We left Koh Libong the way we had come, on a longtail with the locals, one of whom was having her scooter shipped over with us. It wobbled precariously on the deck in front of us, threatening to crash into my knees as the boat’s hull was thumped by each wave, in what might have been the world’s oddest traffic accident.
Thankfully, my shins remained unscathed and, with a belly-full of Imodium leading some guttural rebellion in my intestines, I was semi-confident our trip to Koh Lipe would be squit-free.
Climbing aboard the Tigerline ferry was a feat in itself, as each passenger clambered over two other boats and then had to sidle along the hull – with heavy backpacks augmenting the sway of the vessel – while Tigerline employees straddled the boats, a sandal on a railing of each, catching and hurling disembarking passengers’ luggage like rugby balls.
The ferry itself was quick and largely uninteresting, bar the view of Koh Libong as we passed, and the tourists on the boat who we analysed and scrutinised with the air of sociology professors. Actually we just judged the fat, bearded, sunburnt Brits and leathery, sun-bathing Italians for two hours. It was fun!
My initial impression of Koh Lipe wasn’t good. When you arrive, the ferry docks at a floating jetty, about 30 metres from the pier. You then have to buy tickets to the beach, for 50 baht each. The vendors – all gainfully employed ladyboys for some reason – had the same look in their eye: what are you gonna do, swim ashore? Cheeky monkeys! It’s galling, but, meh, you get over it as soon as you notice the water.
Everywhere we’ve been so far, nothing compares to the crystal clear waters around Lipe. You could see the bottom, metres deep, littered with colourful soft corals and teeming with fish. It’s also calm, like Libong, but glimmering a patchwork of glorious turquoise or deep marine, reminding you of all those pictures you saw on the internet at work of perfect beaches, back when you were first playing with the idea of leaving it all behind and going to have a look for yourself.
Koh Lipe really is a lovely place. It strikes the perfect balance between quiet island life and social interaction with fellow travellers, all on a small island with three wildly different and yet individually exceptional beaches. There’s a variety of accommodation to suit all needs, and there’s an excellent live-music scene similar to the bars in Krabi Town.
The three beaches – Pattaya, Sunset and Sunrise – each have their own qualities. Pattaya, the most developed of the three, has the best swimming and a number of beach-front bars and restaurants to choose from. It’s also west-facing, so you can treat your partner to a bottle of Chang and a corn-on-the-cob as you watch the sun set. Score some serious date points.
Sunrise Beach is pretty special even if you can’t face early rises. You can wade out into the shallow sea here for 50 metres or so and stumble across anemones housing clown fish. We were so excited we’d found Nemo and his Dad, I hurried back to shore to retrieve the camera; when I returned, Swarana was edging backwards through the water, apparently being harried by a bolshie white fish with delusions of grandeur.
Meanwhile, at Sunset Beach (the least developed on the island), you can feel even more secluded, while sipping arguably the best mojitos in Thailand, sold by a bloke and his girlfriend from a small wooden bench under a tree.
As for the cuisine here, the food comes in a range of prices and qualities: you can get exceptional masaman curry from one of the Indian kitchens, tasty crepes from street hawkers, or you can splash out on barbecued seafood from the more western restaurants. Not that I’d recommend splashing out – you tend to forgo flavour, quantity and service for the privilege of paying through the nose.
Then there’s the night life. It’s not a twatty Koh Phi Phi house music binge; quite the opposite. Down the main Walking Street, you’ll find the imaginatively named Live Music Bar, a sort of fenced performance area at which two Thai guitarists play tirelessly for hours to locals and tourists alike.
Or there’s Elephant Bar, initially impressive for the longtail boat over which drinks are served, and then for the quality covers being played by eastern and western performers. Even the geckos were enjoying the music.
Koh Lipe’s one of those places that is just right, right now; but it holds hints of what it might become if the development doesn’t slow down significantly. The Italian owner of Blue Tribes, a hostel/bar on Pattaya beach, first came to Koh Lipe in 2005, back when it had only a spattering of western visitors. He told us that in a decade it has become unrecognisable from the tribal society that preceded it, many of whom have been swindled of their land in the tourism boom.
We (I) only had one painful experience on Lipe – borne of my startling stupidity rather than the island itself. We took a snorkelling tour to the nearby national park – a collection of jungle islands with coral reefs dotted between them – and I made the mistake of swimming all day without a t-shirt on.
I’ve never been so badly burned in my life. I’m usually very good in the sun – I don’t sun bathe for starters. It’s boring, uncomfortable and a waste of time. Similarly, I’ve no interest in temporarily changing the colour of my skin either, so I tend to err for the high factor sun cream as well.
But damn it, when you’re swimming all day, you’re constantly cool. When you’re staring at iddy-biddy fishies for hours on end, back floating on the surface of the water like a frying steak, you don’t notice the blisters fizzing beneath your skin because you’re having a jolly lovely time.
What’s more, I’d also shaved my head to an ill-advised grade three all over, thinking how I wouldn’t need to check my bonce in the morning or care about how it looks after a swim. Brill!
I didn’t know you had to cream your scalp. I resembled a human salt-shaker for about a week, great flakes of dead cranium wafting from my head as I walked past restaurants, their denizens no doubt vomiting at the sight of my floating trail of epidermal snow.
Never mind. I’ve learned my lesson now.
Still, it was a shame to leave Thailand in quite so much pain. Carrying a massive rucksack on freshly mutilated skin is a special kind of ow. But we had to leave the country before our visas expired so off we set to the island of Langkawi in Malaysia, Koh Lipe leaving a pleasant aftertaste of Thailand in our minds, like coriander for the brain.
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