golden sand, green seas and wonderful sunsets. A mesmerized LIZ PRICE shows you the sites.

We were going on holiday to a place which used to be a haven for pirates and more recently a penal colony and place of detention for political prisoners. The name of our destination means "old, mysterious and primitive". Despite its dubious history and name it turned out to be a stunning place, a beautiful tropical island with golden sands, green seas and wonderful sunsets. We were on Ko Tarutao.

Ko Tarutao is a small island in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of Satun, the southernmost province of Thailand. It is part of Ko Tarutao National Marine Park, which is a large archipelago of 51 islands approximately 30 km from Pak Bara in La-Ngu district, 60 km northwest of Satun town. The islands are north of Langkawi and form part of the same geological group. In fact the main island of Tarutao is only 5 km from Langkawi. These islands are formed of granite and allied rocks, and there is also much limestone. This means caves. The limestone on these islands is the oldest cave bearing limestone in Malaysia, some 450 million years old.

From Satun we paid 250 baht (RM25) for a taxi to Pak Bara. Pak Bara is geared up for tourists and we bought ferry tickets to Tarutao, and visited the Marine Park office. It was an interesting one and a half hour boat ride as we went past lots of scenic limestone islands and saw several dolphins.

When we arrived on Ko Tarutao we paid our entrance fee to the Marine Park and bought a guide book, then organized a room. There is a choice of accommodation from dorms, to twins /doubles, and 2-room lodges. You can also camp on some beaches. Park HQ is at Ao Phante Malaka.
Tham Chorakhe or Crocodile Cave is a tourist attraction not to be missed. A small boat took us up river, past lots of mangroves with occasional limestone cliffs jutting out of the forests. From the jetty a boardwalk leads over mangrove swamps, then steps go down to the cave entrance.

The river enters the cave so a pontoon walkway has been constructed on very noisy polystyrene blocks, which squeaked annoyingly as we walked along. The causeway swayed and wobbled, so I had to make sure I was steady before taking pictures of the stalactite formations. We came to a large dry chamber and we able to explore this with the help of electric lights. It was a nice cave with a lot of stalactites and stalagmites.

The other tourists turned round and went back out, but we were cavers and we could see the far end of the cave ahead, beckoning us. We were separated from it by mud and water but as we were wearing our old caving shoes we thought it wouldn't be a problem. However we weren't expecting the mangrove mud to be so thick and sticky and glutinous. It took a tenacious hold of our shoes and it was a real struggle to move as with each step we sank in mud above ankle level. We were getting nowhere, so decided to give up. Even getting back to the dry chamber was a real struggle, the mud certainly didn't want to give up its grip on our shoes.

Fortunately none of the islands in the Marine Park have been allowed to be developed by private operators. Only 5 of the islands have a regular boat service and only 3 of those are generally visited by tourists, Tarutao, Adang and Lipe. Tarutao is the biggest and has waterfalls, inland rivers, caves, beaches and protected wildlife. Wildlife on the island includes dusky langur, mousedeer, wild pig, fishing cat and crab-eating macaque. In Crocodile Cave we saw crabs and mice. Marine life includes dolphins, dugongs, lobster and turtles. Four types of turtle lay their eggs on the beaches between September and April.

The island was a place of exile for political prisoners from 1939 to 1947 and remains of the prison can be seen on the southern tip of the island, and the middle of the east coast. There is also a graveyard, charcoal furnaces and fermentation tanks for making naam plaa or fish sauce. Many prisoners were revolutionary groups who had held unsuccessful coup attempts. Escape from the island was a disheartening prospect, due to the sharks, crocodiles and fierce guards. The political prisoners enjoyed an open prison atmosphere separate from the common prisoners. One third of the convicts died on the island, many from malaria. During the Second World War, order broke down. Supplies no longer came from the mainland and both guards and prisoners soon became the most feared pirates in the area, preying on merchant ships as they sailed through the Straits of Malacca.

After the War, British naval troops were sent to Tarutao to clean out the pirate groups. The prisons were closed, and villagers from the mainland began to settle on the island and became fishermen and farmers. In 1974 Tarutao became Thailand's second Marine National Park. The villagers were unhappy about this and most moved away, leaving just 17 families.

A road runs down the length of the island. 11 km of its length was built by the prisoners in the 1940's, and the more recent 12 km constructed by the park division. Today the road is mostly overgrown but park personnel have kept a path open to make it easier to get from north to south without having to climb over rocky headlands along the shore.

We decided to look for some other caves we had read about, one of which was Tham Tarun. We walked along the road and it was hard work in the sun especially on a long, uphill stretch. Downhill was OK but we realized we'd missed the cave, as we'd come down to sea level, and saw signboards to beaches and waterfalls. So we slogged back up the hill and explored a small cave we found near the road. We had almost reached the top of the hill when a 10 ton truck came along and gave us a lift back to HQ. We were very thankful.

We did little else that day except swim and look round the information centre and library. Tarutao library is a goldmine of science textbooks and 19th century English literature. The visitors centre has natural history exhibits and information about the prison era, as well as a scale model of the park.

Behind the Park HQ is Toe Boo cliff and this is a great place to climb up to see the views and also the sunsets. It is an area of limestone, with mini cliffs and holes, but no real caves. We were lucky and had glorious sunsets a couple of evenings.

Ko Rang Nok or Birds Nest Island is a small island off the south coast. Locals collect the swiftlet nests for the Chinese market. There are some coral reefs off the island. Sea gypsies and pirates once plied these waters, today fishermen try to make a living.

Ko Tarutao is definitely worth a visit as it doesn't suffer from mass tourism and remains unspoilt. And it is so close to Malaysia, it is easily reached by road and boat.

Facts For The Visitor
Officially Ko Tarutao is only open from November to May when there is a regular boat service from Pak Bara, twice a day. Visitors who show up during the monsoon can stay in the park accommodation if they have their own food. The bungalows can be booked in advance at Pak Bara, or else booked upon arrival on the island. They are more expensive than in other parts of Thailand, and the restaurant is pricey, so make sure you bring enough money - we ran out but lucky the Park staff were willing to change for us. For those who don't want to go alone, tours can be arranged from Satun or Trang.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

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