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A road on the island of Koh Tarutao
A road on the island of Koh Tarutao


Koh Tarutao’s history reads like an exciting book. You might not think it when you see this paradise island with lovely blue water and white beaches, but this island has had a rather dark period. This period starts in 1937. A Thai governor was looking for a suitable place for a prison. The island of Koh Tarutao was found suitable after research. Around the island there was a strong current and high waves. This made it almost impossible to swim away from the island.

Statue of an old islander of Koh Tarutao

How the misery began

In 1938 a group of a few prisoners together with a reconnaissance team started a reconnaissance mission on the island of Koh Tarutao. The goal was to map the island and find a good place to build a prison. On (to be precise) 13-07-1938 the group arrived at Talo Udang Bay and built the headquarters with kitchen and checkpoint there. They also built a road to Talo Wao Bay. Also there a building was constructed. This building was used for training purposes to keep the prisoners in line. When the head office was finished the first 500 prisoners soon came to the island of Koh Tarutao. Not much later another 500 prisoners were added.

There are still several buildings from the prison period. The main building on the bay of Talo Udang is even partly furnished as a museum.

An empty prison on the island of Koh Tarutao

Imprisoned on the island of Koh Tarutao

Between 1938 and 1948 a total of about 10,000 Thai criminals were imprisoned on the island of Koh Tarutao. Usually there were about 3,000 prisoners on the island at the same time. In order to keep everything under control, it was decided to separate the prisoners. A group of 2,000 prisoners went to Talo Wao Bay. The other prisoners were scattered over Talo U Dang and the area near the Kamad Canal.

Among the prisoners was the son of King Rama VII (Khun Sithiporn Kirdaka) who continued his study of growing crops on the island. In the end, he made an important contribution to modern agriculture in Thailand. And also the translator of the English – Thai dictionary was among the prisoners of Koh Tarutao. Applicable, this best man Khun Sor Settabut even finished the letter T here. Nice to know that this dictionary is still in use today.

Remains of the prison island of Koh Tarutao
Remains of the prison island of Koh Tarutao

Crocodiles and sharks as guards

On and around the island lived many crocodiles who ‘guarded’ the island. There is even a cave named after the crocodiles on the island, the Tham Jorakae (Crocodile Cave). In addition, the news went around that there were dangerous sharks swimming in the sea that would swallow you with skin and hair if you wanted to escape the island swimming. In the end this turned out not to be true at all and was only made up to frighten the prisoners. Even now you don’t have to worry if you take a dive in the sea!

The Crocodile Cave on Koh Tarutao


In 1946, during the Second World War, food and medication were no longer brought to the island. Because of hunger and diseases many prisoners and guards died. A number of islanders took a boat to look for food on the surrounding islands. From a number of islands in the area they received help from the local population and returned with food supplies. Soon, friendly questions turned to piracy. They became very notorious pirates who hijacked more than 100 ships. After the loot was in, the crew was cold-bloodedly murdered and the ship sunk. Of course, this couldn’t go on any longer. In March 1947 fierce fighting broke out between the pirates and the British army in which the pirates surrendered within a week.

Where there are pirates there are hidden treasures… There is a rumour going around that at least one more treasure is hidden on the island of Koh Tarutao. Perhaps a good reason to stay there for a few days…

Sunset from the beach on the island of Koh Tarutao

And now?

In April 1975, 25 years after the closure of the prison, the area was renamed the first national marine park in Thailand (Koh Tarutao National Marine Park). Nowadays the island of Tarutao is mainly known as a peaceful tropical island. Not everyone is aware of the special history of Koh Tarutao and that you can also sleep here. 

If you would like to visit this special island and you want to know what you can discover here, please read this article about Koh Tarutao for more information.

The island of Koh Tarutao is closed between April and October.

Eco tourism on the island of Koh Tarutao
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