Written by Gordon Reid.
Take a trip to the beautiful island of Koh Lipe, an underrated and nearby Thai gem offering lovely beaches and much more.
Many expats in Malaysia are well-acquainted with the popular Thai island of Phuket. Some readers may also have been to Koh Lanta (via Krabi), and perhaps even to Koh Samui or Koh Tao. But Koh Lipe, for many, may remain unknown, despite being the Thai holiday island closest to Malaysia. It also has great beaches and excellent snorkelling and diving. If you have not been there, read on to find out why you should definitely try it out.
Koh Lipe is one of several islands in the Tarutao Marine Park in the southern Andaman Sea, just north of Langkawi. In fact, Koh Kipe is only about 20-25 km from Langkawi – it’s that close! Apart from the beautiful beaches and surrounding waters, Koh Lipe also boasts plenty of good Thai food, drink, and beach massages, all at reasonable prices.
As for the beaches, they are all very nice on Koh Lipe. The most popular beach is Pattaya, which has powdery white sand gently sloping into the sea. The two other main beaches, Sunrise and the smaller Sunset, also have similar great sand and sea. Moreover, if you tire of one beach, you can always walk across to one of the others – that’s how small Koh Lipe is.
Under the water in Koh Lipe Another strong appeal, particularly for me, is the diving. As experienced scuba divers know, there is very little good diving off Malaysia’s west coast, including Langkawi. Yet Koh Lipe, despite being so near to Malaysia, offers diving at least as good as east coast islands like Tioman and Perhentian. I suspect this is because Koh Lipe and its neighbouring islands are just that bit further out into the Andaman Sea. Also, importantly, the Thais have allowed significant human development only on Koh Lipe, which means that the other islands in the archipelago, and their fringing coral reefs, have been largely spared from human impact.
The upshot is that there are a good number of nice dive sites that can be reached by relatively short boat-rides. Dive operators generally offer a two-dive package to the more distant sites (more than 20 minutes), while the nearer dive sites can be done as single dives. I should add that one of my best dives was in fact the nearest – at the corner of the main Pattaya Beach. So even the closer sites are definitely worthwhile.
What can you see?: Plenty of both colourful soft and hard coral in good condition, accompanied by some impressive schools of snapper, fusiliers, and many other smaller reef fish. We also saw a couple of turtles, and I am told that there are occasional sharks and other big stuff. The macro (small creatures like nudibranchs, crustaceans, and octopus) is quite good, too.
For those of you who do not dive, there is also some nice snorkelling at Koh Lipe. As with diving, the best-preserved reefs can be reached by taking a boat trip to other nearby islands. But you can also see some decent marine life by swimming directly off the beach – particularly Sunrise Beach, according to the Koh Lipe website.
Getting to Koh Lipe: You have two transportation options from Greater Kuala Lumpur: a quick one and an adventurous one!
The quick option is to fly to Langkawi, then take a fast ferry from there direct to Koh Lipe. Boats run only during the high season, from 20 October to 30 April. Most leave from Telaga Harbour, close to Pantai Kok and the Cable Car, although there is one departure a day from the main town of Kuah. At RM120 one way, the fare is quite steep. But the boat does get you to Koh Lipe quickly (one hour flat, or 90 minutes from Kuah) and easily. Passport formalities are completed easily on Langkawi and Koh Lipe. A second, more adventurous option is to drive up from Malaysia to the port of Pak Bara (also spelt Pak Barra) in the deep southwest of Thailand, and take a ferry from there to Koh Lipe. The ferry takes around 90 minutes and, at 500 Baht (RM50) each way, is substantially cheaper than from Langkawi. You can leave your car in secure parking in Pak Bara for a modest daily fee.
The drive from KL is lengthy – over 600km or eight hours. But if you are a family or group with more than one driver, it is comfortably doable. Even better, plan in an overnight stop en route, in somewhere like Kangar in Perlis (also an opportunity to visit this smallest Malaysian state). This is a particularly good idea on the way up, since otherwise you would need to leave KL very early in the morning to get to Pak Bara in time for the last ferry at 3.30pm.
If you live in or around Penang, your journey time is halved to just over four hours, making the driving option even more attractive.
Below is my recommended best route – and I should know because I have done it! It may sound complicated in places, but provided you have a decent GPS with you, it is in fact relatively straightforward:
• Begin by following the North-South Highway all the way up to Jitra, north of Alor Setar in Kedah. Turn off left here towards Kangar (where, as mentioned earlier, you can stop over for the night). From Kangar, head due north towards Kaki Bukit and Wang Kelian, the very last kampung on the Malaysian side of the border. To get to Wang Kelian, you wind up a steep road through the attractive countryside of Perlis State Park, then down the other side.
• If you are not overnighting in Kangar, an alternative route to Wang Kelian is to stay on the North-South Highway a bit longer until Changlun, a few kilometres before the main border crossing of Bukit Kayu Hitam. Then cut left across country towards Padang Besar (another border crossing – but do not cross there), and from there across country again to Wang Kelian. I particularly recommend this route if you are driving back from Pak Bara to KL in one go.
• Wang Kelian/Wang Prachan (the Thai name) is by far the smallest of the three crossings in that section of the Thai- Malaysian border. Indeed, it is so small that Google Maps shows it as a dead end – so if you try to get directions to Pak Bara from Google, it will send you on a much longer route via Bukit Kayu Hitam and Hat Yai. I can, however, assure you that the border crossing is open to vehicles and to foreign passport holders like myself! There is a tiny duty-free shop just on the Malaysian side of the border with a good range of malt whiskies and other spirits at the cheapest prices I have found anywhere in or around Malaysia!
• From Wang Kelian/Wang Prachang, it is plain sailing to Pak Bara with a GPS. In fact, the roads here are considerably better than they look on the map with dual carriageways on many stretches.
• One last tip: make sure you extend your car insurance to cover you in Thailand. Most Malaysia-based companies will do this for a short period of time for a nominal fee.
When to go?: The short answer is: any time you want! The island is open all year round. But there are a couple of things to take into account.
First, the weather. Like nearby Langkawi, Koh Lipe has no pronounced monsoon season, although you do run a greater risk of experiencing rainy (and occasionally stormy) days between April and September, which can also reduce water visibility. Second, Koh Lipe does have a clear high season: from November to early May. During this period, and especially in the peak holiday period of December/ January/February, hotels and resorts get full, and prices go up. Go in the low season if you want real peace and quiet – and savings of 50% or more over peak season hotel prices. However, bear in mind that the fast ferry connection from Langkawi only operates from late October to April, so outside that period your only option is to drive overland via Pak Bara.
Where to stay?: All of the main beaches on Koh Lipe are good, with gently sloping white sand. So your choice of location depends more on your other priorities:
- If you want a wide choice of accommodation, plus readily accessible restaurants, bars, and shops, go for the largest beach, Pattaya. That is where we stayed.
- For a bit more peace and quiet and personal space, but still some choice of accommodation and eateries, try out Sunrise Beach (Hat Chao Ley).
- For a very laid back holiday – but but no high-end accommodation – go for Sunset Beach (Hat Pramong).
Bear in mind that you can walk from all of these beaches to all the others, as well as to the Walking Street. However, from the more distant beach areas this could involve a walk of 15 minutes or more. So it depends how energetic you are.
For additional information or advice, you may email the author at: [email protected].
Homepage highlight photo credit: Vyacheslav Argenberg, Flickr
Source: The Expat May 2014
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