Tarutao Island, Phuket, Thailand

Thai Hideaways

 Double Dip of Sand & Sun: Phuket & Tarutao, Sister Islands

By Kit C.Cauw

In the first few days of tsunami trauma, I couldn’t have imagined writing an article promoting tourism in the Thai Andaman Sea, not for this year. I sat frozen, shocked, fused to my television, convinced that nothing would ever be the same. Paradise lost, paradise gone.

I wasn’t the only one to think this way. Even resorts that had suffered no physical damage watched their guests flee. One can understand the reaction. With so much carnage, so many tears and so many reminders, one’s battery of holiday cheer runs dry. Even if no one was hurt on your beach, you didn’t feel like swimming. My family and I did what everyone else was doing: we cancelled our New Year’s reservations for a beach resort; this despite assurances from the bungalow operator that all was well on that particular island. Within weeks, the lifeblood, the tourists, had nearly drained out of Phuket and the entire region. Newspaper articles forecast layoffs in the range of 50,000. By January 13th, one of the biggest name resorts on the island had one occupied room. Radio Thailand reported that regional occupancy percentages hovered in the teens; February was looking like single digits. When would the bleeding stop?

Loss of tourism revenue is the tsunami’s rogue cousin, a wave that spread over the region, showing no clear signs of abating. Local tour agencies, publishing houses, and public relations machines cried foul, blaming the media for lumping Phuket in with harder hit areas like Khao Lak, Phi Phi, and even Sri Lanka. News channels, giddy on high ratings, got sloppy, negligent to the point of malice. Viewers watched photos and video from utterly annihilated zones in other countries while the voiceover spoke of Phuket. Little effort went into differentiation, critics accused, causing people abroad to believe that the risks of disease and the lack of infrastructure applied to the entire affected region.

Many expats, including myself, received numerous calls and emails asking if our water was safe, if we needed anything, if aid could be sent to us. Educated people circulated photos over the web of tsunami devastation: one such collection showed pagodas overcome by water-from Japan in a totally unrelated event. Worldwide hysteria and fascination with destruction ran high, as did word of doom. One news report took photos of two coral reefs, the first untouched, the other covered in sand. Though the pictures were shot simultaneously, the report presented them as "before and after" pictures. The coral’s all dead, streamed reports, the dive industry is finished.

Meanwhile, battalions of volunteers, relief workers, search and rescue forces, soldiers, forensics specialists, police and monks were working to clean up and set the departed souls to rest. Less than a week after day zero, many of the beaches were clean enough for swimming. Indeed, a brief, hopeful report flashed on Thai television of wacky Europeans out sunbathing. I drove through Kata and would not have known anything had happened. Suddenly, Phuket seemed salvageable. In fact, people whispered that the shoreline was now cleaner than ever; that Patong Beach looked like it did 20 years ago. The Nation ran an article entitled, "After The Scrubbing." No tour buses crowded the road, traffic thinned. It was the best time to visit Phuket in decades.

Still, an awkward pall hung above the island. Was it calloused, insensitive, or in poor taste to start encouraging people to return? Not to the folks who work here. Quite the opposite. The universal response was, yes we’ve suffered, we’re grieving, but don’t punish us further. John Gray, the sea kayaking pioneer, said to look at the numbers. Around 300 people died on Phuket. "That’s about the same as the number of people on an airplane," he said. "Would tourists stop coming here if one airplane crashed?

John Gray’s Sea Canoe is just one of many fine businesses feeling the squeeze, washed out more by cancellations than the wave itself. Now that the area is clean and in many instances more beautiful than in recent memory, what reason is there to stay away? From my ninth-floor hotel room overlooking Karon Beach, the scene below more closely resembles a deserted island idyll than the sea of umbrellas and beach chairs I’m familiar with. No jet skis pollute the tranquil tableau; the only boats are traditional fishing craft, booms extended over the sparkling sea. This is the perfect time to feel good about travelling, an occasion where every Thai baht you spend is going to a good cause: the restoration of Thailand’s Andaman coast.

