Thai Islands: Getting our feet wet in Koh Lipe

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When you have to get your feet wet to get your passport stamped, you  know you’re somewhere special.

If you’re in South East Asia, you’re going to Thailand. And if you’re in Thailand, what are you going to do? Beaches, food, islands (and temples, jungles, elephants, etc.).

We left Langkawi in a ferry bound for Koh Lipe, a popular island in the southern Andaman sea. It was about a two hour boat ride from Langkawi, and while we had heard great reviews about Koh Lipe, they always came with a caveat…that it’s expensive.

However, lacking any better ideas, we paid £75 for our ferry tickets after a stiff negotiation, and boarded a boat for the border. I overheard a small group of Chileans being charged quite a bit more for their ferry tickets than we had paid, and told them in Spanish how much we had paid.  The Thai clerk, not knowing any Spanish was none the wiser, and they managed to negotiate their tickets down as well.  Good traveller karma done for the day, it was time to go through Malaysian immigration, turn over our passports for the journey (gasp), and board the boat, praying they’d be returned on the other side.  Our dual citizenship (and tri for one of us) notwithstanding, we were officially stateless in international waters.

We really couldn’t see anything out of our ferry’s saltwater encrusted windows, so we didn’t know where we were or whether we had arrived when the boat stopped and we were ushered onto a wooden long tail boat from a door in the side of our ferry.  
We could have been hijacked by pirates for all we knew.  But we obediently boarded the small boat, bobbing up and down on turquoise blue water and headed toward a white strip of land.  The first little flutter of excited butterflies at the perfect scene head told us we were in for something special.

As we and our luggage made our way to shore in that pretty little wooden boat, we got our first glimpses of blinding white sand, clear crystal aqua blue water, and dozens of long tail boats, decorated at the front with colourful ribbons and flowers — for good luck on their journey. It was a scene out of a post card.

As our boat slid into the beach, we kicked off our shoes, grabbed our backpacks, and jumped off onto the beach to go up to the little hut that was official Thailand immigration. Without a doubt, the coolest border crossing I have ever — ever — undertaken.

Just because it was on a beach, didn’t mean it wasn’t a serious affair. Thailand takes it’s border security seriously, and we were quizzed on where we were staying, where we were going next, how long we were getting there, etc. After being reunited with our passports and had them stamped, we were sent over to “customs” which was much more informal, and finally to pay our national park permit at a table manned by jungle cammo clad Thai soldiers.

The formalities of entering a new country completed, we looked around, breathed in, and started grinning — a facial expression we never lost our entire time on Koh Lipe.

Settling in

Our first hotel was about 300 yards down the beach, so off we trudged with our backpacks, and our one lone suitcase. The beautiful white sand was hard packed enough to roll the suitcase effortlessly along the beach, but soft as flour once you went above the tide line. I’ve frolicked on a lot of white sand beaches in my lifetime, and this one – Pattaya Beach in Koh Lipe – outshines them all in every possible way.
The water is just that bit clearer – and bluer. The sand, that much whiter. The beach, naturally cleaner. The only litter was bits of bleached coral that had washed up from the nearby reef. The high green headlands at either end of the curved beach gave it a protected feel, and the long tail boats and karst cliffs completed the uniquely Thai postcard. ( Not to be confused with the Pattaya south of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand that is seedy and to be avoided at all costs.)

Even though it’s a busy beach, serving as the main port for the island, there is plenty of space for everyone to do what they want on Pattaya – sunbathing, sand castles, snorkelling, running, or just chilling out at one of the laid back bohemian beach bars and cafes set back into the tree line.

In short, it was spectacular.

Our hotel, on the other hand, was not.  We were led down a shady row of bamboo huts leading up from the beach, but these weren’t ours. Apparently they won’t accommodate three people, no matter how small one of them happens to be.  Our cabin was at the way back of the property, cooled by only a fan, and swarming with mosquitoes.  Needless to say, we stayed there for one miserable night, with the fan blowing straight on our bodies, and moved the next day.

Koh Lipe has two other beaches on the East and West sides called Sunrise and Sunset beach, accordingly. They were both smaller beaches, more secluded. Sunrise beach was lined with cute bamboo bungalows and laid back beach huts that served as bars, and sunset beach was tucked away with nothing much more than a kiosk serving cold drinks at sunset. They both had nice sand, but not nearly as nice as Pattaya. All three beaches are no more than 10 minutes’ walk away from one another, so cars are few and far between on the island, giving it even more of a beachy island vibe.

Walking Street

The centre of commerce on Koh Lipe is a long paved “street” that runs between Sunrise Beach and Pattaya Beach, called Walking Street. It’s more of a wide sidewalk, painted blue and sandy from all of the feet walking up and down it between the beaches.  If you want souvenirs, sarongs, bug spray, food, drink or foot massages, you can find it all on Walking Street. The name of the street doesn’t exactly mean that motorbike taxis with sidecars don’t travel up and down it, dodging barefoot tourists along the way!

The Elephant Cafe won our hearts through and through, and we must have gone back 8 times – most at Austin’s insistence — not that Mark or I protested at all. I liked the cute bohemian vibe, the amazing salads, and the real iced tea that they served. Austin loved the hamburgers and the shelf full of games, and Mark loved the music and the low bar tab. Apart from the beach, this was our favourite place on the island.

