In the early 1990s, whispers of an unspoilt island far out in Thailand's Andaman Sea began surfacing among backpackers. With dazzling white-sand beaches touched by crystal-clear water that sheltered vibrant marine life, Ko Lipe was everything it was cracked up to be. Though it remains tremendously beautiful today, mass tourism is pushing Lipe in a worrisome direction.
Those who appreciate their luxuries and want to avoid the bigger resort islands will probably find everything they desire on Lipe (pronounced lee-pay). But on such a small and remote island, huge popularity comes at the price of environmental degradation, gouged prices, hasty development and increasingly greedy and careless people — both Thais and foreigners. If you haven't been here for years, be prepared for a shock.
The pace of development quickened around 2010 and by '15 there were over 100 resorts on Lipe. Multi-storey luxury villas now stand over Sunrise Beach. The massive Sita Resort has built straight across the island. In just two years, Sunset Beach attracted a dozen new resorts. Once blanketed in jungle, a large inland area is now the focus of constant construction.
We saw piles of trash, including plastics, being burned near construction sites, and tidal garbage is common on the beaches. A ludicrously high number of motorbike taxis clog up sealed roads that were sandy paths not too long ago. Often driven recklessly, the countless longtail boats can be a hazard to snorkellers. All over the island, shrugs from long-time residents seemed to say: “There's nothing we can do..."
Despite all of this, Lipe's natural beauty will still leave you breathless. The tepid water strikes a dreamy shade of aquamarine on sunny days, and underwater visibility is incredibly clear — even if many of the tropical fish have been scared away by the boat engines. Lipe's many scuba operations will whisk you to any of two-dozen magnificent dive sites located nearby.
Still almost completely covered in untouched jungle and officially protected as part of Tarutao National Marine Park, the Adang archipelago's other 22 islands beckon nature lovers who might be put off by Lipe. The tranquil beaches, waterfalls and snorkelling sites of Ko Adang, Ko Rawi and Ko Hin Ngam, among others, can be reached by a leisurely longtail or challenging kayak ride from Lipe.
After being settled by Urak Lawoi sea gypsies around the turn of the 20th century, a Thai businessman purchased a chunk of Lipe in the 1970s. Descendants of the original inhabitants have grappled with government and big-business forces over land ownership rights for some time. New barbed-wire fences are perhaps the first signs of future development on Lipe's pristine western peninsula, though it remains unclear who might profit from it. The national park also increasingly exerts a hold on Lipe, now charging foreign visitors a 200-baht entry fee.
One driving force behind Lipe's development frenzy is a recent influx in Thai, Malay, Chinese and other Asian tourists who have caught wind of the island's beauty — and increasingly have the disposable income to get there. Whether this spike in overall visitors is sustainable or not (we think not), some would argue that the many new and expanded resorts are simply the result of supply and demand.
Virtually every room on the island was full during the busiest times of the 2013 – '14 season, forcing some who arrived without reservations to sleep in tents or on the beaches. It's easy for Westerners to take the moral high ground and condemn the development, but this is a Thai island near the Malaysia border, and the Thais and Malays have every right to enjoy it.
Lipe's nightlife is lively enough to enjoy a few drinks and fire-spinning shows without the seedy bars or blasting dance parties found on parts of Phuket and Ko Phi Phi. Weekends are now considerably busier thanks to short-term visitors from the mainland, but outside of peak times, the island reverts back to its old, laid-back self on weekdays. Attracting entrepreneurs from around the world, the food scene is exceptional.
While luxury travellers and flashpackers have plenty of accommodation options to choose from, backpackers will find things more challenging. It's difficult to score a fan room with private bath for below 800 baht a night in high season, though a couple of newer places offer bunks, tents and huts with shared bathrooms for 500 baht or less. Travellers seeking better value might consider more budget-friendly islands like Ko Bulon Lae, Ko Muk, Ko Lanta or Ko Jum.
Around the Western and Chinese New Year holidays, rates at most resorts jump through the roof and both are times when we'd skip Lipe altogether. Advanced reservations are recommended any time from mid-December through February. Prices are lower and crowds thinner in November, March and April, which we feel are the best times to visit. Rates drop by up to 50% during the May to October rainy season, when some resorts close completely.
To enjoy Lipe while leaving a minimal environmental footprint, you might stay at an eco-friendly resort like Castaway, Serendipity, Green View or The Box; take advantage of the water-refilling stations at Castaway and Pooh's; use your feet rather than motorbike taxis to get around; and refrain from the increasingly popular fishing tours (fishing is technically illegal in the national park). You might also join the Trash Heroes at the Pattaya Beach entrance to Walking Street on Monday mornings at 10:00 to help pick up garbage on Lipe and the surrounding islands.