Drinking water is safe and plentiful here; there has been no outbreak of disease; phones, electricity, banks and cars all run as usual. True, there is no absolute guarantee that another tsunami won’t strike-though the likelihood of it happening any time within the next thousand years is far slimmer than that of your being struck by lightning, eaten by a shark, hit by a drunk driver, or taken hostage by a terrorist in New York, London, or Sydney. You’re far more likely to perish the aftermath of a doomsday asteroid, a nuclear meltdown, or in an airplane crash than in another greatest-natural-disaster-in-the-history-of-the-world tidal wave.

Scores of people have asked how they can help Thailand rebuild. The answer is most simple. Come here and play. Swim, dive, sail, kayak; stroll the naked beaches. Do your little bit to help locals keep their jobs and businesses. Travel along the coast, explore. The tsunami has not changed the fact that Phuket is the travel hub of southern Thailand, the perfect base camp for forays into the forests of the mainland and the islands of the Andaman. Though Phi Phi will take longer to recover, other destinations were barely touched by the tsunami. The Similans, Phang Nga Bay and Trang province’s Hat Chao Mai Archipelago are three sterling examples. Perhaps most alluring and the least touched by the wave, are the islands of Koh Tarutao National Marine Park, down on the Malaysian border.

On the navigational chart, Phuket and Tarutao look like sister islands, though the former is roughly twice as large. Both run lengthwise from north to south with white and golden sand beaches along their west coasts. Their eastern sides are both muddy, though they afford stellar views of limestone islets. So similar are their features, a trip from Phuket to Tarutao is like a journey back in time. Mountain peaks surge more than 500 metres upward from the sea with streams running down through virgin jungle and untouched mangrove forests. If you were to magically awaken in Tarutao after a night on Phuket, your first question would not be "where have I gone?" but rather, "where have all the resorts gone?"

Tarutao is a tour of natural history. You can see how, like Phuket, the island was once connected with the mainland. You can see many of the birds that used to call Phuket home, most notably white bellied sea eagles and brahminy kites. The eagles are territorial; they nest and stay put in one area, so when you happen upon them you can return later to watch them catch fish in the same spots. One way to attract them is to throw bits of raw chicken skin upon the surface of the water. Their eyes are keen enough to spot these snacks from roosts high in the bone-white fichus trees. On an adventure with John Gray’s Sea Canoe last April, we spent an entire afternoon playing with these magnificent raptors, watching their aerobatics as they dove like arrows from the clouds to swoop down for their catches.

One needs a canoe or kayak to fully explore Tarutao. Rivers lead through some of the best preserved mangrove forests in the world, home to multitudes of fauna, including water monitor lizards, pythons, crab-eating macaque monkeys and dozens of species of birds. These estuaries formerly teemed with sea crocodiles, which John Gray ranks among the world’s three most dangerous sea creatures, right up there with box jellyfish and the great white shark. In over ten years of exploring Tarutao’s interior, the conservationist has yet to encounter a salty, as he calls them. You can tell that he wants to, but not up close in a tight cave. "The sad irony," he says, "is that we couldn’t be here if there were sea crocs. They’re real aggressive. But they’re all handbags now."

Unlike Phuket, limestone is a key geological feature of Tarutao, with the dramatic cliff faces, stalactites, carved-out overhangs, and jagged formations that one associates with Phang Nga Bay and Krabi. A number of caves have formed in the rock, some enclosed chambers with crystalline falls that dance in the light of your torch, others with ceilings that collapsed long ago, leaving crater-like rooms, or hongs as they are known in Thai, open to the sky and stars.

National Park headquarters are located on a white sand beach at the mouth of a tidal river. This is one of the best managed parks in Thailand, the kingdom’s second marine park, established over 30 years ago. UNESCO recently included Tarutao on their list of ASEAN Heritage Parks and Reserves. In addition to the museum-like information exhibits and library, the visitor’s center provides a restaurant, mini-mart, dormitories, tents, prayer rooms, and a helicopter pad. From here, visitors can hire longtail boats to caves and other beaches, as well as catch ferries to the mainland and the outer islands. Hiking trails lead up to a sunset point and over the mountain to the abandoned penal colony at Talowao Bay.

