sign in a cave in Laos

19 August 2008

Tarutao ex penal colony - Star 2003

Saturday, June 07, 2003
Penal colony where pirates used to roam

By Liz Price
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 the 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.

Only 5km from Langkawi

Ko Tarutao is small island in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of Satun, the southernmost province of Thailand. The island is part of the Ko Tarutao National Marine Park, which is a large archipelago of 51 islands approximately 30km from Pak Bara in La-Ngu district, 60km 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 5km 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 are as old as the oldest cave-bearing limestone in Malaysia, some 450 million years old.

My friends had come out from England on a caving expedition-cum-beach holiday. This was a perfect area. We explored one fine river cave on Langkawi, then moved up to Satun, and explored more caves.

Following a hot Thai curry for breakfast, we negotiated a taxi to take us to Pak Bara. It was an ancient but huge car, and we paid less than RM25 for the 60km trip. Pak Bara is geared up for tourists, and we bought ferry tickets to Tarutao and visited the marine park office. It was an interesting 1½-hour boatride 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 guidebook, then organised a room. There is a choice of accommodation from dorms to twins and doubles, and two-room lodges. You can also camp out on some beaches. Park HQ is at Ao Phante Malaka.

Cave with stalactites, stalagmites

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 there are steps 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 were 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 the far end of the cave ahead beckoned 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. 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, and 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.

Wildlife and marine life

None of the islands in the Marine Park has been allowed to be developed by private operators. Only five of the islands have a regular boat service, and only three of these – Tarutao, Adang and Lipe – are generally visited by tourists. 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, lobsters and turtles. Four types of turtle lay their eggs on the beaches between September and April.

Chequered history

The island was a place of exile for political prisoners from 1939 to 1947, and the 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 grim prospect, due to the sharks, crocodiles and fierce guards.

The political prisoners enjoyed an open prison atmosphere separate from the common convicts. 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. Some 11km of its length was built by the prisoners in the 1940s, while the more recent 12km was 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 realised 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’s 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 sunset. 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 Tarutao is definitely worth a visit as it doesn’t suffer from mass tourism and remains unspoilt. And as it is so close to Malaysia, it is easily reached by road and boat.

Fact File
When to go: 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.
Where to stay: 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 of the baht but luckily 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.

How to get there: To get to Satun by road, the closest border crossing is Wang Kelian in Perlis; then it is about 40km to Satun town. Or you can reach Satun by boat from Langkawi or Kuala Perlis. Satun to Pak Bara jetty is about 60km.

Taxis leave from near the Satul Thanee Hotel and cost 30 (RM2.70) baht per person. Bus is 18 baht.

By boat: Boats from Tarutao to Pak Bara leave regularly between November and April, at 10.30am and 3pm . Return fare is 200 baht (RM18). Takes 11/2-2 hours, depending on the boat; food and drinks are available on board.

Extra boats may run during peak times.

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