The Island of Koh Lipe

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This post was written by John Nisted

Travelling in the low season, an expat family of three from Penang take a road trip to the port town of Pak Bara, Thailand, then take a short power boat ride to Koh Lipe, to discover the delights this wonderful island has to offer. Penang expat John Nisted reveals how easy it is to escape for a few days to relax on a tropical island.

“ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?” my eight year old daughter Vivien asks from the back seat of our little yellow rented Myvi. “Almost,” I reply, “just ten more minutes.” This time, instead of telling the usual little white lie (as I have been known to do on road trips in Australia, where distances are often daunting), I was almost spot on as we were actually very close to our fi rst destination – the small Thai port town of Pak Bara.

THE ATTRACTION

Wonderful as Penang is, most expats like to get away to experience other destinations whenever they can. Air travel can, however, be tedious – the waiting, the queuing, the shuffling of luggage, the bad coffee. One of the attractions of Koh Lipe for us was that we could drive there ourselves in around four hours. Furthermore, we decided to go to Koh Lipe in July, the middle of the low season, and take advantage of the huge discounts in accommodation.

See Also: Top 8 Tourist Attractions in Penang

Koh Lipe is a small sandy cay in the Andaman Sea, located a short 60km north of the Malaysia/Thailand border. It is one of many islands in the Tarutao National Marine Park and is sometimes referred to as the “Maldives of Thailand.” It offers warm, clear tropical water with easy snorkelling straight off the beach. For divers, there is a good diversity of marine life (with the occasional sighting of whale sharks).The low season offers the best visibility for divers at around 15-20m, compared to only about 5-8m in the high season.Two of the six dive shops on the island were open during our stay. The larger islands of Adang, Rawi & Tong are close by and easily accessed by longboat. They are covered in dense forest and surrounded by crystal -clear water and a diverse range of interesting marine life and soft corals.

THE JOURNEY

Driving to Koh Lipe from Penang or Kuala Lumpur is relatively simple. Follow the E1 north to Changloon where you purchase your car insurance and complete the compulsory paperwork which will allow you to take your car into Thailand. On the northern edge of Changloon, take the left exit to Kuala Perlis. It is then only a short distance along Route 194 before you turn right at the University Malaysia Perlis and head for Padang Besar.The drive through the northern part of Perlis toward the border crossing of Wang Kelian is an interesting one.This little corner of Malaysia is in itself fascinating and culturally significant and well worth investigating if time permits.

See Also: Road Trips in Malaysia

The signage to the small border crossing of Wang Kelian / Wang Prachan can be a little bit confusing, and an up-to-date road map and/or GPS are invaluable along with a good sense of direction. Crossing into Thailand is simple as long as all your vehicle insurance paperwork is complete. If you can, avoid the crossing on public holidays, during the high season or on Sundays.We crossed on a weekday and the entire process took less than 15 minutes. Please remember to plan your crossing within daylight hours as the customs offices are only usually open from 7am – 7pm.

Make sure customs on both sides of the border not only stamp your passports but also with the correct date. Also ensure you hand your vehicle insurance paperwork back to Thai customs when returning to Malaysia. Forgetting to do this may land you with a hefty fine from the Thai authorities next time you try and cross the border with your vehicle.

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Accommodation in Pak Bara is limited. However, a night here prior to the boat crossing to Koh Lipe avoids the need to leave Penang early, as there is only one boat per day during the low season which leaves at 11.30am. If you stay at the aptly named Best Hotel, you will be well looked after, the rates are very reasonable, and the rooms adequate and clean.The wharf is a short walk from the hotel, and we were able to leave our car there for much less than it cost at the car park at the wharf.

We purchased our tickets for the one-hour crossing from the friendly Tarutao Speedboat Ferry Team (who also changed some Ringgit for us). It is advisable to purchase your Baht in Penang, as the money exchange in Pak Bara was closed when we were there and there are no ATMs on Koh Lipe.

