The last archipelago of Thailand
Chill out beside the turquoise waters in the island paradise of Koh Lipe. (Paul Beinssen/LPI)
It took a team of landscape gardeners to make the beach in The Beach look like a proper island paradise. Why go to all that trouble when you can find the real thing in the laid-back islands of the Tarutao Archipelago? Tucked away in Thailand's deep South, this is the last group of Thai islands to escape the developers. It probably helps that the main island is the headquarters of the Ko Tarutao Marine National Park.
Comprising 1,490 square kilometres of jungles, beaches and ocean, the Tarutao islands sprawl across the Andaman Sea, closer to Pulau Langkawi in Malaysia than the Thai mainland. Yet, by a quirk of politics, the ritzy tourist developments stop on the Malay side of the border. Over in southern Thailand, paradise-seekers make do with a handful of beach getaways on Ko Lipe or the charmingly institutional national park headquarters on Ko Tarutao island.
Strolling barefoot along the silver-sand beaches that line the western shore of Ko Tarutao, it is hard to believe that this little piece of paradise was once a notorious prison, holding high-profile political prisoners until 1948. Of course, Tarutao was less hospitable in those days, with impenetrable malarial-swamps and shark-infested waters to dissuade anyone thinking of swimming for the mainland.
Left to crumble after WWII, the prison camp at Ao Taloh Udang has been reclaimed by jungle vines. These days, there are more monkeys than people on Ko Tarutao, and the only modern development is a cluster of government-run bungalows spilling onto the beach by the ranger station at Ao Pante Malacca. Most visitors are happy to trade luxury for pristine rainforest and mile after mile of untouched sand.
Of course, you do not have to take the Swiss Family Robinson option. On sand-dusted Ko Lipe, Castaway offers swaying hammocks, resident masseurs, shady waterside pavilions and thatch-topped cabins that look onto a vista of lilting waters and bobbing long-tail boats. Divers can descend to a series of submerged pinnacles that attract mantas, whale sharks and other magnificent denizens of the deep.
Where you go on these languorous isles will depend on your temperament. Ko Lipe calls out to travellers seeking the tropical idyll of sun, sea and sand between the toes, but the island is changing fast, with more bungalows bursting out of the jungle with each passing monsoon. A short boat-ride across brilliant blue waters in almost any direction will deposit you on an island where not even footprints disturb the sand.
Credit for preserving the islands in such impressive condition goes to the rangers of the national park, who have kept Tarutao much as it was left when the last prisoners departed at the end of WWII. For the ultimate Robinson Crusoe experience, consider sleeping under canvas on the remote beaches of Ao Son, Ao Makham and Ao Taloh Udang, with only hornbills and crab-eating macaques for company.
From November to May, ferries to Ko Tarutao and Ko Lipe leave daily from the jetty at Pak Bara, 60km north of Satun in southern Thailand. Boats also run to Ko Lipe from Pulau Langkawi, which is served by regular flights from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.