The 51 islands of the Koh Tarutao Marine National Park archipelago lie in the Andaman Sea, 20-70 km off the extreme southwest coast of peninsular Thailand. Tarutao is a Malay work meaning old, mysterious and primitive. Much of the island is composed of very old Cambrian sandstone. The northern and southeastern portions of the island, as well as most of the caves on the island, consist of limestone rock.
Tarutao, the largest of the islands, is 26.5 km long and 11 km wide. The topography is mostly mountainous (highest point 708m) with a few broad plains and valleys. Semi-evergreen rainforest blankets about 60 percent of the island, and pure mangrove swamps are found in several areas. Long sandy beaches lie along the western coast from Pante Bay to Makham Bay (Ao Makham), and at Talo Udang Bay (Ao Talo Udang) in the south.
The Adang-Rawi group of islands lie about 50 km west of Tarutao and includes Adang, Rawi, Dong and Lipeh Island. Adang Island, with a steep and rugged landscape almost completely covered by tropical rainforest, may be the most wild and appealing of the islands. Sparkling clear water and superb coral reefs provide habitat for a wide variety of marine life. Beautiful beaches consist of quartz derived from Adang's Cretaceous granite make-up and coral fragments. Several waterfalls plummet down Adang's eastern slopes in times of heavy rain.
The area of Koh Adang- Koh Rawi contains many coral reefs of high species diversity. Degradation of some reefs by natural and man-made causes is significant but has not affected the overall ecological value of the park. The damage to some reefs is due to dynamite fishing, storm damage and crown-of-thorns starfish predation. It is estimated that the park contains about 25% of the world's fish families. Some of the more important include members of the shark, ray, grouper, eel, carp, catfish, salmon, flying perch, angelfish and butterflyfish families. 92 species of coral-reef fish have also been identified.
Among marine mammals which can be spotted in the park are dugong, the common dolphin, the highly endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, sperm whale and minke whale.
3 species of migratory sea turtles nest on several of the island's beaches from September to April. Tragically, the present number of turtle nests may be less than a 10th of those found in 1974, a decline that is likely due to over-collection of eggs, as well as mortality caused by fishing trawlers which often net adult turtles. 2 American scientists studied the turtles during 1980-81, but their programme of research and protection has largely been abandoned because of lack of manpower and funds. For more information see our: Koh Tarutao dive sites.
As is typical of island fauna, Tarutao National Park contains relatively few terrestrial vertebrates and resident birds, though visitors are still able to see wildlife. Dusky langurs, crab-eating macaques, mouse deer and wild pig are common on the islands. Due to prolonged isolation by sea, over 13 insular subspecies occur on the islands. There are at least 9 insular subspecies of squirrels, 5 of common tree shrew and 3 of lesser mouse deer. Other wildlife occurring in the park are Slow Lorises, otters, civets, flying lemurs, fishing cats, soft-shelled turtles, monitor lizards, pythons, cobras, coral snakes and vipers. Crocodiles may inhabit the saltwater swamps of Tarutao, but no sightings have been reported for several years. The feral cattle will soon be removed from Tarutao, and a park rule against other domesticated animals is strictly enforced.
It is likely that over 100 bird species occur here, either as residents or migrants. The reef egret, which has both a light and dark colour phase, is a commonly seen bird of both rocky and sandy coasts. White-bellied sea eagles and ospreys are also seen. There are 3 species of hornbills as well as more rarely encountered species such as frigate birds, dusky grey herons, pied imperial pigeons and the masked fin-foot. Just off the southwest tip of Tarutao is Koh Rang Nok (Birds Nest Island) where a limestone cavern harbours a large colony of edible swiftlet nests. A shrine at the entrance was once used to make offerings of cattle skulls to placate the cave's spirits, and protect nest gatherers who scaled long bamboo poles to the cave's roof, a practice now prohibited.
The climate of Tarutao is influenced by its position just north of the 'Kangar-Pattani line', which approximates the transition from rain to monsoon forest. The change is due to decreasing rainfall and increasing seasonality in the climate northwards. Further complications of geology and soil types create a mix of both Thai and Malayan forest species in the park. The dominant vegetation type in the park is moist evergreen forest. Other types are dry evergreen forest, mixed deciduous forest, mangrove forest, secondary forest and old agricultural land, beach forest, coconut plantation and scrub forest.
Koh Tarutao and the west coast of peninsular Thailand are subject to a monsoon climate. The rainy season from May through to October sees 250-400 mm of rainfall in each of these months. The other 6 months of the year receive little or no rain. Total annual rainfall averages about 2,500 mm The monsoon winds make boat travel dangerous from May to October and the park is therefore closed (Adang - Rawi Islands) every year between 16 May - 15 November for visitor safety reasons. Visitors are encouraged to visit to the park from November to April.
The mean yearly temperature is between 27 and 28°C. The warmest month of the year is April, with the April mean about 29°C. High temperatures in April may be 35 degrees or more. November and December are the coolest months of the year with mean temperatures of about 15°C.
The mean yearly humidity is about 80%. It is highest in September, October and November, when it averages about 85%. Humidity is lowest in February and March, varying from 70-72%.
Tarutao, Koh Adang and Koh Rawi islands were declared a Thailand Marine National Park in 1974 and have had an eventual history before and after that date.
In 1938 the Corrections Department of Thailand built a penal colony on Koh Tarutao to imprison enemies of the state. 2 important revolutionary groups were locked up there after attempted coups which were unsuccessful but ultimately helped to pave the way for democratic reform in Thailand and the drafting of a constitution.
