The 51 islands of the Tarutao National Marine Park are the most southwesterly in Thailand, located only 5 miles (8 km) from the Malaysian island of Langkawi. Tarutao is famous for its superb diving sites, said to be among the world’s best. Offshore sightings of sperm and minke whales, dugongs, and dolphins are common. There is also a rich concentration of fish life with 92 species of coral fish and around 25 percent of all the world’s fish species in the surrounding seas.
For centuries the islands had a more sinister reputation as a lair for pirates. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the British Royal Navy finally curtailed the pirate raids. The archipelago, extending over 580 sq miles (1,490 sq km), became Thailand’s first national marine park in 1974.
The park includes spectacular, unspoiled scenery, a wide variety of wildlife, and good coral. However, these attractions are accessible to visitors only from mid November to mid-May as monsoon storms make the ferry trip from Pak Bara too risky at other times.
The largest island in the group, 16-mile (26-km) long Ko Tarutao, offers the greatest scenic variety. Tropical rainforest covers most of its surface, which reaches a height of 2,300 ft (708 m). Most accommodations and the best facilities for visitors are found near the wonderful, pristine beaches of the west coast.
Ferries from Pak Bara dock at Ao Phante Malaka, which is where the park headquarters, bungalows, two restaurants, and the island’s only store are located. Worthwhile excursions from here include the half-hour climb to To-bo cliff with its fine views, particularly at sunset, and the 1-mile (2-km) boat trip to stalagmite-filled Crocodile cave. No crocodiles have been seen for many years, but the island does support a wide variety of fauna including deer, wild pigs, macaques, otters, and soft shelled turtles. Ko Adang and Ko Lipey are the only other islands in the park to offer (rudimentary) accommodations and food for visitors. Rugged Ko Adang, 39 miles (62 km) west of the mainland, rises to 2,300 ft (703 m). It is thickly forested and has many year-round waterfalls, such as the Rattana falls on the southwest coast. Here, you can take a freshwater rock pool swim while overlooking the sea.
The smaller island of Ko Lipey, 1 mile (2 km) south of Ko Adang, has pleasant footpaths through coconut plantations and the immaculate sands of Pattaya beach. It is also home to a community of sea gypsies, displaced from Ko Rawi and Ko Adang when the park was created. Relations between the gypsies and the park authorities are strained.
Ko Kra, off Lipey’s east coast, has excellent corals, as does Ko Yang, midway between Rawi and Adang islands.
Tiny Ko Khai (“egg island”), west of Tarutao, has a dramatic rock arch and is surrounded by fine sands. These are a major breeding ground for sea turtles, hence the island’s name.