Being so remote is part of Koh Lipe’s charm, so reaching it takes a little effort. Most fly to Had Yai and arrange a minivan from there to the port of Pak Barra in Satun. Alternatively, you could fly to Trang via Orient Airlines or Air Asia and then get a minibus from the train station (firstname.lastname@example.org; 074 783 222; 200B per person) to Pak Bara in Satun.
Ferries no longer run from Pak Bara, partly due to the arduous 3 hour journey time, so speedboats are now the only option. Various companies operate here, each costing 1,200B one-way and taking 1 hour 30 mins to reach Lipe. The last ones leave from Pak Bara at 3pm. If you want to break the return journey by stopping at Koh Tarutao, it won’t cost you any extra.
Perhaps the simplest method is to fly to the Malaysian island of Langkawi and arrange a speedboat from there (1,200B one way). Malaysia will give most a visa on arrival, but you’ll still need your re-entry stamp for Thailand.
Lipe is tiny so you can walk from one beach to another in 15 minutes. Getting Out: Speedboats leave Lipe at 9.30am and 11am. Most go from Pattaya beach.
Two young boys clutching wooden bows and arrows scamper across the sands as they hunt for crabs. Yards away, a bar is playing The Cranberries’ Linger and a dreadlocked backpacker sips a latte. Koh Lipe, the southern-most island in Thailand, is full of such contrasting images.
Having only just awoken to the prospect of tourism, the island retains much of its traditional feel. A rustic sea gypsy (chao lay) village sits on Sunrise Beach – defiantly staying in place while new bars and hotels creep closer. One benefit of tourism is that their school now has a new basketball court and a regular stream of volunteer tourists. However, the sea gypsies have a hard time here as they have few rights and so only have limited access to the tourist dollar. Being so remote has kept Koh Lipe relatively unspoilt. Now is a good time to visit, as there are signs this could well change.
Unlikely as it may seem, the main beach is called Pattaya. With powder-soft sands, see-right-to-the-bottom waters and without any kind of beer bar in sight, it’s the complete opposite of the Pattaya most know. Pattaya beach even has its own Walking Street, where cool cafes made from bamboo or wood offer Thai and Western food.
Few major hotel chains bother coming this far, there are no 7-Elevens and no ATMs, which all add to Lipe’s charm. People come here to explore the nearby islands and to escape to beaches that have been all but untouched. Sunrise Beach, on the eastern side of the island, is even more virginal, with only a handful of hotels and restaurants, and the rest as yet undeveloped.
During the daytime, most head out on boats to sample the excellent diving spots (large pelagics are a common sight here) or snorkeling around the large islands that sit close to Lipe. In the nighttime, the beachfront restaurants offer seafood barbecues (and yes, there are fire jugglers at some).
Being in the far south, there is a heavy Muslim influence. Matsaman curries and satay chicken are more common than som tam and som tam, while the religious influence also ensures the complete lack of bar girls.
Sunrise Beach is one of the quieter spots, but still has enough restaurants to give it some life. During the day it easily beats its nearest rival, Pattaya. Pattaya Beach has almost nothing in common with its better-known namesake. Its waters are clean, there isn’t a jetski in sight and there are no high-rise hotels. Frankly, we’ve no idea why they call it Pattaya. In keeping with the more famous resort, there is also a Walking Street. This narrow road is fairly new and connects Sunrise Beach to Pattaya. Along it are travel agents, restaurants, cafes, massage parlours and tiny supermarkets. Thanks to the heavy Muslim influence, there is also a complete lack of girly bars – and pork.
Among the better places to perch in Walking Street is Elephant Books & Coffee, run by a friendly American woman. It serves great cakes, burgers and snacks and its collection of second-hand books is the best on the island. Farther down Walking Street is Pooh’s mini empire, which now includes massage parlour and sprawling restaurant, with live music and a good-value barbecue on most nights. Just past Pooh’s is an unnamed bar set right on the bend in the road. Here cocktails are a mere 100B, making it a popular place for backpackers to enjoy a bargain Blue Hawaii.
Day-time activities revolve around sunbathing on one of the three main beaches, massages and trips out to the nearby island. Koh Lipe is dwarfed by neighbouring Ko Adang, which has good beaches for snorkeling. Also nearby is the tiny Ao Yang, where the coral can be seen as soon as you step in the water, and acts as shelter for parrot fish, pipe fish and, yes, the much sought-after Nemo (though don’t call it that with divers present; it’s a clown fish).
Almost every tour company runs two programmes, both covering slightly different islands but achieving much the same result. The islands remain, for now, virtually untouched and so either programme should serve up decent snorkeling options, although visibility can be a bit hit and miss, even outside of the rainy season.
The appeal of such virgin islands is spreading fast and, accordingly, so are facilities on Koh Lipe. At present, there are still no major hotel chains or multi-storey buildings to ruin the island vibe, but they must surely come at some point. Which is all the more reason to make the effort and visit Lipe while it remains one of the least-developed, most-welcoming islands in Thailand.