Ko Lipe view

Camping it up on Koh Lipe

1st April 2010

After the more adventurous worlds of Cambodia and Laos, Thailand was always going to be a more sanitised version of South East Asia. As soon as you cross the border, you’re greeted by smooth roads, air-conditioned mini buses driving on the left-hand side, and a well oiled tourist industry that caters to your every whim. Unless, that is, your whim is to escape the other tourists. We’d been tipped off by our lovely Italian friends that the place to go was Koh Lipe, an island in the Southern part of the Thai Andaman Sea. After making our way down by bus and train, when we finally arrived at Pak Barra to board the boat, our hearts sank. This was a far cry from the creaky longtail boats of Laos; the only way to reach the island was via an over-packed, over-priced speed boat. 650 baht buys you a one way ticket hanging off the side for two and half terrifying hours as 70 people and 70 large rucksacks are herded onto a 35 man speed boat. Headlines flash through your mind as you cling on for dear life: “Overloaded speed boat capsizes at 70mph – no survivors.” I spent the large part of the journey trying to convince myself I believed in God. Thankfully we arrived in one piece, and were soon loaded into wooden fishing boats to take us the final 100 metres to the shore.

Arriving at Ko Lipe

Perhaps we’d become a bit jaded, but – despite the picture perfect beach – our initial impression was that of dissapointment. The main beach was packed with boats, and the shore lined with expensive looking resorts – Robinson Crusoe we most were certainly not. However, if there’s a lesson to be learnt not to judge a place too quickly, we learnt it here. We soon found out that Koh Lipe is a white witch who can cast a spell over you and prevent you from ever wanting to leave.

Ko Lipe sea

Ko Lipe black and white

A short walk from the main beach revealed a secluded cove with just one resort and one bar. The intriguingly named Porn Resort became our home. Now before you get the wrong idea, Porn is apparantly a common Thai surname. Unfortunately the owner had no idea of the significance of this word when he set up business, and by the time he found out it was too late too change it. Still – it didn’t seem to be doing him much harm – he was doing a roaring business. The bungalows were a little pricey for our budget, but the kind owner pitched us a tent right in front of the beach for a third of the price, giving us the best and cheapest view in the place.

Ko Lipe crab

Ko Lipe sunset

Soon 2 days turned into 5 which turned into 10. Although Ko Lipe is hardly going to provide you with an ‘authentic travelling experience’, it is pure unadulterated bliss. A typical gruelling day involves a few Caipirinhas on the beach, several plunges into the crystal clear sea, finished off by eating a kilo or two of BBQ’d fish caught by the Chau Ley (sea gypsies) – the original inhabitants of the island. Hardly getting under the skin of the ‘real’ Thailand – but hey, why not take a holiday from your holiday? It’s a tough life…

Chau Ley

Even more than the island, though, it was the people we met who kept us there. Somehow within two days of arriving, we managed to get ourselves caught up in family feud, as completely by chance, the two bars we started spending time at were owned by quarelling brothers. Boom Boom Bar (well – what else can you call a bar next to Porn Resort?) was run by a man called, well… Man. Man had the air of an old salty sea dog – thin, wirey, tough as they come, and one of the few Thais we’d met sporting significant facial hair, he had designed and built the bar himself with the help of a couple of labourers in just 2 weeks.

Man Boom Boom Bar

Made entirely from unwanted wood, it was the perfect spot to while away the days listening to Man’s tales. A real survivor, this was his fourth business venture. His third bar, on the main beach, he had agreed to sell to his brother, but in four years hadn’t seen a penny of the money. But of course, being Thailand, this doesn’t lead to lawyers and courtcases – he just channelled his anger into his new project, and cut all contact with his brother. We spent many lazy days at his bar, helped him design a new cocktail menu, tucked into the delicious food he made us, and felt like we’d met a truly inspirational character.

