Tarutao Prison Island

February 1, 2012
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One of the first books that I read about Thailand was called “Pirates of Tarutao” by Paul Adirex. It is loosely based on a true story of prisoners on a penal colony that were forced to become pirates due to food shortages during the Second World War. The real name of the author is Pongpol Adireksarn and at one time he was the Minister of Education in Thailand. I enjoyed reading that book and thought that I would never get a chance to visit this remote island off the coast of Satun in Southern Thailand. So, I was really pleased when I had an opportunity to fly down there last year.

Tarutao Island is part of the Tarutao National Marine Park, the second of its kind in Thailand when it was created in 1974. The marine park consists of 51 islands scattered over an area of 1,490 square kilometers in the Andaman Sea. The southern edge of the marine park borders with Malaysia. Out of the 51 islands, there are only seven large islands. These are: Ko Tarutao, Ko Adang, Ko Rawi, Ko Lipe, Ko Klang, Ko Batuang and Ko Bitsi. During our trip we stayed on the island of Ko Lipe which I think is where most people stay. It is unfortunate that we only had a brief time to visit Ko Tarutao but from what I saw there is enough to warrant staying on this island for a few days.


Ko Tarutao is the largest of the islands and has never been permanently settled by people. It is mainly mountainous with evergreen forests. But, it also has mangrove forests and beautiful sandy beaches. You can join long-tailed boats tours to explore some of the bays or go on walking tours along mountain trails. They even have bicycles that you can rent for the day. The island is home to a large variety of wildlife that includes bats, crab-eating macaques and even dolphins in the clear blue waters. During our brief visit we were shown some of the accommodation which seemed quite reasonable. The cheapest was about 500 baht and had room for four people. Bungalows with bathroom for two people started at 600 baht. There is also a camping ground where you can either pitch your own tent or rent one from the park office.


Near the park office there is a small museum which gives more information about the ecology of the park but also the history of the prison. Apparently the first prisoners arrived here in 1938 and were a mixture of common criminals and political prisoners. Probably the most famous was So Setabutra, the author of the first Thai-English Dictionary. He wrote some of the book while in prison. During World War II, food and medical supplies were unable to reach this isolated island. In desperation, some of the prisoners and guards banded together to raid passing merchant ships. This continued until 1946 when British naval troops were sent in to put down the pirates. From what I understand there is very little evidence left today of the prison which is a shame.


Ko Tarutao is also famous for being the location for the popular TV programme Survivor: Tarutao in 2002. Which probably gives you some indication of its remoteness. The best time to visit is between November and April. During the rainy season you will most likely find that there are no boats heading to the island. The nearest mainland pier to Ko Tarutao island is at Pak Bara which is about 22 kilometers away. A number of boats leave daily and there are quite a few travel agents at the pier selling tickets. When I get a chance, I would like to go here again and spend more time exploring the island. I like it when there is a combination of natural history and historical events. Maybe next time I will take the book Pirates of Tarutao and read it while I am there!