For me, Koh Tarutao was an adventure island. Originally a prison, the island’s history is wrapped up in pirate stories full of vengeance, hidden stashes of loot, and crocodile caves. I got to try all sorts of activities that I had never done in Thailand before, like kayaking through mangroves and mountain biking along dirt roads through the jungle. But the best part? There were only a handful of visitors during the 5 days we were there. After spending virtually my entire trip surrounded by other foreigners, it was exciting to visit a place frequented by locals. And more importantly, a place that wasn’t over-developed or over-priced.
Here are the highlights of my trip to Koh Tarutao, and I highly recommend this island as a stop on anyone’s tour of the Southern islands of Thailand:
A True Tale of Pirates
Tarutao probably has the most interesting history of all the Thai islands. As I said before, it was used as a prison island for mostly political crimes back in the 1930’s and 40’s. During World War II, food and medical supplies on the mainland ran low and the inhabitants were basically left to starve to death. They therefore banded together, both prisoners and guards, and became pirates, sailing and stealing all along the Strait of Malacca. A pretty badass solution to their problem if you ask me. The British eventually came in and stopped them, but to this day you can still hike to locations on Koh Tarutao and nearby Koh Adang where they stashed their loot (good luck finding anything valuable though, I already checked).
Mo Lae Beach
I started off my trip staying at Mo Lae beach, located in a small bay lined with prehistoric-looking rocks and forest. It was the quietest place I’ve been yet, with just a handful of people staying there and a beach so long that you could just barely see people at the other end. In fact, Reid went off to look at crab-eating macaques one day and discovered Old Naked Couple, two people that had been living on the beach in their tent for at least a month (roughly calculated based on Naked Guy’s base tan and their supplies). Being down at the end of the beach, you couldn’t even tell they weren’t wearing suits! Inspired by their daring, we indulged in some naked sunbathing where no one could see us, during which I immediately fried my ta-ta’s. The life lessons you learn while traveling…
One of the highlights of Tarutao was the assortment of wildlife to be seen. The hornbills, dusky langurs, and pythons were exciting to spot, but the most notable species was the crab-eating macaques. When not combing the beaches for crabs, these little guys roamed the camp, inspected tents and screamed at each other over who had unlimited access to the garbage pile (you know, territorial disputes). When they were feeling especially devious, they would peek through open bungalow windows to see if you were in there, looking for loot. One of the days, I stood up in front of our open bungalow window to see a little guy standing on the patio right outside. We made eye contact and he ran off, obviously cowed by my strength and ferocity (I think I actually screamed). It certainly added an element of exoticism and entertainment to our stay, having the little guys run around the place and leave little monkey-prints in the sand.
Mountain Biking to Ao Son
Since our bungalow was just a few kilometers from Ao Son beach (a notorious breeding ground of green turtles), we decided to rent mountain bikes and go check it out. The road is only paved part of the way, so it got a bit treacherous. There were huge rocks wedged in the dirt that led to a bouncy ride, but it was fun (until I crashed of course…but we don’t speak of that incident as tears and a slight tantrum were involved). Once we arrived at Ao Son the bike ride was well worth it.
Though the beach is known as a nesting ground for green turtles, we were unfortunately there at the wrong time of year. So instead of playing with baby turtles we wandered back into the jungle and took a peek at some pythons (and I mean peek – there was no way in hell I was getting anywhere near those guys).
There was also a hilarious bridge built out of Styrofoam that gave users a 70% chance of making it across without falling into the water. Luckily I didn’t. We took some refreshments at the little restaurant and chatted with the Thai ladies who ran it and then headed off to nearby Lu Du waterfall for a hike.
Lu Du Waterfall
The hike to Lu Du falls was challenging and fun – we had to follow the arrows across streams and small rivers, up little cliffs and through the jungle. We only saw one other couple the whole few hours we were hiking and at the end we were rewarded with a refreshing pool at the base of some boulders.
Jumping in felt amazing! After all, walking in the hot and sticky jungle is quite taxing on the ol’ body. The water was clear and cool and it was hard to leave.
After a few days at Mo Lae, we moved to Ao Pante beach right by the main pier. Getting a little sick of the beach (is that even possible?) we decided to hike up to the lookout point right above the ranger station. As it was only about 20 minutes I thought it was going to be boring but it was gorgeous! The trail was literally carved out of the rock with planks set across chasms and stairs made of fallen stones so that it had an extremely crafted but also natural feel to it.
Honestly, it looked like something from Zelda, which meant Reid and I instantly fell in love with it (Kokiri Forest, anyone?). The view from the top was spectacular, showing the bay below nestled close to the low hills and with karst-formed islands in all directions. It was a short but sweet hike, and so, so beautiful!
Kayaking the Mangrove-Lined River
On our last day, Reid and I rented a kayak and made our way along a small river. It was lined the entire way by mangroves and got smaller and smaller as we paddled along. The groves were eerily silent and I started having visions of the movie Anaconda, especially after seeing those gigantic pythons in the trees. We also saw river otters hanging out on the beach and some sea eagle-type birds soaring high above us. At the end we came to Crocodile Cave where we tied up our kayak and walked the wooden planks to the opening. It was huge, with stalagmites and stalactites dripping lukewarm water, and a big open maw of darkness through which there was no sound, only water lapping. There was a raft there that we could pull through the cave using a rope, but alas! We had forgotten our newly bought flashlight.
We had no way of illuminating the darkness of Crocodile Cave without it. Reid descended into a fury of angry mumbling and foot stamping as I refused to go in there without a light (I know he didn’t really want to either). We were also pressed for time as we only had about an hour window before we had to catch our boat back to the mainland. Just then, a guttural, hair raising sound came belching out of the cave at us. We both lost our heads and hurried backwards. I told Reid there was no way in hell I was going into that cave with or without a light (I mean Crocodile Cave, really? What if there were still Crocs?!) The cave spirits were obviously telling us to get the heck out of there. We scurried back to our kayak and paddled much quicker than we had on the way in, descending once more into the quiet serenity of the mangroves.
The kayaking itself was awesome and the trip was the perfect length, about 5 km in total, but missing the cave was a bit of a letdown. Reid has demanded that we go back someday and laments it as one of the great missed opportunities of his lifetime. If we ever did go back, I think I’d request a guide…
Thus concludes my Tarutao adventures. I hope my fellow travelers make it there someday as it really was a wonderful little island. Has anyone been there before? Or been to a similar island? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!