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Ko Lipe

Travel Guide

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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.

The Lipe experience can be a mixed one.

The Lipe experience can be a mixed one.

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 Muslim fishermen and 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.
Gorgeous in places.

Gorgeous in places.

One driving force behind Lipe's development frenzy is a recent influx in Thai and Malay 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.
No filter required.

No filter required.

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.
Strike a pose.

Strike a pose.

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.

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Text and/or map last updated on 16th December, 2014.

Last reviewed by:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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