I hate to be the one who says a place is not what it used to be. I hear this on a regular basis from foreigners who have been living in Thailand for 20 years as well as from those whoțve only been here six months. Disapproving of change shows one’s superiority regarding residence; it is a way of saying I am a local and everyone else just random tourists. Typical expat vanity.
I find it challenging, though, to talk about Koh Lipe in a non-condescending tone as the island changed dramatically since I first visited in 2010. The transformations are not for the better although the place is promoted to the foreign tourists as some kind of a secret island of Thailand. I was there seven times since 2010 and on each visit, I felt that the island would ultimately sink under the tsunami of greed.
Here is the ine and only secret: Koh Lipe is just a money-making machine. Just like Koh Phi Phi, just smaller (because of sheer physical restrictions). A place once full of life, traditions, and sense is now turned into an amusement park as shallow as the surrounding lagoons.
Why visit Koh Lipe
Given all the above you may thing Koh Lipe is not worth visiting. Not true. It is worthy of a visit if not for its beautiful beaches, then for the empty island around the Tarutao Marine Park – Koh Rawi, Koh Adang, Koh Dong – and for the very special one called Koh Hin Ngam. Koh Lipe is the necessary evil for those who want to enjoy untouched white sands, crystal clear waters and tons of colorful fish.
Ultimately, it’s worth going through all the noise and paying the high prices to enjoy some of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand. Preferably you should go on day trips with a local Chao Lay boatman not only because they know the islands and the sea better than anyone, but also because you help their community this way.
Speaking of which, I suggest you pay them a visit. Most Chao Lays (sea gypsies) left on the island inhabit one small village just behind Sunrise Beach. It’s not going to be a walk in the park. The poor people live cramped in a few tin shacks. Traditionally they were fishermen, one generation after the other, but now most of them make a living by working in resorts or restaurants.
Despite their terrible recent history, they find the strength to smile, to decorate their little houses with cheerful paintings and colorful flowers, making the most of the very modest living they can afford. Go there, say hello, buy something from one of their shops and don’t forget that they were the first to settle the island, ages before loaded businessmen came from Bangkok or Satun to take advantage of the white sands global frenzy.
How to get to Koh Lipe
The central pier connecting the mainland to Koh Lipe is Pakbara, North of Satun. You can easily get to Pakbara from Hat Yai by minibus. It takes about 2 hours (usually less).
From Pakbara there are multiple rides per day. The first boat leaves at 11.30, the last one at 15.30. Most of the companies use speedboats on this route. The journey takes 90 minutes, and it costs 1200THB (29EUR) for a round trip.
I feel I must address an issue regarding the boat ride to the island. Be aware that the boats go as planned no matter what the weather is like. I experienced this multiple times. A speed boat that is 10 meters long going by 23 knots on a 4 to 5 grade sea means extremely uncomfortable traveling – if not dangerous – conditions for the passengers. At full speed, the boat rocks and jumps in every direction and so do the poor passengers on board. I am a sailing hobbist and I don’t get scared easily, but two of my rides to Lipeh were the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had out at sea.
Either good or bad weather, make sure you get a seat somewhere in the back (aft) of the boat. If you sit in front, all the impact from the wave bouncing will go straight into your spine. Do not take the very last row either because there it badly smells of gasoline and there is a lot of noise from the engines.
During the high season, there are also boats coming to Koh Lipe from Phuket (via Phi Phi and Lanta) and Langkawi.
Koh Lipe doesn’t have a pier. The speed boat or ferry will drop you on a floating deck 100 meters from the Pattaya beach. From there you will have to pay 70 THB extra (per person) for a long-tail to transfer you ashore. It’s probably the highest baht-per-meter rate in the whole country.
Bottom line: as per increasing your chances of survival I recommend visiting the island between October and May when the waves are smaller.
Accommodation on Koh Lipe
Prices on Koh Lipe might seem reasonable to those who make it their first destination in Thailand. For anyone who has visited other places, it will be obvious that the value for money is very low on Lipe.
The island has three beaches: Pattaya (South-West), Sunrise (North-East) and Sunset (North-West).
