From Pirates to Paradise: Island Hopping in the Tarutao Marine Park

Many tourists heading to Thailand may not have heard of Satun, the province in the far south-west of the country that shares a land and maritime border with Malaysia. And yet this corner of Thailand is home to the gorgeous Ko Tarutao National Marine Park which covers an area of around 540 square miles and includes more than 50 islands. Most of the islands are uninhabited, but there are some exceptions. If you’re seeking a tropical island hideaway with empty beaches and don’t need nightlife or fancy restaurants, look no further than Ko Tarutao. On the other hand, if you prefer your holiday idyll to come with more creature comforts, Ko Lipe may fit the bill. And for somewhere that falls between the two, Ko Bulon and Ko Adang are both worth considering.

Ko Tarutao

Walking along the sun-soaked sands of Ko Tarutao or admiring one of those epic Andaman Sea sunsets, it’s hard to imagine how anybody could not enjoy spending time here. But it wasn’t so long ago when being sent to Ko Tarutao was a punishment. In the 1930s and 1940s convicts and political prisoners were despatched to internment camps on the island. Surrounded by the Andaman Sea and with thick jungle covering the interior, this was an island where malaria was rife and crocodiles lurked in the mangroves. During the Second World War, supplies to Ko Tarutao were severely restricted and convicts and prison wardens resorted to piracy in the Straits of Malacca. After the war the prisons on Tarutao were closed down and redemption for the island was completed in the mid-1970s when Ko Tarutao was granted national park status and protection.

Malaria is no longer an issue for visitors to Ko Tarutao. And there are no crocodiles here these days although the island does support a diverse range of wildlife. Expect to see macaques, monitor lizards, wild boars and sea eagles. Ko Tarutao is a protected island and there are no hotels, guest-houses or 7-Elevens here. Instead, it is the National Park headquarters which is at the hub of island life and where you can arrange accommodation in basic, but comfortable bungalows. Or you can sleep under canvas overlooking the sea in one of the national park tents.

Bring a book or two, forget about the Internet and enjoy the rugged beauty of Ko Tarutao. Walk the 20-minute trail to the viewpoint on top of Tob-boo cliff or arrange to go with a ranger and hike some of the more demanding trails on the island and take in the waterfalls at Lu Do and Lu Pu. Hire a mountain bike and head along the paved road to the east of Ko Tarutao where the site of the former prison at Ao Talo Wow forms part of a history trail. Alternatively, boatmen can take you to explore the coastline including Tham Jorakae (‘Crocodile Cave’) and the mangroves where they once roamed. If all that sounds too much like hard work, simply lie in a hammock and enjoy the sea views and tranquility.

Ko Lipe

A one hour speedboat ride away from Ko Tarutao brings you to the turquoise waters and dazzling white sands of Ko Lipe. Unlike Ko Tarutao and other islands in the national park, there are a lot of tourist facilities on Ko Lipe with a plethora of hotels, beach bungalows and restaurants. Ko Lipe is attractive, but there is also no denying that this small island has endured growing pains as transport links have improved and more tourists have discovered its appeal.

The main thoroughfare on the island, Walking Street, is lined with cafes, tour offices, small hotels and eateries. Ko Lipe is a comfortable base to explore nearby islands and any of the tour offices on Walking Street can arrange snorkelling and sightseeing trips for you. The compact size of Ko Lipe means that it is easy to walk to most locations on the island although there are also motorbike taxis with sidecars available if you’d prefer. A 10-minute walk along Walking Street is all that separates the two main beaches of Pattaya Beach and Hat Chao Ley (also known as Sunrise Beach). ‘Chao Ley’ is Thai for ‘people of the sea’ and refers to the ocean-going minority sometimes referred to as ‘sea gypsies’. The Chao Ley were settled on Ko Lipe and other islands in the Andaman Sea hundreds of years before the first tourists arrived. With their own proud heritage and culture, the Chao Ley continue to live in small villages on Ko Lipe and nearby Ko Bulon.