Island life

Koh Lipe felt like a holiday in the midst of our holiday.  Sure it was touristy, but we weren’t ready for hard core deserted Thai islands – yet.  Austin didn’t wear shoes the whole time we were on Koh Lipe, and rarely wore a shirt. When I tried to put one on him, he protested that he wanted to be a “beachy boy”. You can’t argue with that, so I let him go beach feral, and his hair turned streaky blonde, and his skin golden brown.

We spent our days beaching, swimming, exploring, snorkelling, and hanging out at a chill cafe that we all fell in love with.  I could feel layers of stress coming off me with each passing day, and I took some epic naps both on the beach, and in our second hotel, a polished teak garden hut right in the middle of the island.

Austin and I played on the beach one day together while Mark did some work back at our hotel.  I had found a lone shade tree in an otherwise overly sunny beach, and set up our beach blanket.  I did some reading while he set to work on building a sand castle nearby.  We rotated from beach to water for hours.  As I sat there under my tree, beautiful orange flowers started dropping around me, one by one.  I started collecting them, building a pretty bouquet as they fell, until I finally had a gorgeous little arrangement to enjoy while we relaxed in that little bit of paradise.  

The scents of water, sand, salt and flowers created a heady feeling, and I was lulled almost into a trance of peacefulness, watching my son play in the sand, building a channel to direct the waves into his moat.  Then a different smell filled the air, and I looked up to see Austin beaming, announcing that he had hit “bedrock”.  His structure was now topped with grey sand, and the sweetly tinged putrid smell was coming from his castle.  He had not, in fact, hit bedrock.  He had hit the seepage from a grey water line buried under the sand.  I was so blissed out that I didn’t recognise it at first, but it dawned on me all at once that my son was rolling in sewage.

It was unmistakable, and the stench had entirely taken over our perfect little bubble of wonderful.  I hauled that six year old boy into the water and scrubbed at his feet, hands, face, everywhere.  Packing up our spread in an instant, trying to explain to my shrieking kid why we had to leave without warning, we flew to the hotel so I could scrub him down with tea tree oil and a wire brush. (Okay, so no wire brush.)  It took me the rest of the day to get the smell out of my nose, and I’m still trying not to think about my son, gleefully up to his elbows in other people’s piss.

Lesson learned…play on the beach all you want, but under no circumstances whatsoever, should you dig down to “bedrock” outside of Minecraft.

Doing our part

Koh Lipe has a well organised Trash Hero group, and their weekly Trash Hero day happened to fall on our second day there. Having had such a great time with the Trash Hero team in Langkawi, we joined the group bright and early to head off to a remote beach and pick it clean.

We had a big group – about 30 people. We loaded into 3 long tail boats and took off for a distant island in need of some love. After an hour’s boat ride, past countless cone shaped tropical islands, we arrived at a pretty little beach on an uninhabited island. They had been here to clean about a year ago, and at first glance, I didn’t think it would take much to pick up the limited visible rubbish and then start enjoying our day out on the water.

As it turned out, the beach was absolutely littered with rope and nets, many of which had to be dug out by hand, some quite deep, and most wrapped around the roots of the trees lining the beach.

You’d see a little bit of rope sticking out of the sand, maybe 6 inches or so, and you’d pull, only to find it woudn’t budge. So you dig, and dig some more, and a bit more, until you find a huge wad of tangled ropes of all different colours and sizes. This gave you something to grab on to and pull, but you werent’ finished yet. Once you got down to the roots, it was a matter of deciding whether to cut the root or start the process of untangling. Sometimes cutting was a better option… sometimes it was the latter.

It went faster to work in pairs, and a Spanish woman and I worked up a good sweat pulling masses of tangled rope and netting of the ground. Once you got near the end and felt it give a bit, then it was time for you to both grab hold, and pull with all of your strength. It was incredibly satisfying when it finally gave way, and you fell right on to your bum in the sand with a 5 pound (or more) wad of trash in your hands. The size of some of these balls was mind-boggling.

Mark worked with a team of 5 men, pulling out a mass that weighed at least 20kg, and was too big to fit in a large black rubbish bag on its own.

Once the work was done, we all relaxed, swimming in the sea, getting to know our fellow Trash Hero volunteers, and eating sweet red watermelon on the now clean beach before heading back to Koh Lipe for lunch sponsored by one of the big resorts on Pattaya. We’ve really enjoyed working with Trash Hero, and will continue to do so throughout the islands where it’s active.

Unwound

We spent 4 relaxing days on Koh Lipe, living the beach life.  Ultimately, we did find that it was more expensive than we were expecting, although that’s relative in Thailand. Food and lodging are about double the cost of other nearby islands, so we ultimately tore ourselves away from Koh Lipe in search of a less developed paradise.

With so many islands to explore, and most of them off the grid, we were finding it hard to choose.  So we did the smartest thing we could.  We asked the locals.  We told them what we were looking for – family friendly, not over-developed, with a nice beach where we could bum around some more.  Koh Mook seemed to be the consensus, a small island two hours away by speedboat.

Not knowing what we’d find there, we waved goodbye to Koh Lipe’s beautiful white sand, that chilled out island vibe, and held on for dear life as we pounded our way across the Andaman sea to islands unknown.

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