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Koh Tarutao

Recent postings such as Why I Don’t Love Langkawi and What Would Grandma Mary Do? might have left our nature-loving readers down in the dumps. Well, to those hippie, tree-hugging, flower-power, green-commie, bird-loving relics out there, here is one post you will enjoy.

Koh Tarutao National Park is proof that miracles do exist. Somehow, in a land plagued with overdevelopment fueled by greed, corruption, and short-term thinking, someone has managed to set aside a small archipelago of 51 stunning islands for posterity. Our first stop in the archipelago was Koh Tarutao, a 150 square kilometer island of dense, old-growth jungle that remains undeveloped with the exception of a few ranger stations and the national park accommodations at Ao Pante Malacca and Ao Molae. But this fantasy island is DEFINITELY not for everyone.

As our high-speed boat bound for the tourist enclave Koh Lipe approached Koh Tarutao, I think I literally gasped. We sped past deserted beaches, stretches of intact mangrove, karst cliffs and a blanket of green jungle spreading upwards towards a beautiful chain of mountains. For the first ten minutes, there was not a building in sight. But as we rounded a small bend, the national park headquarters at Ao Pante Malacca came into view. We pulled up along a small jetty and the boatman started screaming “Tarutao, Tarutao.” Bizarrely, of the eighty people onboard, only Thomas and I stood up and worked our way to the front of the boat. I felt like a privileged movie star exiting to my private retreat. But this privilege was earned through research rather than cash. The other foreign passengers gawked at us as if to ask, “Where are we and why do they get to get off the boat here?” In all honesty, though, I think the vast majority of the people onboard would have hated Koh Tarutao. Tarutao is not for those who need to be entertained, it’s for those who excel at entertaining themselves. (If I sound arrogant, I have the right to be.)

Intelligently constructed a short distance back from the beach, the set-up strongly resembles what one would find in a small national park in the United States or Canada: bungalows, visitor center, restaurant, a small shop for supplies, and staff accommodation. After registration, we boarded a small truck which carried us along a narrow cement road to Ao Molae, a smaller camp further south where we had booked a bungalow. My first thought when we saw Ao Molae was, this is what I have been searching for.

Tropical wavelets rolled onto the white sands of a perfect cove backed by nine unobtrusive bungalows and a small outdoor restaurant. Myna birds and drongos fluttered from tree to tree. Dozens of crab-eating macaques climbed through the trees. A sea eagle swooped down to catch a fish in the emerald bay. No bars, no tacky tourist shops, no banana boats. Just serenity.

Breaking the silence, a couple rushed by us to climb into the truck for the trip back to the jetty. “Get me to Lipe,” howled the woman, “There’s nothing to do here.” She yanked and tugged on her suitcase, as if angry at it, dragging it up into the truck. Clearly, she was ready to leave.

Koh Tarutao is not for everyone. The bungalows only have five hours of electricity per day. Intentionally. Park philosophy seems to be that if you want luxury, you need to go somewhere else. I pray it stays that way forever. Because this small touch of discomfort seems to be a fantastic filter that keeps nature lovers in the park and sends partiers running for the speed boat to Koh Lipe. The lack of electricity also has another magical side effect, which I’ll mention in an upcoming post. (I’m such a tease!)

And, of course, jungle means critters. Snakes, giant insects, and the occasional monkey have a way of finding their way into your bungalow. Our first night, we had a rather hilarious if somewhat awkward interaction with a snake that insisted on spending the night with us. Waking up with the wildlife is not everyone’s cup of tea. Moreover, at certain times of day, sandflies can be a problem on many of the beaches, which can be a major issue for people with sandfly allergies. My suggestion: study the sandfly tendencies, there’s a pattern. Clearly, these beaches are not manicured for your amusement, they are wondrous zones of biological diversity. (I have never seen so many crabs in my entire life.)

The zones are amazing remnants of an Andaman environment, which just two decades ago was virtually pristine. In the tiny bit of Koh Tarutao we’ve explored, we’ve seen wild boar, crab-eating macaques, spectacled langurs (dusky langurs), monitor lizards, pied hornbills, and… drum roll… sea otters. On several occasions we’ve seen sea otters just off the beach here in Ao Molae. The density of wildlife suggests very healthy populations. Finally, some good news.

Beyond the wildlife, mountain after mountain of dense jungle makes for excellent hiking. Our personal favorite is the hike to the secluded and stunning Lu Du Falls. (Not easy to find, but worth it.) Sea kayak rentals enable visitors to explore the mangroves and isolated coastline independently. And kilometers of deserted beach at Ao Son lead to a breath-taking vista of undeveloped mangrove backed by jungle-covered mountains.