Suggested accommodation:
Castaway Beach Resort

Serendipity Beach Resort

Ko Adang

Ko Tarutao and Ko Adang share a number of similarities. They are the two largest islands in the Mu Ko Tarutao Marine Park and both were former hideouts for pirates. The two islands are now protected areas and the only choice of accommodation is in the form of National Park bungalows or tents. However, whereas Ko Tarutao feels remote, Ko Adang is just a short hop over the water from Ko Lipe. This means you can enjoy the quiet life, but still have the option of making a ten-minute longtail boat ride to take advantage of the range of tourist facilities available on Ko Lipe.  

Take time away from the beaches of Ko Adang to enjoy the walking trails, especially the one that takes you up to a series of viewpoints on Chado Cliff. It takes some effort to walk up the steps and clamber over the rocks to get there, but the views looking out over the Andaman Sea to Ko Lipe are sublime.

Ko Bulon Leh

Although the island of Ko Bulon Leh (often simplified to Ko Bulon) lies just outside the boundaries of the Tarutao National Park, it is part of Satun province and a worthy inclusion here. Inhabited by a small Chao Ley community this lovely little island has managed to strike a happy medium when it comes to tourism. If Ko Lipe seems too developed for your taste and Ko Tarutao too remote, you may find Ko Bulon ideal. There isn’t a huge amount to do here and that is the precise reason why Ko Bulon appeals to those seeking a relaxing holiday on a tropical island.

Suggested accommodation:
Bulon Hill Resort

Pansand Resort

Other islands in Satun

The rich cultural and geological diversity of Satun has been officially recognised by Unesco with the approval of the first Global Geopark in Thailand. The Geopark covers much of Satun province and includes some stunning uninhabited islands where daytrippers can enjoy snorkelling and swimming.

Ko Kai

The natural stone archway on Ko Kai is one of the most photographed images from the Tarutao Marine Park and adorns postcards and tourist brochures. Although there is no accommodation on this tiny island, Ko Kai can be visited as part of a day trip from Ko Lipe. Alternatively, some scheduled speedboat services between Ko Tarutao and Ko Lipe include a brief stopover at Ko Kai.

Ko Rawi

Some of the best snorkelling sites in the Tarutao Marine Park can be found in the waters off Ko Rawi where you will find corals, giant clams and an array of tropical fish.

Ko Hin Ngam

The ‘Island of Beautiful Stones’ is famous for the smooth pebbles that adorn the beach. According to local legend, the God of Tarutao cursed the stones on the island and bad luck and ill health awaits anybody who takes them away. There are numerous stories about people who have ignored the advice and then suffered various calamities. Whether you believe in the local folklore or not, it is illegal to take the stones and rangers on the island do take action.

Good to know

The mainland pier of Pak Bara is the main departure point for Ko Tarutao, Ko Lipe and Ko Bulon. On arrival in Pak Bara there is a helpful National Park office adjacent to the pier where you can book bungalows (from 600 baht) on Ko Tarutao and Ko Adang. You can also do so via the Department of National Parks website although the online booking process is clunky.

The nearest airports on the Thai mainland are Trang and Hat Yai and tour offices in those towns can make arrangements for through travel to the islands via Pak Bara pier. If you are travelling to Ko Lipe from Bangkok, low-cost airlines Air Asia and Nok Air both offer a combination ticket that includes flight to Hat Yai, minibus transfer to Pak Bara and ferry to Ko Lipe.

The best time to visit the Tarutao National Marine Park is from November-April. The park is closed from mid-May to mid-October. Entrance fee to the marine park is 200 baht for non-Thais (100 baht for children). Tickets are valid for 5 days so keep it on your person at all times when travelling to islands within the park. There are cash machines and money exchangers on Ko Lipe, but not on any of the other islands so make sure you have enough Thai baht with you.