Discovering Koh Lipe
By Mark Moran
It began, as most great adventures do, opposite a 7-Eleven in a Malaysian shopping mall.
I was traveling through Southeast Asia in February of this year en route to a wedding in Melbourne and was staying on the delightful tropical island of Langkawi off the north-western coast of Kedah.
Browsing the duty-free in the island’s main town of Kuah, a poster caught my eye. It advertised a ferry service from Langkawi to the small Thai island of Koh Lipe, a destination unknown to me.
Given that I had never been to Thailand – I had planned trips a few times, but they had never come to pass for one reason or another – this piqued my interest.
Following a cursory Google search, a five-minute YouTube video, and a quick visit to Booking.com, I had decided to make the trip. After all, I figured, when would I ever be just an hour and a half from Thailand again?
The infrastructure at the Kuah jetty is impressively substantial, almost reminiscent of a well-run airport. Given you are crossing an international border, Thai immigration forms must be filled out and passports shown in the Tropical Charters ferry office.
I booked the ferry in the office the morning of the trip but you can also book on tropicalcharters.com.my or by phone on +60 12-316 5466. I found the staff tremendously friendly and obliging.
The blue, red and white-striped ferry was merely passable, though the modern air-conditioning proved a welcome relief from the oppressively humid conditions outside. Koh Lipe is around forty kilometres from Langkawi with the ferry costing me $73.
The ferries are too large to dock on Lipe, but this proved to be a blessing in disguise, as sailing onto Pattaya Beach on a wooden longtail boat was one of the best experiences of my whole Asian trip. There are no other words for this ride than utterly spectacular.
My First Impression
I can honestly say that the combination of the cerulean sky, powdery sugar-white sand, and turquoise water was the most paradisiacal sight that I have ever seen.
I have seen my share of beautiful beaches – the Sardinian Costa Smeralda, Rottnest Island off Western Australia and the Îles des Glénans off the Breton coast come to mind – but this immediately eclipsed those locations.
Even the immigration checkpoint was located right on the picturesque main beach, Pattaya.
After paying a small fee of around $5 to enter the Tarutao Marine National Park, which Koh Lipe lies within, I was free to fully immerse myself in this balmy little piece of heaven.
An Introduction to Thailand’s ‘Paper Island’
The name Koh Lipe comes from a corruption of the Malay name for the island, Pulau Nipis, meaning ‘thin island’ or ‘paper island’. It lives up to its name, just two and a half kilometres wide and three and a half kilometres long and being almost flat.
You can walk on foot from one end to the other in just half an hour to forty-five minutes.
As Koh Lipe is the southernmost island of Thailand, and closer to Malaysia than the Thai mainland, it is thus a Malayic people who first settled on the island – the Urak Lawoi, often known in English as ‘sea gypsies’.
Just seven hundred people call Koh Lipe home, five hundred of whom are sea gypsies. Many fled to Lipe when Dutch settlers in the region mistook them for pirates. Sea gypsies retain the animist beliefs of their ancestors and have a reverence for the island and the sea.
Their culture is strong on Lipe as can be seen at the beginning of summer and the end of autumn when three-day spiritual festivals are held to pay respect to the memory of their ancestors, especially their founding father To Kiri, under the full moon.
There has been some friction between the sea gypsies and the Thai government since the establishment of the Marine Park in 1974, which heavily restricted fishing and farming within the area’s limits – the gypsies’ main economic activities.
Tourism on Koh Lipe
Known as the ‘Maldives of Thailand’, Koh Lipe is not a party island and is far less crowded than its world-famous counterparts, Krabi and Koh Phi Phi.
An increasingly popular island-hopping destination, Lipe can be reached in the high season (November-April) not only from Langkawi but also from other popular Thai islands such as Phuket.
In the low season, ferries depart to Koh Lipe solely from Pakbara Pier in the mainland province of Satun. The Lipe economy is highly reliant on tourism.
This does not pose much of an issue, given the abundance of beaches and fabulous scuba diving, snorkelling and kayaking opportunities the island offers.
Indeed, and quite incredibly, twenty-five per cent of the world’s tropical fish species are found on Koh Lipe. The island even has a wreck to offer divers, the Yong Hua fish processing boat having caught fire and sank in 1996.
The range of accommodation on the island is impressive, from basic yet idyllic beachfront bamboo huts to five-star resorts and villas.
The island is developed, yes – but to a pleasant extent. There is more than enough to do on Lipe but this is no Phi Phi or Phuket. That just added to the magic of the place and it was heartening to see that an enchanting island such as this could exist without succumbing to mass tourism or environmental destruction.
I found the people on Koh Lipe to be so friendly and welcoming that at first, I cynically assumed it was a pretence in the hope of attaining a tip from tourists. As my time on the island went on, I realised this assessment was false – the culture of Lipe was to welcome every visitor to their alluring isle. In Koh Lipe, Thailand’s moniker, the ‘Land of Smiles’, rings true.
Walking Street by Day
I started my adventures on Lipe with fresh local mango juice in the Harmony Café on Pattaya Beach. Strolling up the shoreline, I turned right onto the island’s main thoroughfare, Walking Street.
This is a bustling road lined on both sides by handicraft, artisan and trinket shops and restaurants. Barbecues smouldered as the smoky aromas of grilled fish wrapped in banana leaves, chicken and beef filled my nostrils.
While hectic with motorcycles and sidecar taxis (the primary way of getting around on the island), the walk is thoroughly enjoyable and there are no cars on the island.
The lack of Starbucks and McDonald’s, which have become ubiquitous wherever you go around the world, was refreshing.
Indeed, the only signs of globalisation were hamburgers, 7-Elevens, and a motorcyclist donning a vintage San Diego Chargers t-shirt on the beach.