The first prison was located at Talo Udang Bay, but hundreds of new prisoners came every month, so Talo Wao Bay became the second prison site. A third of the convicts sent to Tarutao died on the island. Malaria was the main cause of death; but cruelty from guards and starvation were other major factors. Escape was unlikely, due to crocodiles and sharks around the island. Not all prisoners were treated equally. The political prisoners were more respected due to their social status, rank and education, and enjoyed an 'open prison' atmosphere away from the common prisoners. They passed their time in useful pursuits, including agriculture, plant propagation, translation and dictionary-writing. After their return to the real world, many returned to high governmental posts.
During World War II supplies stopped being sent from the mainland, and both prisoners and guards were forced to hijack a merchant ship to prevent starvation. The raided ship produced riches beyond their expectations and spurred them to become the most feared pirates in the area, preying on merchant ships in the Strait of Malacca.
In 1946, after Word War II ended, British naval troops were sent to Koh Tarutao to clean out the pirate groups. After the Corrections Department closed the prisons, villagers from nearby provinces began to settle on Tarutao, in the valleys and inland of the bays. There were fishermen and farmers who planted rice, fruit trees, rubber trees, coconuts and jackfruit. In 1973 there were 1,000 villagers, living primarily on Tarutao Island. The settled residents were not pleased when the land became a national park and relations were very bad between the villagers and the park workers and there were many conflicts. Most of the villagers slowly moved away from the area leaving only 17 families.
Chao Leh (sea gypsies) were the original residents of the park, living in harmony with the sea long before prison days. Originally they were true 'gypsies', migrating from beach to beach and living in temporary houses. Their traditional fishing methods caused no detrimental impacts on their environment. Only later when mainland people moved to the islands to buy land and finance more intensive business activities, did sea gypsies become culprits in illegal trawling, dynamite fishing, piracy, logging and wildlife poaching.
At first the park had only 1 small boat to patrol the wide park waters, and even later could not match the boat power and weapons of illegal fishermen. During one famous incident in 1981, 10 park workers in a long-tail boat were surrounded by illegal trawlers and dynamite-fishing boats. As their boat became riddled with bullet holes, they broke away and returned to Laem Sone at Koh Adang. When the illegal boats followed them and surrounded the area, they had to radio for helicopter rescue. Other obstacles for the pioneering rangers were bad weather and storms, capsizing boats, malaria and loneliness.
The wild days of the islands are now long passed, and tourists are the main visitors to the area. Nature trails, snorkelling, beach activities and diving are now the main adventures in Koh Tarutao. There are also several view points and waterfalls to trek to.
Ao Makham has a ranger station on it. There is an incomplete park building on Molae Bay and a villager's bamboo house. Camping is permitted here, and there are some pleasant walking trails through coconut and banana plantations. The national park HQ is at Ao Phante Malaka, which is a popular spot for a picnic, kayaking or biking along trails. The Jorakae Cave (Crocodile Cave) entrance lies at the end of one of the Pante Malacca Canal's many mangrove-lined channels. The cave is filled with brackish water and extends several kilometres. A scenic boat trip can be arranged, with close-ups of the mangrove ecosystem, various birds and, if you are lucky, a glimpse of a Spectacled Langur pausing still in a tree.
For a more cultural tourist experience, Koh Lipeh has a small village with a school and shops where sea gypsy village life can be observed. The Chao Leh traditionally roam the islands harvesting fish, shellfish, coconuts and vegetables. Lipeh Island is a small flat island dominated by coconut plantations. Pattaya Bay on the other side of the island offers an isolated swimming and sunbathing area. Koh Lipeh is also within swimming distance of tiny Gra Island, with wonderful coral and fish life. Private tourist bungalows are available for rent here. There are more restaurant options and stores here than at Adang Island. Both the park and Lipeh villagers offer a boat service between Adang and Lipeh islands. Snorkels and masks are available for hire at Tarutao, Adang and Lipeh.
Ao Talo Udang is a lonely, historic outpost that looks out upon Langkawi Island, over in Malaysia. Once the site of a unique penal colony for political prisoners, later a bustling village complete with shops, fishing port, monks and a brothel; little trace of these civilized establishments can be found today. A few remnants of prison days are still visible including a cement foundation for a fish sauce plant, rubber tree grove, and charcoal furnace pit. These are a fair walk from the Talo Udang ranger station, but if you manage to make it here, maybe one of the rangers will show you around. The young men who are stationed here become quite cut off from the world, and tend to yell around, sing and tell ghost stories among themselves. Talo Udang Bay is located in the south of Tarutao Island. It's 8 km from Langkawi, and 23 km from the park headquarters. There is also a ranger station here.
Talo Wao Bay, was the other main prison site. It used to be the place where prisoners were caged and trained to work. Now it remains only a dune with ruined buildings and a cemetery for 700 prisoners. The coast is rocky here with limestone rocks jutting into the Andaman Sea. When first reaching the eastern coast by road, you will see the old ranger station, which is still used by the Talo Wao staff. The road continues another kilometre to the ranger station on the hill, overlooking the long pier next to a rock outcropping. In the monsoon season, fishing boats congregate in this sheltered bay.
There is a 12 km path from Talo Wao to Talo Udang (originally built by prisoners) which follows the old prisoner's road. In some places, remains of bridges and stonework can be seen. Currently the trail is very overgrown, a guide might be necessary to at least find the trailhead. The walk will take 4-5 hour walk. The 12½ km road from Pante Bay to Talo Wao Bay is flat and passes through old agricultural land, rubber trees and orchards but the last 4 km climb is through evergreen forest and tall trees. It takes about 3 hours to walk.