From the moment the boat arrives at the concrete dock of Koh Tarutao, it is apparent you have arrived somewhere altogether different from the average overcrowded Southeast Asian beach destination. It has all the trappings of a 5 star beach resort, minus one small detail: The Resort.
The cliffsides surrounding the Ao Pante Malakka beach and watershed are heavy with an array of green foliage so bright and varied, it resembles a thick liquid pouring over the edges in suspended motion. The green and yellow clash with the dark grey blues of the volcanic limestone in a battle for your fleeting attention.
Suddenly the branches begin to shake, at first softly, then in increasing violence as a troupe of Dusky Langur Monkeys emerge from the depths of the jungle.They quickly traverse the trees and soon are above you, timidly curious to your presence, their ringed eyes fixed on you briefly. It seems as if they have seen your kind before, although probably not enough times to let their guard down.
As quickly as they had emerged, they retreat into the darkness of the jungle brush. All this happens in the time it takes to disembark the boat. Once on land you find yourself in an open area studded with dozens of large Casurina trees, which are somewhat the tropical version of an evergreen. They coat the grounds of the government station and bungalows in a thin blanket of soft, brown needles. The station is large, covering well over a dozen acres, with multiple buildings that seem to have been erected in anticipation of receiving throngs of happy holidaymakers, but this is the hot season, It’s 105 degrees and there is no one around to greet you. As the boat leaves the dock, you become acutely aware that you will not be able to leave this island, even if you wanted to. But another glance at the white sand beach quickly relieves any apprehensions as you wheel your bag to the empty visitors center. A languid cat straddles the marble stairs, attempting to absorb any ambient coolness that may have remained from the night before.
A man, withered from the heat, with island-worn clothes ambles in and slowly hands you a laminated sheet detailing the spartan accomodation options. There are basic bungalows on 2 beaches, Ao Pante Malakka, and Ao Molae a few kilometers down the road. Considering you traveled here to get away from it all you choose the further bungalows at Ao Molae. Neither have electricity after 10pm. The heat will be equally oppressive at either location.
Stepping off the high back of the converted transport truck at Ao Molae, the beach is pristine, and the only souls around are a smiling employee of the National Park restaurant, and a few very hot, heavily panting dogs
A walk around the corner reveals the row of basic, but comfortable bungalows. All facing the immaculate white sand beach. This is what travelers search for. This is home for the next week. No televisions, no cell phone signal, no crowds.
The first morning comes slowly, as the heat became suffocating the night before. The creaking electric fan shut off around 10 pm, leaving you to toss every few minutes, trying to find a cool spot on the sheets. There were none. The beach outside the bungalow faces West, giving a few merciful hours before the sun rays come over the mountain directly behind it. Walking over to the restaurant, you anticipate a quick breakfast before setting out on a rickety bike for the real destination that brought you here. The ruins of Ao Talo Wow Prison.
Koh Tarutao was once home to a number of prison complexes. Prisoners from the overcrowded penitentiaries in Bangkok were given the option to be shipped to Tarutao. In what seems to have been a serious case of “the grass is always greener”, thousands volunteered to be transferred to the remote island, in a bid to escape the terrible conditions in the mainland’s capital. The long journey from Bangkok would likely have been filled with thoughts of a relieving change of scenery, and likely increased opportunities for escape. The site of Ao Talo Wow Prison lies only about 15km from the mainland, over serenely calm waters. A seemingly surmountable obstacle to freedom in the eyes of those captive there. The prisoners would soon learn that the choice to be held on this island would bring a fate worse than any they could have conjured in Bangkok.
The daily routine in the prisons of Koh Tarutao consisted of bad food, forced labor, and the everpresent heat. The main staple of a Tarutao prisoner’s diet was badly milled and watery rice, which was not fit for sale on the mainland. This was supplemented by sweet potatoes and leftovers of fish which would be made into a thin curry. The memorable days brought bananas and sugar, but these were a rarity which were not often savored. Malnutrition soon became a problem within the prison population, and scavenging and hunting, once punished, became an accepted means of survival.
From the late 1800’s through the 1930’s the quality of life in the prison steadily improved. Changes included the education of prisoners in skills such as construction, nursing, and handicrafts. Those lucky enough to receive menial duties may have even led a relatively easy, if uncomfortable existence. New structures were built to house and feed the prisoners, and a reliable supply chain of goods and materials was established. A co-operative was opened and sold food, tobacco, and even alcohol to those who could manage to afford them.
Despite the modest improvements, life in the jungle never reached a level of comfort that would meet any current UN regulation against cruel and unusual punishment. And the hazardous nature of the land they inhabited remained constant. Threats from sharks in the water repelled thoughts of escape, while more terrestrial dangers such as snakes, crocodiles, and mosquito borne illnesses meant constant vigilance was needed in order not to meet a gruesome fate.
As the 1940’s and the years of the Second World War arrived, the Thai government, having been invaded and forced to give passage to Japanese troops, began lacking in manpower and resources to maintain the supply chains to it’s outer reaches. Tarutao is about as far from Bangkok as you can get within Thailand’s borders, and being a prison it was a very low priority. In the years that followed as the Japanese marched to present day Malaysia and Burma, the residents of Koh Tarutao were forced to resort to extreme means to survive. Without reliable sources of food on the island, starvation began to set in, and the struggle forced the inmates and the guards to band together and plunder the passing merchant ships en route to and from Malaysia. The piracy afforded them the food and supplies needed to survive in the short term. Some guards reportedly became so effective as pirates they were able to settle on the mainland and make a handsome profit selling their plunder.The group dynamics caused by this shift in authority must have been a social psychologists dream study, but little remains in the way of reliable accounts of the time.
From 1941 to 1945 casualties from starvation and illness began to mount. Malaria, once a treatable affliction with basic medical supplies, became a death sentence, It is estimated that over 80% of the up to 3,000 inmates succumbed to the disease. The extremely limited medical facilities could not begin to cope with the overwhelming demands of the ill.
Any semblance of order and structure began to collapse, and those who did survive were faced with a bleak and likely hopeless reality. Salvation came for a few. By 1948 the prison was officially closed. Any surviving prisoners were evacuated to other prisons such as the one located on another present day paradise: Koh Tao. The war came to an end, along with the Japanese occupation. A prisoner was still a prisoner, a guard still a guard, and the heat remained everpresent.
As you return to the somehow more comfortable bed of your bungalow after a long day of biking the steep roads of Koh Tarutao, the reality of what happened here 70 years ago remains forefront in your thoughts. The heat won’t be the only thing keeping you awake tonight.