Located 67 km from mainland Satun province in the far southwest of Thailand, Ko Lipe is only 60 km north of Langkawi in Malaysia, with direct boats connecting the two islands during high season. Lipe is the fourth largest island in the Adang archipelago, but it's by no means big. The smallest of Thailand's super-popular islands, it takes only a few hours to circle Lipe by kayak.
With a long and still largely undeveloped peninsula stretching to the west, Ko Lipe's three main beaches are found on each side of a rough triangle that forms the island's widest point to the east. Sealed roads connect all of the beaches and it takes only 10 to 15 minutes to walk from one to the next.
The highest density of restaurants, convenience stores, travel offices and massage shops are clustered on and around Walking Street, a colourful 600-metre-long strip connecting Sunrise and Pattaya beaches. Another road runs north to south behind Sunrise Beach and links to a network of roads shooting northwest to Sunset Beach or looping back to Pattaya Beach.
The road that cuts behind Sunset Beach continues to the far western end of the island, where it eventually turns to sand and runs into dense jungle. Roads running uphill behind Pattaya Song and Z-Touch resorts on Pattaya Beach's western side connect up to the road behind Sunset Beach.
Sheltered by rocky outcrops on either side, south-facing Pattaya Beach was the first to host resorts on Lipe. It's still arguably the most picturesque, with the finest sand and calmest water. Fairly wide stretches of sea in front of Sita and Mali resorts are usually free of longtail boat traffic, but the water off much of Pattaya Beach can feel like a haphazard marina.
The eastern stretch of Pattaya Beach is where you'll find much of the best nightlife on Lipe, while the sand west of Walking Street's entrance has retained a quiet atmosphere. A cluster of budget resorts are located right at the centre of the beach, and things get more upmarket as you head west (though there are exceptions). The lavish Akira Resort, new as of 2014, proved to be a blessing for Pattaya Beach thanks to its well-connected owner who was able to get the trash barge to stop docking here.
Facing east towards Ko Tarutao and bending towards nearby Ko Adang at its northern point, Sunrise Beach is the longest on Lipe. Though also very beautiful, the sand is grainier and sea choppier during high season. The atmosphere is quiet after dark, with only a few low-key beach bars attached to resorts. A central stretch of Sunrise Beach became more crowded when the old Tarutao Cabana Resort was sold off in portions, resulting in a few new small resorts, but the overall layout is still more spread out than at Pattaya Beach. While Gipsy Resort and Varin Village still offer bungalows for below 1,000 baht, Sunrise Beach had tilted heavily upmarket since our last visit.
The northern stretch of Sunrise Beach that fronts the Urak Lawoi village has gotten increasingly filthy, and the smelly trash barge was parking here at time of writing. Sunrise Beach also sees considerable longtail boat traffic, and in late 2014, there was talk of a pier being built somewhere off the northern stretch. Other barges were unloading cranes, backhoes and cement trucks on the sand in front of the village.
Lipe's northern coast is where you'll find the smaller Sunset Beach along with a cove of sand and rocks to the immediate east that hosts an array of newly built small resorts along with a Thai princess' summer cottage. Sunset was undergoing drastic changes during our most recent visit, with the old backpacker favourite Porn Resort having been levelled to clear the way for a planned luxury resort. Some interesting places to stay in the flashpacker to upscale categories have moved into the far southwestern corner of Sunset beach and the eastern cove. There's also a couple of bungalow joints keeping things laid back on their tiny and remote beaches further west.
Lipe's inland area is being heavily developed, with a string of uninspiring concrete "resorts" now open directly across from the main dump and power station. Why anyone would pay 1,500 baht or more for a room here is beyond us; most likely these places will be forced to lower their prices once a bunch of negative reviews appear due to the not-so-inviting location. However, if you head further west just past the island's forest temple, or north towards Sunset Beach, some interesting low-budget to flashpacker spots are worth considering if you fancy a room in the forest.
Lipe is now home to two international medical facilities: the Bangkok Hospital affiliated Southern Andaman Medical Centre next to Pooh's towards the eastern end of Walking Street, and the Siam International Clinic located closer to Pattaya Beach on central Walking Street. Both will provide Western-standard care and speedboat shuttles in case of serious emergency. Both are also very expensive; the old community clinic in the village near Sunrise Beach is still a fine and much cheaper option for minor injuries.
If you require police assistance, a tourist police office is now located within Pooh's restaurant/bar on Walking Street.
There are now three ATMs on the island, all run by Krungsri Bank and accepting most cards with the Visa and Mastercard seals. The first is located at the new 7-eleven on Walking Street; the second across from Pooh's further east on Walking Street; and the third attached to Harmony Bed & Bakery on the side road that runs behind Sunrise Beach. Several travel offices offer foreign currency exchange at high rates.
A couple of internet cafes are located on Walking Street, and WiFi is available at most resorts and many bars and eateries, though it's usually quite slow. Cell phones with SIM cards from all major Thai providers work well throughout the island.
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Text and/or map last updated on 16th November, 2015.
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