Better than ‘The Beach’: Thailand’s perfect island paradise

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If Robinson Crusoe had landed on this less developed version of Koh Phi Phi, he would never have come home

As a frequent visitor and sometime resident in Thailand for many years, I am regularly approached for one piece of travel advice: “Which beach should I hit?”

I’ve never found it an easy question to answer. There are hundreds of beaches to choose from on dozens of islands. Each has its own particular charm (or lack of, in some cases), so it all depends on what you want in a holiday.

For instance, during a recent conversation with a French expat who runs a guesthouse on the Thai island of Koh Phayam I told him of my plans to visit Koh Lipe over the New Year.

Sitting shirtless in his fisherman pants with his dry bag tossed over his shoulder, he told me in no uncertain terms: “Koh Lipe is dead. It died three years ago.”

“Really?” I replied.

“Oui, oui, no more,” he said sagely as he took a deep drag on his hand-rolled cigarette, lamenting the rate of development on the island.

I ignored him and went anyways.

While our French friend may have been correct in noting that Lipe is no longer a deserted island getaway, in its current state it is a perfect destination for anyone seeking an uncrowded taste of paradise but with some creature comforts.

Sitting in the crystal-clear waters of the Andaman Sea, about 60 kilometers off of the coast of Satun province, white-sand fringed Koh Lipe is in the Tarutao National Marine Park.

Inhabited by local Chao Lay, or sea gypsies, it’s exempt from the laws that keep the dozens of other protected islands in the park development free.

This has allowed it to grow over the past 20 years into a major tourist destination, yet it has remained in the shadow of Thailand’s major beach getaways, like Koh Samui, Phuket, Krabi and backpacker magnet Koh Phi Phi for three reasons: it’s small, it’s remote and there’s no airport.

Over the past few years more and more accommodation options have opened on Koh Lipe, giving visitors a full range of price options. That said, the risk of over-development is certainly there, judging by the number of building sites stretching inland into the jungle.

This is all the more noticeable given how small Koh Lipe is. The entire island can be explored on foot, so there is no need to rent a motorbike to get around.

“Walking Street,” which bisects the island north to south, is stuffed with shops, restaurants, cafés, bars and a few travel agencies, where you can book local tours of the nearby islands.

Some environmental concerns relating to Koh Lipe have been raised in recent years, among them its lackluster rubbish disposal methods, a common complaint on many hotel booking websites and travel forums.

Though the situation isn’t completely resolved, locals say a new garbage disposal system, central generator and recycling facilities have helped to put things back on track. Meanwhile, a few of the bigger resorts have signed up to a Koh Lipe green policy.

There are no ATMs or 7-Elevens on Koh Lipe, but you can exchange money at some of the larger resorts and most accept credit cards. You can find everything else you need on the island in its convenience stores, including suntan lotion and medicine, though it will likely be a bit more expensive than on the mainland.

While Koh Lipe is a little more troublesome to get to than some of Thailand’s other more populated islands, this has allowed it to keep its charm. For now, at least.

The beaches 

 

Pattaya Beach

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Koh Lipe has three main beaches. Pattaya Beach, with its clear waters and fine white sand, is lined with bars and restaurants.

It’s the busiest beach on the island and thus the center of much of the nightlife, with the usual bars with straw mats and Thai cushions and lanterns set out on the shore in the evenings.

The unfortunate drawback to Pattaya is the presence of so many long-tail boats, which are parked across much of the beach.

One of the recommended places to stay on Pattaya Beach is Blue Tribes, run by the affable Italian Luka.

 

Sunrise Beach

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The longest stretch of sand on the island is found at Sunrise Beachon the eastern coast. Despite the build-up of accommodations in recent years, it’s still arguably one of the most stunning beaches in Thailand.

In terms of Sunrise accommodation, Castaway is a good mid-range hotel, with lovely two-tier bungalows that enjoy unbroken views of the sea. Even if you’re not a guest, Castaway is a great spot for a meal or just to hang out for a drink.

If you’re looking to really splash out, Serendipity has beautiful, secluded villas on the rock front for between 3,500–8,500 baht a night, depending on the room and season. For something really special, check out their “Big Lebowski” room.

For a budget option, Viewpoint is a peaceful, secluded grouping of older-style bungalows on the quiet and rockier end of Sunrise Beach.

 

Sunset Beach

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The smaller Sunset Beach on the northwest shore is the quiest place on the island. Holiday-making hippies can often be found hanging out at the funky Boom Boom Bar.

There aren’t many accomodation options beyond basic beachside bungalows here.

All the beaches offer great snorkeling directly off the shore. For some of the top diving in Thailand, hit the nearby reefs. Diving tours can be booked at one of the agencies on Walking Street, with some operators running courses for those who want to get their PADI certificate.

 

Eats and drinks 

In terms of eating out, the island is packed with restaurants serving fantastic local food, as well as European and other fare at reasonable prices.

The small but popular Tattoo Bar on Walking Street comes highly recommended for pre-dinner cocktails. For great sunsets, hit the aforementioned Boom Boom Bar, next to Porn Resort (yes, that’s actually its name).

Another great place for drinks is Home Bar in the centre of the island. Run by an eccentric Rastafarian with the air of a voodoo priest who will greet you like you are a long-lost friend, the bar sits at the foot of Mountain Resort and is a nice place to chill out and enjoy some dub reggae.

For delicious homemade Italian ice cream, try Lekka Lipe, on Walking Street, about 100 meters up from Pattaya beach. This place also provides games and drawing materials for kids.

Elephant Books & Coffee on Walking Street serves great coffees and cakes, free Wi-Fi and a good selection of books and board games for customers.

Getting there

Air Asia, Thai Airways, Nok Air and Orient Thai fly to Hat Yai from Bangkok several times daily.

From Hat Yai Airport, take a private taxi (300 baht) or mini van (80 baht per person) to the railway station in Hat Yai town; the travel agencies nearby sell all-inclusive mini van and ferry tickets to the island (750 baht per person).

Another option is to hire a private taxi direct from the airport to the pier at Pak Barra for around 2,500 baht. The ferry ride can take anywhere from one-and-a-half to three hours, depending on how many stops the captain decides to make.

Ferries to Lipe also run during the high season from the Malaysian island of Langkawi, and many other islands in the Andaman Sea, including Lanta, Adang, Phi Phi, and Mook.

When to go: High season lasts from mid October to end of April.  Mid season from May to June. Low season from July to October.

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