Masseuses and yoga gurus implored me to avail of their services as a man selling Thai-style doughnuts (pa thong ko) provided the soundtrack to my walk down the eastern end of Walking Street, promulgating the very reasonable price of his wares through song.
Soi dogs lazed languidly on the sides of streets, the temperature too sweltering for any activity. It was almost laughable how quintessentially Thai the street was.
What to Eat
The culinary scene in Thailand was also a major attraction to me. My first meal in was served to me in the supremely named Thai Lady Pancake Shop. Even in such a casual restaurant, the food was fantastic. As a starter, you couldn’t beat the piquant flavour of a fresh papaya salad with the zing of bird’s eye chillies.
For my main course, I was served a green curry – a dish full of flavour, with the creaminess of the coconut milk, the heat of the green chillies, the sapidity of the fish sauce and the tartness of kaffir limes combining to create a rich explosion of scrumptiousness.
Served with freshly baked roti, sticky coconut rice, and freshly squeezed watermelon juice, and costing less than $10 in total, it was exactly what I needed.
Kua Lipe’s Culture
Following this delectable meal, I took a sidecar taxi to my accommodation, the Reef Hotel beside Sunrise Beach.
Taxis to anywhere on the island cost ฿50, incredible value in avoiding an arduous walk in the heat and a great way to chat with local people. Upon discovering I was Irish, my driver enthusiastically told me of his adoration for football legend Roy Keane.
I was highly impressed by the very affordable accommodation, costing me just $98 in high season, including breakfast and cancellation.
You can book online at www.thereefkohlipe.com, by email on firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone on 082 7337034. It is a clean and modern hotel run by Danish ex-pats with a spacious balcony.
I sat out on the terrace with a drink overlooking the Andaman Sea as the call to prayer rang out from the mosque next door, reminding me that though this island may be small, it remains unique and multicultural.
Owing to its proximity to Malaysia, the island is shared by Buddhists and a smaller community of Muslims. The only other sign of religion and spirituality on the island was the small Buddhist Wat Hantalay temple in the centre of the island.
Beaches of Lipe
After checking in, I made a beeline for the nearby Sunrise beach, which was just as stunning as my landing point of Pattaya. It was fantastic to have such a beautiful beach so near to my hotel.
After a pleasant stroll along the turquoise sea, I returned to Pattaya and got my snorkel on.
The glorious weather conditions made the sea feel like a warm bath. The copious marine life including yellowback snappers, bigeye trevallies and colorful coral in the crystal-clear waters was dazzling.
I dried off and sipped a cocktail in the bar of the beachfront Mali Resort on the western side of the beach as majestic Brahminy kites and white-bellied sea eagles circled overhead.
My local Sunrise Beach is known as Haad Chao Ley in Thai; Chao Ley was the surname that all the sea gypsy people took when they first settled on the island after being granted permission by Chulalongkorn, monarch of Siam in 1909.
The Urak Lawoi run taxi boats along the island’s coast, which also cost ฿50 regardless of the journey. These taxis can take you on excursions to nearby islands such as Koh Adang, a larger uninhabited island with an abundant coral reef, long white sand beaches and a dense interior jungle with a rushing waterfall.
Walking Street by Night
That night, with the sun safely hidden from my Irish skin, I made the ten-minute walk to Pattaya Beach. Happy hour offers and the upbeat chatter of holiday makers abounded as I ambled on by.
If it’s a less international drink than the typical cocktail list you’re after, you can try local Thai spirits such as Mekhong or Sangsom.
The relaxing voice of Bob Marley radiating from the Reggae Bar soothed me as I stepped into lively, vibrant Walking Street, where cacophonous noises sounds and pungent aromas emanated from the endless stores and street stalls lining it on both sides.
I loved the island’s ambience – there was no sense of the hedonistic nightlife I had heard about on other Thai islands. I was served a delectable meal of grilled fresh grouper with crispy roasted turmeric.
Seafood is another gastronomic strength of the island – fish caught along its shores include grouper, Spanish mackerel, barracuda, snapper and sailfish – and this was a fantastic sample. The casual Bung Roon restaurant was a perfect setting, with a band of children performing covers from Ed Sheeran to Journey providing a cheerful atmosphere.
For dessert, I visited a street stall where I had a delicious banana roti, a specialty of the region and with a cost of just over $1. I returned to my resort and retired to bed a happy (and replete) man.
A Lazy Morning on Lipe
The next morning, I rose early and jaunted to Sunrise Beach to see the eponymous event. Despite an unfortunate bank of clouds, I was greeted by an arresting view of the vivid golden sun peeking through as a lone longtail sailed by.
I enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast of fluffy pancakes with caramelised bananas in Café Mojo at my hotel.
After checking out of my hotel, I enjoyed a last swim at Sunrise Beach and stopped in a café to try a cold, refreshing smoothie and another Thai delicacy, yellow Nam Dok Mai mangoes with sticky coconut rice.
Walking Street’s stores provided me with the obligatory tacky souvenirs; I must admit that a fridge magnet may have been purchased.
I returned to my old stomping ground of the Thai Lady Pancake Shop for my last supper on the island, grilled juicy tiger prawns with sticky rice – a fittingly delicious end to my trip.
The longtail trip was not quite as fun when leaving this Thai tropical paradise, but as I reflected on the adventure, I could not have made a better decision than to visit.
From tropical beaches and mouth-watering fresh food to a laid-back lifestyle and a unique culture, Koh Lipe is simply a magical destination. I returned to my Langkawi resort relaxed, contented and with the slightest pang of regret that my trip to paradise had lasted just one night.
Mark Moran is a student from Dublin, Ireland with a passion for sports, reading, traveling the world and sharing my exploits with others!