Mangroves behind Ao Son

Click on the panorama above to enlarge

Yes, there are caveats to my version of paradise. But make no mistake about it, this is my paradise – even if twenty million people leave comments telling me why Lipe, Phi Phi, and Phuket are all superior. Where once the party island was the unique oddity, now the undeveloped island is sadly a rare, rare treasure. A treasure for nature lovers – and nature lovers only – to behold. And to the Thai government, don’t let this go the way of once stunning Phi Phi. You already have enough trashy, over-developed pits reeking of burning plastic. It’s time to think ahead for the 21st century. Koh Tarutao National Park is a good start.

Information on Visiting Koh Tarutao National Park:

As I mentioned in the article, Koh Tarutao is not for everyone. Nature is the only real attraction on the island and visitors are expected to hike, bike or kayak to locations on their own. Distances can be challenging in the heat. Long-tail boats can also be hired to visit remote parts of the island, but prices are high due to gasoline costs.

Camping is allowed in many areas, but there are only restaurants in Ao Pante Malacca and Ao Molae. Booking accommodation is difficult for international visitors due to payment options, but advanced booking should only really be necessary during peak periods and Thai holidays. (Actually, I personally don’t mind if payment stays difficult to keep the hordes out.)

The national park office at Pak Bara pier was reasonably helpful, but the park staff on Tarutao itself is rude and next to useless. (Virtually every new arrival commented on how awful the park staff is.) They can provide no information and were usually sleeping off their hangovers in the park office. The Thai government seriously needs to get some help training these people. Because the staff is not very helpful, a bit of online research is useful before you go. The national park website has some useful info and Tezza’s Beaches and Islands has a great review of the park and facilities.

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Topics: Adventures, Thailand, Travel Tips, Wildlife | 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “Koh Tarutao”

  • avatar carrieannmarco
    April 6th, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Very refreshing to read! Did you take a picture of that snake?

  • avatar Tony
    April 8th, 2011 at 9:21 am

    No, no picture of the snake. We were too busy trying to get it out of our room. That little guy just wouldn’t go out, no matter what we did. Hilariously, when we finally sort of launched him out of the room hockey-style using an old broom, he insisted on crawling into the neighboring bungalow’s grating. I ran over and forced him out of the grating using the broom and threw him out into the plants. Unfortunately, due to the commotion in our room and my attacking their grating with a broom, the occupants of the neighboring bungalow moved out the next morning before I could explain what had happened.

  • avatar Ben
    April 17th, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    wow…wow.

    excellent post. what an amazing place! i only hope that i am fortunate enough one day to be able to travel like you guys :) Tarutao would definitely be a first stop for me.

    Ben

  • avatar dominique
    October 12th, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    we are visiting ko tarutao in december. We are a family with teenage sons. Which camp is most recommended of the 2 ? Cant find any info. We love secluded, back to nature areas. Any comment will help us to decide. Thanks for a great article

  • avatar Brad
    November 9th, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Myself and my girlfriend are planning to visit Tarutao in January, and really enjoyed reading your blog!

    I was hoping to stay in the newer bungalows at Ao Molae, and wondered is there any difference between the 9 in terms of location? Do they all have a view of the ocean from the windows such as the end ones or would you have no preference?

    Thanks for your advice!

  • avatar Tony
    November 11th, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Yes, there are some small differences. I can’t remember for sure the numbering, but I believe 1 and 2 etc. are closer to the restaurant, so you can hear people when they are talking. One of the higher ones (I believe 7 or 8) is set back a little, but only 7- meters or so from the rest (not a huge issue). We actually stayed in the set back bungalow and liked it because we found it a little more private.

  • avatar Brad
    November 11th, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Thank you for getting back to me, really appreciate it. That’s great, so I will try to avoid 1 and 2 – and if we can see the ocean and minimise our risk of finding a snake in the bungalow at the same time then we’ll be very happy! Are any of the bungalow locations more vulnerable than others to finding nature’s visitors inside or is it impossible to say?

  • avatar Tony
    November 11th, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    No, all of the bungalows are equally vulnerable. :) There are actually open panels to allow the breeze through (and anything else that happens to want to enter). Try not to have open food or snacks in your bags, otherwise something might eat its way into the bags.

  • avatar jonathan
    July 4th, 2014 at 2:49 am

    hi…can u let me know what is the name of the bungalow u stay in? i would like to visit this island in 3weeks time…which place a must visit and how about the food there
    thanks

  • avatar Thomas
    July 5th, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Hi Jonathan,

    In the blog post we mentioned, we stayed in the camp Ao Molae. (There is another camp Ao Pante Malacca, but this is closer to the park entry and passenger arrival point.) So we would recommend staying at Ao Molae. Our bungalow had a number (I believe 8 or 9) which was further away from the kitchen than the lower number bungalows. When we were there in 2011 they had a little restaurant which provided fine food for good prices. Enjoy your stay!

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