Idyllic island beach images bombarding your social media feeds and getting you down? Feel like you're missing out? The beautiful island offerings of the Adang Archipelago offer a glimmer of holiday hope as they beckon tantalisingly from nearby Thailand.
Laidback Koh Lipe
The quintessential island paradise of Koh Lipe has been attracting sun worshippers for decades as the ‘Maldives of Thailand’. While certainly not the largest island within the 51 island Tarutao National Park, it is by far the most popular and populated.
With three main beaches to choose from, selective beachgoers have their choices all within walking distance. The ever-popular Pattaya Beach is the busiest and most convenient, wrapping around the most protected anchorage on the island with several small but expensive resorts jockeying for a premier sea view position.
Walking Street begins in the middle of the beach and gives visitors easy access to the ‘commercial centre’ of the island, lined with restaurants, spas, tour operators, clothing stores and sundry shops to fulfil your needs. Towards the end, Sunrise Beach is the longest stretch of beach on the island and exudes a more laid back vibe as hotels and eateries are sparser. Further north is Sunset Beach, which is actually three small beaches divided by rocky outcroppings.
Whether experienced diver or first-time snorkeller, the surrounding sea is your oyster as Koh Lipe is part of a protected marine park teeming with sea life from beautiful coral reefs to the occasional whale shark. Culture-wise, the island is the home base of the Urak Lawoi, one of three indigenous sea gypsy tribes of the Adang Archipelago and who created the strong foundation of the Koh Lipe community today.
Mysterious Koh Tarutao
Located just east of Koh Lipe, Koh Tarutao is the largest of the islands that comprise the Tarutao National Park. Seeing little traffic beyond a few sea gypsies and passing seamen, the remote island fell into use as a notorious prison in 1936 as there was need for "an isolated and forbidden environment to lock away enemies of the state...".
By the beginning of World War II, in 1941, the island was home to more than 3,000 prisoners. World War II had a great impact on the penal colony and supplies of food and medicine were in short supply. Both guards and prisoners joined forces to begin a ruthless pirate campaign on passing merchant vessels, regardless of homeport or country. After WWII, British Naval troops were sent in to clear out the pirates and the ‘correctional’ facility was closed.
The Koh Tarutao of today receives over 100,000 visitors annually. With rugged and mountainous rainforest, lowland valleys and mangroves, it’s an island of spectacular wildlife diversity. It is home to creatures like dusky lemurs, crab-eating macaques, mouse deer and wild boar, and over 100 bird species inhabit or visit the island.
Tarutao has almost 30 kilometres of road that traverse a good part of the west coast and across the interior over the mountainous terrain. Cycling is the preferred form of transport here, and hiking trails lead off the main roads into jungle streams and small cascades, offering the perfect opportunity to quietly observe the local flora and fauna. History buffs may want to visit the Ao Talo Wao historical trail and get a glimpse of what life in the early prison days was like.
Koh Tarutao is best visited between November and April to take full advantage of the many services and activities the island has to offer, including regular boat transfers to and from the island.
Blissful Koh Bulon Lae
Steeped in sea gypsy traditions, this tropical gem has the charm and simplicity of yesteryear and is far removed from any ‘tourist island scene’. Koh Bulon Lae is located 22 kilometres west from Pak Bara within the Koh Phetra National Park, which is easily reachable by boat. However, the monsoon months make the boat journeys to and from the mainland difficult for even the well-seasoned Urak Lawoi.
Unplugging from the digital world is no problem on Koh Bulon Lae as local generators generate the electricity and wifi access is quite limited. But what the island lacks in modern amenities it certainly makes up for in gorgeous beaches and translucent waters. If, however, relaxing on the beach or swimming gets too monotonous, exploring the small island is easily done afoot.
Sightseeing highlights include a rubber tree plantation and several small fishing villages. For the more energetic, there are two limestone caves on the western, much rockier shore to explore, or hop in a kayak and leisurely circumnavigate the lush shorelines at your own pace. The island’s flora, fauna and coral reefs are protected by its integration into the National Park, which protects not only the small islands within the park but also a vast amount of coastal seas surrounding them.
Snorkellers of all levels will be rewarded with magnificent views of the wonders of the sea just off shore or via the local long tail boat ‘secret spot’ snorkelling trips. Ideally, the best time of year to visit these islands is roughly November through April, with May through October being the ‘monsoon’ season (aka low season).
With the exception of Koh Lipe, not all islands are easily accessible year round, due to the rough seas. Many businesses and service providers also take a post high season break and close up shop. However the islands are ‘technically’ open for visitors and if you don’t mind a few inconveniences, you could well have an entire beach to yourself, Robinson Crusoe style!