THE ISLAND

The overall atmosphere of Koh Lipe could be described as rustic.There are no real roads, just sandy tracks criss-crossing the island.The main walking track – The Walking Street – takes you from Sunrise Beach to Pattaya Beach in just 15 minutes, with many eateries and shops along the way (although many of these are closed during the low season).There are three main beaches on Koh Lipe – Sunrise Beach, Sunset Beach, and Pattaya Beach. During the low season, all visitors arrive and depart via Sunrise Beach when it is protected from the monsoonal breezes. During the high season, the focus switches to Pattaya Beach on the eastern side of the island.

Arriving at Sunrise Beach was like something out of a travel brochure – white sand, warm clear water along with a cluster of people greeting the newcomers with relaxed smiles and even a song (which wasn’t for us but for a group of Russians). We were met on the beach by our host who quickly gathered our bags and loaded us into a buggy for a short ride to our accommodation. Accommodation on Koh Lipe ranges from the very basic (one-room huts) to more luxurious, with low season prices at least 50% off the peak-season prices.We decided to sample two different places during our short stay – Ricci House Resort and Castaway Beach Resort.

Centrally locate, Ricci’s is clean and comfortable.The units are set amidst lovely gardens and each unit has its own veranda with hose for washing sand off the feet . A substantial breakfast was included in the tariff.

After two nights at Ricci’s, we moved on to Castaway Beach Resort for a beachside experience. For us, the highlight of Castaways was the wonderful decked terrace overlooking the beach. After a leisurely breakfast, we relaxed in a cabana while Vivien built sandcastles and played with the resident dogs.We swam, we ate, we drank, we read, and we snoozed. It was very laid back and highly enjoyable. As the day drew to a close, we took advantage of the cocktail happy hour from 4-6pm. For our evening meals, we either ate at Castaways or took a short stroll down the beach to the Sunrise Beach Restaurant. Both were excellent. Look out for the samosa lady who walks down the beach each afternoon, tray balanced on her head, calling out “donuts, samosas.” They are seriously good!

WORDS OF ADVICE

Even paradise has its problems. For Koh Lipe, the resort owners do battle with the native population’s propensity for littering. For us, finding pieces of broken glass on the beach, and in the shallows, was disappointing.We learned to walk on the beach watching our step, picking up rubbish in an attempt to do our bit.

We were told that during the high season the sound of the un-muffled longboat engines is an issue with visitors, particularly for those staying at beachside accommodation.This was not a problem for us as there were so few visitors and less longboat activity.

Koh Lipe during the low season from May to September is quiet. If you are after a party atmosphere then this is not the time of year to visit.We experienced great weather while we were there, however it could just as easily have rained the whole time. At this time of year, many of the resorts are closed, as well as quite a few of the cafes. Having said this, we found that there was ample choice and we enjoyed the quiet atmosphere. In addition, for the budget traveller, there are great deals to be had.

As the saying goes “all good things must come to an end” and so it was that after four days of sun and relaxation, we were now saying our good-byes to our new acquaintances as well as the very friendly staff of Castaways.We were to leave our foot prints in the sand and take with us some wonderful memories.

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Taking the fast speedboat back to the mainland, I was soon behind the wheel of our little Myvi returning my family to Penang. Instead of “Are we there yet?” it was the sound of our daughter crying “Do we have to leave…?”Would we return to this magical spot? Sure would, in the blink of an eye!

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Fact File:

For more information on Koh Lipe, visit www.kohlipethailand.com
Great accommodation deals can be found at www.agoda.com

To contact Castaway Resort directly, go to www.castaways-resorts.com
Speedboat tickets from Pak Bara to Koh Lipe are 650 Baht (65RM)/person

Note: Rental cars from Malaysia can be taken across the border into Thailand; however it is up to the discretion of the hire car company.The author used SD Easy Rent A Car in Penang. Relevant insurance must be obtained prior to crossing the border.

To contact John Nisted, email [email protected]

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Source: Penang International December 2012 -January 2013

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