Cocktails on Ko Lipe

Boom Boom Bar

Lazy days Ko Lipe

His brother no longer spent much time at the other bar, preferring to delegate to his manager; but although we felt strongly allied to ‘Team Man’, before we even knew the story of the family feud, we’d already met the duo who ran the brother’s bar – a pair of old Thai ravers – and found them to be equally compelling characters. Longlee started the original full moon parties on Ko Samui back in the 1980′s, and had been a bit of a legend in the party scene. These days, he prefers a quieter life, and spends his days standing behind the Beachside bar, rolling joints, shaking cocktails, and steadfastly refusing to wear a shirt “so the ladies aren’t dissapointed”. If there was ever to be a Thai version of Benito Del Toro, this was he.

Longlee Beachside Bar

His partner in crime was the biggest hearted and least egotistical DJ we had ever met. Hoody spent the low season working importing and exporting cow’s stomach, and spent the high season hanging out at Beachside bar and playing records. I think I can say with complete confidence that he must be the only DJ in the world with a sideline job in offal exports.

DJ Hoody

Mama Beachside Bar

Along with Mama, Man’s sister who worked as the cook, these three welcomed us into their laid back world for ten days – Longlee mixing us cocktails, Hoody letting Timur join him behind the decks, and Mama making us the best Thai green curry we’d ever had. Heck, they even let us sleep in the bar on our last night before we left. We could have stayed happily for weeks living this lifestyle, and as we sadly packed our bags, we were already plotting a potential return for next season and calculating how much money we would need to survive a couple of months on the island.

Beachside Ko Lipe

Like so many of these islands, Koh Lipe is hanging on the brink of over-exploitation. Old timers who went 10 years ago will say it’s already gone well past the point of no return, but if you want a picture perfect island with a low key nightlife and supremely friendly locals, this is it. You won’t be the only tourist in the village, but compared to some of the better known islands, you’ll still find you feel part of a club that not everyone has joined yet. As it’s part of a national marine park, Ko Lipe should be somewhat protected from over exploitation, but at the end of the day, money talks, and usually wins. Here’s hoping by next year Man, Hoody, Longlee and Mama are still there, and we find the island much unchanged.

3 Comments...

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  1. Quirien

    I would have to second this view on Lipe.When Rozz and Timur left i had a nice party at the beachside resort with dj Hoody who was happy to have me aboard the dj booth.
    (happy me!!)Haha.And yes i was there for a week wich turned into 30 days because there is simply not a more happy ,more beautiful place i know in Thailand who has this broad variety of nice things to see and do in such a laidback manor as the beautful island of Ko Lipe.(please note i have been in thailand 8 times and seen most of the highlights)
    In total you will discover a paradise that is hard to leave when you are finaly there.
    You will meet a wide range of really interesting people with new people arriving and leaving on a daily basis.
    HopefullyBudha smiles upon us again and we wil all meet again on Ko Lipe next season
    Chokdee!!
    ps:For people who like batik please look for Plong’s or Gee’s amazing work .
    They are both truly gifted artists who sell their work in the batikshop on Pattaya beach (Plong) and In the ArtGarden on the hillroad (Gee)
    Peace
    Quirien

    1st April 2010 at 12:04 pm
  2. Alessandro Oggiano

    THANKS ROZ!!!!!

    u made me laugh so much!!!! :-) ))))))

    The “Benicio del Toro thai version” was AMAZING!!!!!

    N on top of that, u made me live againg that BEAUTYFUL place that is Kho Lipe!!!
    Ur writing plus the pictures of Timur was an amazing experience…

    The only thing missing was the noise of the small Adaman sea’s waves that breaks on the shoreline of Pattaya beach( surely the most commercial…but that was where we stayed..) in that “Magic Bowl” that is the island.

    We all truly hope that the island won’t be spoiled…but sadly already is…
    Just the fact that we’ve been there to share the same experience will make more n more people go there to experience as well….

    So keep enjoy our mighty n wonderful world while we can…that’s the only thing we can do…

    Peace

    2nd April 2010 at 12:17 am
  3. Anita Yusof

    Hi,
    I came across yr blog post while finding infos on camping at Koh Lipe. I would like to know, how much do they charge per nite, and do you bring yr own camp? How about toilet and shower? If I bring my own portable gas stove, do they allow cooking on the camp site? Hope to hear fr u ASAP (reply to my email plz). Thx

    1st July 2011 at 3:01 am