This was our last island in Thailand. Koh Tarutao is one of 51 islands (and by far the largest) in the Tarutao National Marine Park just off the southern coast of Thailand. Koh Lipe is the most famous island in the park and also the most commercialized. As I mentioned in the Koh Lanta blog post we had initially wanted to go to Koh Lipe but changed our mind based on feedback from other travelers (to be fair, there were several folks who absolutely loved Lipe. Just depends on what you are looking for.). Specifically, we wanted to get away from the crowds and were willing to sacrifice some personal comforts to do so.
- High Level. We were unable to book our entire journey through a travel agent in Koh Lanta due to a lack of demand, so we had to book a bus to Pak Bara pier and then a boat from Pak Bara pier to Koh Tarutao. One important note – we heard some minibuses drop you off in La Ngu (at the minibus terminal) instead of Pak Bara pier. If this is the case, there is an orange songthaew service running between La Ngu and Pak Bara pier for 20 baht. As a reminder, as of this writing the exchange rate is about 35 baht to $1 USD.
- Bus from Koh Lanta to Pak Bara (700 baht/person). The bus from Koh Lanta to Pak Bara was…an adventure within an adventure. First of all, we received some of the infamous Thailand transport stickers (for those of you who do not remember, these are the stickers with your final destination you are asked to place on your shirt by Thai transport agencies). Unlike our previous stickers, these were written in Thai characters so there is a good chance I was wearing mine upside down. I had no idea. Either way, we were told those going to Pak Bara would switch buses in Trang. 12 KM outside of Trang, we pulled into a gas station and the bus driver started pointing at various passengers (including us) telling us to get our bags and get into another bus (parked beside our current bus). OK! Then, once we arrived in the town of Pak Bara the bus pulled over again (this time on the side of the road) and we were, once more, told to get out and get in another vehicle (this time a truck that had pulled up behind us). I pointed to my sticker several times saying, “Pak Bara?” and the driver nodded so I went with it. A few minutes later – Voila! Pak Bara pier. Easy.
- Speedboat from Pak Bara to Koh Tarutao (800 baht/person, round trip). We didn’t shop around on this one, so I’m sure you could find a better deal. We had heard to expect anywhere from 350 – 450 baht. My guess is the speedboat would be in the upper range and a ferry would be in the lower range? Also, since fewer people go to Tarutao I’m not even sure there is a ferry option. Either way, this was easy enough. The speedboats leave two or three times each day and the journey takes 30-40 minutes. The ‘round trip’ portion of the ticket means you have an open ended ticket to leave the island. When you are ready to leave you just need to hop on one of the scheduled departures.
Tarutao has a few options for lodging. There are basic bungalows (private rooms or dorms), you can rent a tent and sleep on the beach, or (for about $1 USD a night) you can bring your own tent and sleep on the beach. This post does a great job at breaking down the options for you. For a few reasons, we decided to rent a tent and sleep on the beach:
1) Renting a tent was about $6 a night, so it was a money saver.
2) We read power is only on from 6pm to midnight each day on the island, so we think you lose the fan at midnight each night anyways.
3) We would get to sleep on a beach.
There is a long expanse of beach right near the pier (about 0.8 miles) where we could set up our tent. There were probably 5 other tents scattered along this. The tent was interesting to put up (it took us about an hour), but once it was up, it was actually a pretty nice little tent.
As we mentioned, Tarutao is a national park with not much on it. That includes restaurant choices. I think there were three restaurants scattered around the island, but they are far enough apart that when you are at the campsite you only have one choice (so I guess that means you have no choices). You would have had to bike/hike for 4-5KM to get to the next one. The food was also expensive (2-3 times the cost of mainland) and mediocre at best. Nothing to write home about there. We did read about his ahead of time, so we brought peanuts, crackers, and water with us. However, you need to be cautious about bringing food with you, particularly if you are staying in a tent, because the monkeys are not scared to break into your tent and into your bags to find the food. This didn’t happen to us, but the reason we were wary of bringing bananas and things like that with us from mainland.
This is really where Tarutao shines. There is a decent amount to do on the island, and none of it is crowded. And when I say not crowded, I mean you may not see anyone else for hours.
- Biking. We rented bikes for one day to explore the island a bit more. There aren’t a whole lot of motorized vehicles on the island. There are a few mopeds that the employees of the park use, and a taxi that runs around the island twice a day, but besides that, it’s pretty much up to you to move yourself around the island. The biking is not super easy. The island is actually quite hilly, and only some of the paths are paved (read: bumpity bump bump). First, we biked to Ao Molee which is another beach with bungalows and camping. There wasn’t a whole lot here though. We continued on to Ao Son a bit further down the island. Here we found a huge, gorgeous beach with no other humans. Great success. Then, we biked to a hiking spot just before Ao Son. Moral of the story, biking was a good way for us to get around the island and see other things, but it certainly wasn’t easy. Also, on the bike back, we saw a monitor lizard. MONITOR LIZARDS ARE HUGE. GOOGLE IT. I’m so glad I knew what they were already or I may have had a heart attack.