Pattaya (and the adjacent ‘walking street’) holds two-thirds of the accommodation options on the island. It is the most beautiful beach but also the most crowded and the most expensive. The water is surprisingly clear, but it is difficult to swim because of all the boats that anchor, come and go day and night.
Sunrise Beach (also known as Haad Chao Lay) is 5 minutes walking distance from Pattaya, on the other side of the island. Narrower and relatively quieter. You can snorkel 20m away from the shore even though there are a few boats anchored in this area as well. My favorite.
Sunset Beach is even quieter – except for the loud music playing from the two beach bars – but nothing spectacular.
Here are a few accommodation options that I checked personally.
Bundhaya Resort – upmarket, South end of Pattaya beach, 80 new bungalows, modern design, air conditioning and wi-fi. The resort also has a pool and a restaurant. It is beautiful, clean and expensive. The things I don’t like are the impersonal vibe and the inert attitude of the employees. The prices in high-season start ar 2200THB (60 EUR).
Blue Tribes – mid range, close to Bundhaya, 14 wooden bungalows shadowed by trees, 20-30 meters from the beach, just behind the restaurants. The location and the architecture are a plus, the quality of the service and the food they serve at the restaurant – a minus. 1200THB (35 EUR) per night for a bungalow without hot water, without air conditioning.
Green view – budget, in the middle of Pattaya Beach. A few bamboo bungalows, cold shower, and fan, a small restaurant just in front. It seems like a family business. Clean, cute, the people are friendly – something rare on Koh Lipe – a good option for those who want to stay longer without spending a fortune. Prices start at 400 THB and go up to 1000THB (12-30 EUR) depending on the season and the length of your stay.
The Box – midrange, on the walking street, 100 meters from the beach. It’s a Spanish business. They have a restaurant next to the street and a few stylish bungalows behind. Hot shower, AC, wi-fi. A good option if you are not keen on accommodating face-to-face to the sea. There are two issues, though: a) the noise of the walking street; b) the bathrooms in the bungalows have no doors – I was told this is the Spanish way. Starting at 1400THB (38 EUR) per night during low season.
Satun Dive – midrange, on Sunrise Beach, one of the best offers on the island. Satun Dive doesn’t cater only to divers but also for regular people who enjoy the surface of the sea. The bungalows are cute, with fans and hot shower. The resort rents kayaks and snorkeling equipment and there are plenty of bars and restaurants nearby. Starting from 800THB (24 EUR) during the low season, and 1800THB (50 EUR) in high season.
Gipsy Resort – midrange, on Sunrise Beach. One of the few resorts on the island owned and run by the local Chao Lay (Sea Gipsies). The bungalows are surrounded by trees and flowery bushes which give the pace a familiar, warm feeling of rural community. There is neither hot water nor air conditioning but everything is spotlessly clean, and the people are friendly despite the basic English they can speak. There is wi-fi at the beach restaurant. Prices start at 850THB (26 EUR) in low season. There are also some small villas for rent, excellent for families with kids or groups of friends; these start at 1800THB (50EUR).
Wapi Resort – upmarket, on Sunrise Beach. Lovely, spacious, modernly designed bungalows and all necessary facilities. Air conditioning, hot shower, wi-fi. Starting at 1200THB (35 EUR) for a Garden Bungalow in low season.
Food and drinks
Rak Lay – which translates into Love for the sea, a well-deserved name. They serve the freshest and tastiest Thai food on the island – sea food, fish and a perfect Tom Yum Kung. It is always full, better book a table during the day if you want to have dinner here. You can easily find it at the end of the walking street, on the left-hand side as you come from Pattaya beach, just before the junction.
Bunga – on Pattaya Beach, next to the entrance on the walking street. Usually, the beach restaurants are a big NO everywhere in Thailand but at Bunga the food is decent, and the people speak a little bit of English. During the high season, they offer a fire show after sunset.
Rainforest – one of the funniest bars I ever drank in. The logo shows a white dog which you will have the pleasure to meet sitting at the bar, watching carefully everything that moves around. They make sangria and it’s good.
(Translated from the Romanian version by Elena Stanciu)