Did you watch Leonardo Di Caprio in The Beach and (maybe aside from the slight madness) think ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to find a beach that was all mine, and a secret from the world’? Yes? Well me too. And this was what I was after when I discovered Koh Lipe. Ok, so it’s not really a secret, and sadly it’s not all mine, but if you ventured to Thailand 15-20 years ago and loved the beach vibe then on islands like Phuket and Ko Samui, then this is the place for you.
Where is it? Never heard of it? Well don’t worry, you won’t be the only one and that is one of the benefits of this island. Koh Lipe is located 60 km from the Thai Mainland, with Pak Bara being the closes port. However, it is also accessible from Langkawi via boat (see below). It is on the same side of the Thai mainland as Phuket and Phi Phi. Ko Lipe is on the border of the Tarutao National Marine Park and is directly south of the larger islands Ko Adang and Ko Rawi, and about 50 km from the island of Ko Tarutao. It was originally settled by a group of sea gypsies (chao leh in Thai), originally from Malaysia.
When to go? As with most Thai islands, there are two main seasons. On this side of the mainland, high season runs from November to May, and low season is mid-May to October. Low season means the chance for rain and resorts can close. However, the plus is that the island is quieter. High season, especially around holidays, is busy and booking in advance is essential. We encountered several people forced to sleep on the beach when we were there.
How to get there? Heaven is an island which doesn’t have it’s own airport. As a result, to get there you need to make a little bit of an effort. Which makes the vibe less like ‘weekend away’ and more along the lines of ‘adventure’. As noted above, Pak Bara on the Thai mainland is the closest point for boats. From here boats run all year round and minibuses and taxi’s are available to the closest airport in Hat Yai. In high season, boats run from Langkawi, Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Phuket and other islands in the Andaman Sea. If you’re flying in solely for Koh Lipe rather than having bounced around a range of islands, then your best options are: into Hat Yai and transfer to the boat; or into Langkawi and the boat. The transfer from the airport to Pak Bara takes around 2 hours and costs THB300. From Pak Bara there are 2 boats per day in high season and one in low season – it is also the only option in low season. Minibus and boat can be booked here. The other benefit of taking the boat from Pak Bara is that you’re already in Thailand and therefore no additional immigration is required. From Langkawi, in high season there are 2 boats per day which take approximately 90 minutes (with a +1 hour time difference). Return trips are MYR248 through Telaga Terminal. Coming from Langkawi does mean that you need to go through immigration – Malaysia/Thailand which adds to the time you need to spend at the jetty. Both boats dock at a floating pontoon off Pattaya Beach in the high season. In the low season, the boats dock at the north end of Sunrise Beach. From the pontoon, a fleet of longtail boats take you over to the white Pattaya Beach. It is worth at this point reconfirming your return boat in high season, but its not a matter if you don’t as you can do this on any morning.
There are three main areas to Koh Lipe:
Pattaya Beach For most people this is the first sighting of the white sand and turquoise waters of Lipe. Consequently, in high season, this is also the busiest beach with long tail boats flitting around the beach ferrying loads of passengers at the start and end of their visit. It also boasts a range of accommodation and nightlife. If you’re planning on staying here and don’t want to be in the middle of the action, you’re advised to head to the west end of the beach where it is quieter.
Sunset Beach Situated at the north tip of the island, this is a small beach with limited accommodation options (although when we visited there was a new resort being built). It comes into its own at sundown, when hoards of visitors gather to watch the sun set over the Andaman Sea.
Sunrise Beach As the name suggests, this beach faces east and is ideally situated for the beach-front accommodation to watch the sun rise. It is home to a wide variety of accommodation and dining/drinking options to suit all tastes and budgets. It also boasts a range of dive shops and massage stands. The beach is narrow in certain places and at high tide, the warm, turquoise waters lap around the beach huts and sun-loungers. It is easy to spend your days in a hammock, watching the long tail boats ferry provisions to and from the island, the groups of island dogs frolic in the waters chasing fish and the world go about it’s relaxed business. Of course, in the right place, you can do all this with a cold beer or cocktail in hand. If you’re looking for an hour to fill, then pop along to one of the massage huts and get an authentic Thai massage.
Where to stay? There are options to suit all budgets and tastes, from basic huts on the beach to upmarket 5-star resorts. It is advised to book in advance in high season. We travelled as a group of 3 and stayed at Zanom Beach Resort a friendly, beach front resort towards the south end of Sunrise Beach. Rooms were a mix of a/c and fan cooled but all had their own hammock and terrace. The beach front bungalow is the star of the show. We had the twin room and one double room. Breakfast is included and is hearty. Next door is Castaway Resort which is home to double story bungalows overlooking the beach and sea which can also accommodate groups. Further south and if you’re ok with double beds, is Serendipity Beach Resort which has a range of double-bedded bungalows. At the northern end of the beach is Ten Moons which has a good selection of bungalows, all of which are air conditioned. There are plenty of other options and a quick search will give a good list.
What to do?
You mean you want to do something other than relax and recharge, watch the world go by and have to occasional massage? Ok. Diving. In waters like this you can’t fail to love the underwater world. I’m a bit of a warm water diver, having qualified in Koh Tao and only dived in tropical waters since….so I was looking forward to this. I took a friend of mine, who is a novice diver (having braved the UK dive sites to qualify) and hoped she’d forget the nerves and love the scenery. We dived with Adang Sea Divers which was, in hindsight, a great choice. They have small groups, professional and helpful staff, good quality equipment and a speedboat which allows you to access the further sites, quickly. The abundance of marine life including lionfish and starfish didn’t disappoint. Two dives and we were back for lunch with our other friend. Nerves conquered, tropical diving loved and another great dive shop found.
If the underwater life isn’t for you, then there’s a bit of shopping to be done. Joining Sunset Beach with Pattaya Beach, is Walking Street, a semi pedestrianized street, flanked by bars, restaurants and shops selling everything you could ever want and more. Pick your places and you can be sure of anything from happy hour cocktails, to great Thai food and neon ‘I love Koh Lipe’ singlets….
Where to eat/drink?
There really is no shortage of places and budgets. From the places we sampled, here’s a selection of our favourites:
Zanom – yes we stayed there, but the evening fish BBQ is unmissable. Daily fresh catch from the biggest prawns you’ll see, to snapper, mackerel, tuna and swordfish.
Castaway – amazing vibe and great Thai food. A relexed study style cocktail bar too is a nice way to spend the evening: happy hour is 2 for 1.
Papaya Restaurant – ok, we didn’t eat here but was hugely recommended by the dive team.
The Thai island you will want to find everywhere. Friendly people, relaxed vibe and however long you go for, it will never be enough.