The prison was Tarutao’s first claim to fame-or infamy. While banishment to paradise hardly sounds like punishment, especially in light of the better known prison island of Alcatraz, the tropics have their own particular brands of suffering. Prisoners here contended with malaria, crocodiles, and the dreaded tiger pits, preserved in the prison museum today. Jailors threw offenders into these cement ovens in the morning; few survived much past noon. In the heat of WWII, the government neglected the penal colony, allowing the incarcerated to seize control of the island, from which point they proceeded to wreak havoc by pirating ships passing through the Straits of Malacca. From 1944-1947 the inmate-pirates reigned, until a company of 300 British soldiers set them down. Tarutao lay abandoned for nearly thirty years, inhabited only by nomadic bands of sea gypsy fishermen. Since becoming a national park in 1972, the island has stayed quiet, except for brief flashes of glory when the French and American versions of the so-called reality programme, Survivor, filmed here.

Tarutao National Marine Park comprises 51 islands flung across an expanse of sea totaling 1,490 km?. The west coast bays of Ao Pante, site of park headquarters, nearby Ao Jak, Ao Molay, and Ao Sone all offer lovely sand beaches, most of which are excellent for swimming during the northeast monsoon, from November through April. Visitors can camp on the beaches or stay in park bungalows at ranger stations. At Ao Son, a river pours out along a lengthy sandbar. Coming from Phuket, you have to wonder if this is might be Kamala or even Patong before their growth spurts. The basin and subsequent mountains present a conundrum: since you can’t take in both views at once, do you focus your attention inland, or gaze out upon the open sea?

Once you have made your way to Tarutao, you will need a few days to soak up the island. A perfect vacation itinerary would run something like this: a week in Phuket to acclimate and feel good about spending lots of money to assist the local economy, a day of transit to Tarutao (unless you fly by helicopter, seaplane, or super luxury motor yacht), a minimum of four nights on the island, followed by another week or two back in your lavish resort basking in the glow of your humanitarian relief effort. If you are interested in visiting the marine park’s other islands, you should double your time down south. You won’t want to miss the waterfalls off Koh Adang, the crescent beach of Koh Lipe, or the underwater fireworks of Thailand’s most secret coral reefs.

There are three superlative ways to visit Tarutao from Phuket, none better than the others. The first is with John Gray’s Sea Canoe, on a trip called Wings Of The White Belly. Because of the distance involved, this adventure requires special arrangements, but it offers the closest insight to the island, as experienced, well-trained guides lead guests into various caves and hongs, up rivers, through mangrove forests, and to spectacular waterfalls. Accommodation is on the beach, in tents set up by Gray’s staff; dining is aboard the escort boat, quite possibly the best food you’ll enjoy in the kingdom.

Another excellent way to explore is by charted yacht. Joanne Cooney, charter director at Thai Marine Leisure, recommends two weeks for a cruise from Phuket. This allows for a relaxed sail down along the coast with visits at islands along the way in Krabi and Trang, up to a week of cruising throughout the marine park, then another few days for the trip home, stopping at new islands.

Luxury motor cruising is the third recommended means for arrival. A 40-foot Riviera from an outfit such as Tawan Cruises can zip you all the way to Tarutao in just a few hours. This option would grant the greatest flexibility, though it lacks the romance and quietude of the first two options.

Tour operators have lobbied in recent years for the construction of an airport in Tarutao, but for now their efforts have been thwarted, allowing the island to maintain its status as the only one of size with no resort on its shores. It’s the perfect compliment to Phuket, a before and after portrait captured simultaneously, in present day coexistence. Like 80% of Phuket’s hotel rooms, Tarutao suffered no damage in the tsunami. There’s no reason to feel guilty or strange about a visit. On the contrary, this is the best time to travel the Andaman coast in years. If you come soon, you’ll capture some of the most positive images created by the tsunami’s aftermath-the beaches of Phuket restored to their natural beauty, reflecting their own past, while echoing Tarutao, the pure sister to the south.


 From Benjarong Magazine – April 2005, Volume 8 Issue 3

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 Benjarong Magazine - October 2005, Volume 8 Issue 10


In Association with

Kinnaree Media Marketing
Tel: (66-76) 263737-8 Fax: (66-76) 224113
info@travel-phuket.com    Website: www.travel-phuket.com
Web design by Andaman Graphics Phuket