DJs these days, they just don’t know the meaning of rock n’ roll. There seems to be a worrying trend...
A tent, a beach, a chap called Man, and a man who is most definitely Benito Del Toro's secret Thai brother...
Camping it up on Koh Lipe
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.