Apr 13 2013

Changes on Thailand’s Ko Lipe

Published by at 10:52 pm under Andaman Sea islands

After updating Travelfish’s Ko Lipe content over a couple of trips in late 2011, we recently returned to this tiny yet popular Andaman island for a quick getaway. We managed between swims to find out how the island has changed over the last year.

So what's new on Ko Lipe's shores?

So what’s new on Ko Lipe’s shores?

The first difference popped up before we had even reached the island — the big, modern boat pier that was being constructed off the coast of Pakbara on the mainland during our last visit is now fully operational, and travellers are required to pay a 20 baht fee to use it. Not only is the new Pakbara pier more comfortable and spacious than the old one, it’s also more organised. ‘Official’ personnel now greet travellers at the entrance, collect the 20 baht, and show them exactly where to go.

Though still dwarfed by the ferries that run to Ko Tao, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui, the speedboat that shuttled us to Lipe was a lot bigger than any we had previously seen. It even had air-con and fluffy seats. We did however see the same old smaller, open-air speedboats in action, so which boat travellers end up on appears to be luck 0f the draw. They all still cost 650 baht, although it couldn’t hurt to request the air-con boat when purchasing tickets if you’re really keen on it.

While we found the transport situation far more orderly in Pakbara than it used to be, the opposite is now true at Ko Lipe. In years past, speedboats typically dropped passengers off directly on the sand, but they’re now required to disembark at a floating dock off Pattaya beach. When we arrived, the scene on the dock was very chaotic. Crowds of confused travellers had no idea what to do. The only ‘officials’ were shouting at boat crews in Thai, and even the longtail drivers with their boats stacked along the dock seemed to be making the process up as they went.

Don't forget to pack your patience.

Pack your patience.

All visitors now pay a 20 baht fee that apparently goes to “garbage and cleaning schemes” before leaving the floating dock. Longtail boats run no more than 15 people at a time to the island and charge a non-negotiable 50 baht per person, so getting to Lipe is now 90 baht more expensive than it used to be. There was confusion as to whether we had to pay for the boat, and which was the right boat to take, with no assistance provided at all.

After waiting in an anxious crowd for some time, we hopped on the first boat we could, paid the boatman directly and ended up on Pattaya beach (some boats apparently go to Sunrise beach). Although many travellers won’t be happy about the extra fees, it makes sense for travellers to pay for the longtail taxis as this keeps the larger boats away from the beach and provides income for the local Chao-lae boatmen. We just wish they’d streamline the process.

Once we arrived and had a look around, it appeared that all of those 20 baht environmental fees are being put to good use. Though we noticed significant trash buildup on a handful of secluded beaches along the undeveloped western coasts, most of the areas frequented by travellers were very tidy. It’s also promising that the rugged western half of the island has remained almost totally untouched by development.

No new development along the walk to Sunset Beach.

No new development along the walk to Sunset beach.

A large garbage barge was parked near the middle of Pattaya beach, where it remained for the first two days of our stay. While this could be an unwelcome surprise for anyone who pre-books at nearby Greenview Resort, the fact that garbage is being hauled away on a large scale is good news for the island at large.

We were also happy to see how Lipe’s central waste management centre appears to be functioning smoothly, with waste and recyclables adequately sorted before being transferred to the barge. On the other hand, we later noticed a large pile of burning trash near Mountain Resort; a Lipe-dwelling expat said that some of the island’s biggest resorts still aren’t playing by the rules.

The rest of Thailand could learn something from Lipe's waste management.

The rest of Thailand could learn something from Lipe’s waste management.

While planning the trip, we had read a handful of reviews with complaints that Lipe had turned into “another Ko Phi Phi” — an overdeveloped and unsustainable tourist island overrun by obnoxious party animals. Thankfully though, we found Lipe basically the same as we’d left it.

Although the enormous Sita Resort has now finished developing straight from one side of the island to the other, we found that no substantial buildings have been erected since our last visit. Apart from upscale Mali Resort on Pattaya beach, the only newcomers on the Lipe accommodation scene are tiny bungalow joints like Pitiusas and Rivendell, both of which join a handful of small Spanish-run resorts on the island.

The bunglalows at Rivendell -- not exactly skyscrapers.

The bungalows at Rivendell — not exactly skyscrapers.

Lipe’s food scene also hasn’t changed much, the biggest difference being a major influx of pizza. While only four specifically Italian/pizza restaurants could be found during our last visit, the island now boasts upwards of a dozen. Pizza Italia is probably still the best, though one Walking Street hawker provides stiff competition in the form of big New York-style slices. When it comes to pasta, La Luna is — after a year living in Bangkok — still the best we’ve tried anywhere in the kingdom.

Out of all the food choices we spotlighted during our last visit, only Marooned Thai Restaurant has closed. Along with the pizza, French-run Crepes and More and a Greek-run chicken kebab stand are welcome additions to Walking Street.

Apart from the pizza, it's "same old" on Walking Street.

Apart from the pizza, crepes and kebabs, it’s “same old” on Walking Street.

Lipe also still features the same relaxed yet lively atmosphere that has defined its nightlife scene for the last several years. Most Pattaya beach haunts play low-key reggae or live guitar music to set the mood for candlelit tables, seafood barbecues and at least one roving fire dancer. Though there’s always an exception on any island, you still won’t normally find people pounding buckets to thumping techno into the wee hours on Lipe. Over on Sunrise beach, the only sounds after dark are usually the lapping waves, and Sunset beach is the exact same hipster hang-out it was when we last visited.

Overall, we were relieved to see that — apart from the thorny arrival situation — Lipe hasn’t changed much over the past 15 months. Development seems to have levelled off, environmentally sustainable systems are in place, and the scene remains an entrancing balance of picture perfect beaches, mellow nightlife, comfy accommodation and multicultural food. For a complete island paradise package, Ko Lipe remains tough to beat.

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