- Beaching. We were technically beaching the second we went outside our tent, so there was no shortage of that. We also walked around Ao Son beach as mentioned above which was awesome. Highly recommend.
- Hiking. We went on two hikes. The first was Toe Boo cliff which was a 20 minute or so hike up to a lookout point right near our campsite. The second hike was the one near Ao Son beach. The objective of this hike was to find Namtok Ludu waterfall.. however, we don’t know if we ever found the waterfall. If we did, it was a pretty weeny waterfall. However, the hike was awesome. It probably took us about 2 hours total. It was really easy to follow and well marked in the beginning (including little arrows), and then it started to get a little bit more difficult to follow (but more fun, in my opinion) as we had to start climbing over huge boulders. We also happened upon some gorgeous pools of clear blue water on the way. The hike was complete with a few falls and scrapes (in which Sam and I had the morbid conversation about how long it would take for someone to even start looking for us if we fell off a cliff on our hike… note to self, keep parents more in the loop about where we are…). We recommend both hikes. Toe Boo was easy and has a nice lookout, Namtok Ludu is more about the adventurous journey and less about the view at the end. Both enjoyable in their own ways.
- Kayaking. We kayaked back into the mangroves of the island to get to Crocodile caves. A word of caution – the kayaks they have are pretty terrible. It was a lot of work to kayak back to the caves (one of those, “but the wind was blowing in our faces on the way THERE too” experiences.) Sam also commented that the kayak was made for a person of height 5’4″ at a maximum. The main goal of kayaking was to get to Crocodile Cave.
- Caving. Crocodile Cave was an interesting experience. It had some legit stalagmites which were pretty cool looking, but more interesting was the creepy raft they had tied up down in the dark water. Once on the raft (just Sam and me), you could manually pull yourself deeper into the cave via a slimy rope in the water that was connected to the other end of the cave. It felt like something out of the end of a Harry Potter (The cave at the end of the Half-Blood Prince? That. I was ready for skeletons to come out and drag me down at any moment). It was an interesting experience. The cave was okay, but I think we more enjoyed that this sort of “cave exploration” would never fly in the USA. Gotta love Thailand!
- One run on the beach. The beach was not easy to run on, and I was tired. We eeked out 3 miles and called it a day. Strava data HERE.
- One speedwork session on the road through town (Danielle). The road through town was super flat (before it turned super hilly right out of town) and was about 0.5 miles long. It was perfect for some 800 repeats! I got some funny looks by other tourists and the park employees, and I stopped once because a stupid monkey scared the heck out of me, but overall it worked out really well! I did 1 mile warm up, 3×800 with 800 easy in between, 1 mile cool down. I’m so out of shape. I’m going to blame it (once again) on the ridiculous humidity. Strava data HERE.
- Two swims in the ocean (Sam, not Danielle). Salty water. No jellyfish attacks. Success.
- Tarutao. Tarutao in general is a cool spot. Beautiful, remote, not super touristy. Just bring extra food and don’t let the monkeys have it.
- Beach camping. Great decision. We fell asleep each night listening to the ocean’s waves and the sound of the wind. It wasn’t perfect (it was quite warm when the wind wasn’t blowing), but there aren’t a lot of other opportunities to camp so close to the beach. Plus, it was cheap!
- Lots of animals! We saw some wild boars, a monitor lizard, lots of monkeys (they aren’t exactly a positive, but..), and various other lizards, insects, and birds on the island. NEATure.
- Food on Tarutao. I think we’ve harped this enough. Food is not great and expensive.
- Buying water at the ‘shop’. There is a shop by the pier, and then there is a restaurant a little bit further south. The water at the shop is WAY more expensive. Buy it straight from the restaurant (you can just go up to the counter, you don’t need to order food too).
- Shithead monkeys. They’re just annoying. We learned Tarutao park employees carry around slingshots to shoot things at the monkeys (so they don’t terrorize the tourists). As soon as a monkey sees that slingshot being pulled back, they just take off! I guess that’s Darwinism for you.. in a few generations maybe they will only need to see the slingshot before they go running (or maybe the monkeys passing on their traits will be the ones that have learned to outsmart the slingshot in some way. I don’t want to be around those monkeys.)
- Vegetarian Update. I had planned on being more lax on my vegetarianism while traveling. I didn’t want to miss out on local cuisine and it’s hard enough to order dishes in a foreign country, let alone to order them without meat. I also assumed the run of the mill meat quality may be better here that in the USA (since there are chickens just wandering around town). However, we’ve felt like the meat quality has been mostly subpar. Also, I crave vegetables (since we’ve been having so many noodle or rice based dishes), so if I can communicate “no meat, vegetables?” then I do it. Also, a lot of Indian food is vegetarian, so that has been super easy while in Malaysia. All in all, I’m eating more meat than I would in the States, but less than I thought I would.