Used as a pirate base as recently as the early 1940s and by the Department of Corrections to house both violent criminals and political prisoners between 1938 and 1948 (during which period some 700 inmates died, mostly from malaria), Ko Tarutao is today a haven for nature-lovers, snorkellers and scuba divers - thanks to its crystal-clear, turquoise-tinted waters and its abundance of fauna and flora.
Part of Satun province, 973km south of Bangkok and only 4.8km from the border with Malaysia, it is the largest in an archipelago of 51 densely vegetated islands in the Andaman Sea, covering an area of 1,490km2, which was declared the country's eight national park (and very first marine national park) in 1974. Unesco included it on its list of Asean Heritage Parks and Reserves in 1982.
The park now welcomes more than 5,000 people a month during its peak period (February to April), most of whom come to explore its pristine dive sites. And you don't need to be a qualified scuba expert to enjoy yourself, either; for even snorkellers are likely to spot sea anemones, soft corals in various shades of red, purple, green and pink, many types of hard coral reef, sea fans, starfish, moray eels, spiny lobsters and a host of other creatures.
Those who go on organised diving trips will probably get to make stops on Ko Hin Ngam - so named because its beaches are peppered with beautiful (ngam) rocks (hin), of all shapes and sizes, which have been worn smooth by millennia of wave action - and Ko Rawi, which has white-sand beaches plus a small restaurant and an area for pitching tents.
Most visitors stay overnight on Ko Lipe which has a choice of privately run bungalows, a pub and a few other entertainment options after dark. Those seeking solitude will doubtless prefer Ko Adang or Ko Tarutao where rather basic bungalows can be rented from the park authorities. Diving gear and boats can be rented on both Ko Lipe and Ko Adang.
While on Tarutao, history buffs may be interested in visiting a reconstruction of one of the prisons at Ao Talo Wao (the original was built of wood) and a cemetery for prisoners.
The park is only open for six months of the year (November 16 to May 15). Advance booking of accommodation is advisable.
If you've already been and were impressed by what you found there, why not visit http://www.9destinations.com and give Tarutao Marine National Park a leg-up in our Thailand's Top Destinations campaign?