The mountainous island of Tarutao is the largest of the islands, 26 km long and 11 km wide and covering 151 sq km. A mountainous spine runs north-south down the centre of the island, with its highest point reaching 708 m. The interior remains largely forested, cloaked in dense semi-evergreen rainforest. The main beaches are
Ao Moh Lai
, mostly on the west of the island which has long sweeps of sand punctuated by headlands and mangrove. Ao Sone, for example, is a 3 km-long stretch of sand fringed with casuarina trees. (Much of the mangrove was cut for charcoal during the early 1960s before the national park was finally gazetted in 1974.) Notorious as the beach where a lone pirate killed a camping tourist in the 1980s, this eerie strip has quite a physical presence, unlike any of the other beaches along the west coast.
The water is aggressive and choppy while Tarutao looms out from the water. This haunting
beach, while it does have refreshments at one end, is not as busy as the others. Well worth the visit to Tarutao for the feeling that not everything has been tamed. You can also spot the delightfully electric kingfisher here.
Tae Bu cliff
, just behind the park headquarters on Ao Phante, has good sunset views. You climb up an imaginative route which includes a path cut into the hill, rickety wooden
plank steps and extraordinary rock formations, all the while hearing the sound of monkeys,
mouse deer, hornbills and perhaps wild boar. Finally you reach the top and a lookout point over the beach and surrounding forest, which is not as satisfying as the walk itself. You may also find it taken over by groups of young park staff - especially in the early morning.
The prison at Ao Talo U-Dang, in the south, was established in 1939 and was once used
as a concentration camp for Thailand's political prisoners; the graveyard, charcoal furnaces
and a fish fermentation plant are still there. The other main camp, at Ao Talo Wao on the east side of the island, was used for high-security criminals. During the Second World War, when communications were slow and difficult, the remoteness of the island meant it was cut off from supplies of food. After 700 out of the 3000 prisoners died, the desperate inmates and some of the guards became pirates to stay alive. The prisons have been partially restored as historical monuments. Today the only people living on the island are the park wardens and other staff.
Coconut plantations still exist on Tarutao but the forests have barely been touched, providing a habitat for flying lizards, wild cats, lemur, wild boar, macaques, mouse deer and feral cows, believed to have bred when the prisoners were taken from the island. Crocodiles once inhabited Khlong Phante and there is a large cave on the Choraka (crocodile) water system known as
(bring a torch). The best way to see wildlife on Koh Tarutao is to walk down the 12-km road during the dry season when animals come out in search of water. There are also many species of bird on the islands including colonies of swiftlets found in the numerous limestone caves - mainly on
Koh Lo Tong
(to the south of Tarutao) and
Koh Ta Kieng
(to the northeast). Large tracts of mangrove forest are found here, especially along Khlong Phante Malacca, on Tarutao. The islands are also known for their trilobite fossils, 400 to 500 million years old, found not just on Tarutao but all over the national park.
While the waters around Tarutao are home to four species of turtle (the Pacific Ridleys, green, hawksbill and leatherback), whales and dolphins are also occasionally seen; the sea is clearer further west in the waters of the Adang-Rawi archipelago .Koh Bulon-Leh
These two islands have both developed into beach resorts fairly recently. But while Koh Lipe has had Chao Le for perhaps centuries, only in the past 50 years or so has Koh Bulon-Leh had year-round residents: a Muslim population of around 50. The reason for this is down to the superstition of the Moken fisherpeople who believed the island was cursed and that everyone who lived there met an untimely died. This kept the island uninhabited until after the Second World War; since then it was discovered that the high mortality rate was due to tuberculosis.
The lifestyle here is exceedingly laid-back and in the more expensive resorts - boho-chic.
One of the perks to having had few tourists and a rather isolated position, is that visitors will often join simple pleasures like the evening rugby games by the school or fishing trips with the locals. The island has attracted many returnees - many from Italy and France - and of a wide age range. More upmarket than Koh Lipe, it does offer greater comfort to the well-heeled who sometimes stay for months at a time.
Development is still relatively low-key but land speculation has been going on since the 1990s and investors are no doubt hoping that Koh Bulon-Leh will develop, especially as it is relatively near the pier at Pak Bara. Koh Bulon-Leh is less than 20 km north of Koh Tarutao and about the same distance west of
Ban Pak Bara. While it is part of the same archipelago as Tarutao, the island is outside the boundaries of the national park. Further- more, it has two caves of interest:
, which houses a small colony of fruit bats, and
, where it's possible to dive in from one side, swim under the rocks and among thousands of little fish (but beware the moray eel) and come up on the other side.