Ko Tarutao, an island in Satun Province, is so far south in Thailand that it's actually closer to Malaysian Langkawi than to the Thai mainland. And it's huge - more than 350 sq. km. It comes as a surprise that so much land lays unclaimed by people, but Ko Tarutao is officially uninhabited. Its status as the core part of Tarutao Marine National Park, established in 1974, prohibits any permanent development. There's no habitation on the island except for the National Park headquarters in the north and a couple of rangers' huts. Ko Tarutao is open to tourists, and its pristine condition makes it a great place to relax on the beach, hike in the jungle, and enjoy nature. Infrastructure, however, is minimal: a canteen at the headquarters, and a few bungalows, expensive and hard to book. Elsewhere, you'll have to camp and cook for yourself.
If minimalism is your thing, Ko Tarutao will be an ideal spot for you to relax - camp on the beach, swim, and watch the sunset. If you're of the more active kind, consider exploring the territory. The island's remoteness has resulted in relatively limited terrestrial biodiversity. The jungle is home to macaques and a variety of birds, but no rare mammals. A hike will be worthwhile for its own sake, however. Marine life is more exciting and includes sea turtles that come ashore to lays eggs on the beach. The only landmark on the island that can be considered a tourist site is the Crocodile Cave - a nice cavern with no crocodiles, despite its name.
Ko Tarutao wasn't always a protected nature area. In the early 20th century, it was used by the Thai authorities for a maximum-security prison. During World War II, the prison colony was left to its devices by the government. Guards and inmates, facing starvation, joined forces in piracy. Collaborating with renegade British officers, they raided and sunk 130 ships, until the British navy hunted them down and exterminated. Recently, in 2013, a group of modern-day criminals was found using the southern, uncontrolled part of the island as a prison camp again. This time, it was reserved for Rohingya refugees that were lured by a promise of escape from Myanmar, then held for ransom, beaten, and tortured. The shocking news brought a quick raid by the Thai police forces, and the prisoners were rescued, but no perpetrators caught, resulting in rumors of corruption in high places.
Ko Tarutao can be reached by a public ferry from Pak Bara, a port in Satun Province. Typically, there’s one boat daily in each direction. The same ship continues to Ko Lipe – a well-developed resort island with plenty of tourist services. A one-way ticket from Pak Bara at the time of research costs 300 THB. Additionally, there’s a national park entrance fee: 200 THB for foreigners. Food and drinks are available in the canteen by the national park headquarters and are pricey. A few bungalows, also next to the headquarters, are expensive and likely to be booked by Thai tourists in the high season. There’s no other accommodation, and the rest of the island is entirely uninhabited. Tents can be rented on the spot, but they are of low quality. You may be better off bringing your own gear. There’s a small fee to use designated campsites, or you can camp on the beach or in the jungle, as the island is huge and has plenty of freshwaters – just find a brook. Boat excursions to the Crocodile Cave can be arranged at the national park office, but getting anywhere else on Ko Tarutao usually means a long sweaty hike. Keep in mind that, in the rainy season, storms can affect the ferry schedule, and you may end up stranded on Ko Tarutao much longer than you expect.
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