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Tarutao – Accidental Pilgrims

© by Pipit
Pier Talo Wow make famous by Survival
Talo Wow pier made famous by "Survival" filming

chestnut munia balancing on a leaf
The Prison's Port

......The hair on the back of my neck started to rise as I imagined what it must be like for the Thai “Papillons”. ....

I hadn’t been swimming in crystal clear seas for a long time, but the trip to Tarutao, Ko Lipe and Ko Adang was slightly more than I bargained for. There was of course the usual mouth-watering Thai food, warm clear water, brilliant coral, colourful fish, skimpy bikinis and exotic white sand beaches, but something of this trip was different. And it crept up so imperceptibly that I did not even realise it until much later – almost like a delayed déjà vu moment.

On one of our numerous landings in our rented boat, we stopped by Talo Wow ( or Tarawaw of “Survival” fame). After the usual sight seeing and photo shoots, Forest darted off on a dirt track, saying he had something more to show us. Sign boards along the way revealed what he was trying to show us in strip poker fashion. It was a prison camp for ordinary convicts. There was the prison governor’s house, a brick oven that served as solitary confinement for wayward prisoners, carpenter’s shop among others. Coupled with a previous beach that we landed on which served as a prison camp for political prisoners, it dawned on me that Tarutao was a prison island much like our own Jerejak. But unlike the camp for political prisoners of which nothing remained this one was unmistakably foreboding – swamps all around, map of the prison, the oven-like solitary confinement cell and short descriptions of prison life and conditions on sign boards. How wretched life must have been for the unfortunate prisoners! The hair on the back of my neck started to rise as I imagined what it must be like for the Thai “Papillons”. Similar images of the war prisoners working on the River Kwai railway filled my head. How could anyone live under such conditions? There was swamp all around – even walking must have been torture. There were also faint clues of uprisings and pirates – brutality and bestiality gone berserk.

We were all in a hurry. No time to spend poking around. No time to investigate the feelings of greed and lust, but perhaps also of desperation, betrayed love and crushed ideals that pervade these hallowed grounds. The baleful hooting of an owl in the distance mirrored the agony of the lost souls and spirits of the prisoners and their victims and the soft cooing of a pigeon waved us goodbye. I imagine these lonely spirits must be glad for the company of accidental pilgrims who came for such a short visit. On the way out, we surprised a kanchil which shot us a malignant look before spiriting off into the dank dark undergrowth. I felt cold and shivered inspite of the humid heat.

It was only later at the main ranger station at Tarutao that the better displays and explanations of the history of the island allowed me to piece everything together. Important political prisoners had been incarcerated here and they included members of royalty who had fought for reform. So too were ordinary criminals kept here and it was these prisoners who launched one of the bloodiest and fiercest episodes of piracy even seen around these waters – a tradition that echoes even today with occasional pirate attacks around Langkawi. It was a priviledge and an honour for me to have visited these historical grounds, even if only “by accident”.

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