Well – I did not see any boughs of holly and very few bunches of ivy – but I did see loads of people in white-trimmed red hats including a not-too-portly red-suited and white-bearded Santa Claus accompanied by a dozen or so red-hatted and cheery carol singers entertaining diners at the many restaurants and bars of Koh Lipe’s delightful little Walking Street on Christmas Eve. Santa even brought squeals of delight from a small Italian boy ploughing through a bowl of pasta with his parents, when he (Santa) gave him (bambino) a small gift from his not-so-bulging sack with a merry Ho! Ho! Ho! (surprisingly, also Ho! Ho! Ho! in the Thai language).
I spent a week or so on this tiny island seventy kilometres west from the SW tip of Thailand – next stop heading West would have been India, perhaps, and next stop heading South would have been Malaysia – just a very few kilometres away.
I had found a newspaper clipping from 2009 that called Koh Lipe “Thailand’s last secret island” and indeed six and a half years ago it may indeed have been a secret … but like the chocolates from Santa’s sack, the cat is well and truly out of the bag.
It is relatively easy to get there now – for me, just a one-hour flight to Bangkok, overnight in an airport hotel, up at 0500 to tackle the Dante-esque crowds mobbing the cheap airline counters at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport, on to another ninety-minute flight with Air Asia to Hat Yai in Thailand’s troubled southern region, a two-hour bus journey to the coast and a mad speedboat journey to the islands.
While waiting for the speedboat to depart – and all transfers were made very easy by the excellent island shuttle service offered by Air Asia – I had noticed a small boy smoking what was probably the skinniest roll-your-own cigarette I had ever seen. When all the luggage had been piled high in the front bit of the boat (or prow, perhaps, to be a bit more nautical) the kid tossed away the remaining few threads of tobacco and climbed up into the driver’s seat (Captain’s Command Post, perhaps?), pressed a few switches and off we roared. I was last to board, so was perched on a cooler bin at the front of the boat, by the driver’s bare feet. On closer inspection I could see he wasn’t a boy at all, but a young man, and one who sat on an elevated cushion so he could see out the windscreen. His feet did not quite reach the floor (“deck” for you swabbies out there!) but he did a superb job dodging crawfish pot markers, accelerating over wakes made by other vessels and covering the seventy kilometres in just over one frantic and bumpy and exciting hour. If any passengers had eggs in their luggage (not sure why they would) by the time we arrived those eggs were no doubt well scrambled. My kidneys certainly were!
We did not actually arrive on Koh Lipe – but at a floating platform a few hundred metres offshore. The final stage of the marathon journey was to clamber onto the platform, negotiate another queue to buy a ticket for a twenty-second long-tail motor boat ride to the shore. We were the lucky ones – we pulled in to a floating jetty made from wiring together a couple of dozen ten-gallon blue water bottles, so we did not have to paddle ashore with suitcases held over-head.
I had booked a week or so at a resort that sounded fun and offered reasonably affordable bamboo cabins (with fans) right on the beach with reserved deckchairs to idle the days away. The website had mentioned that there were a few mosquitoes but I was not worried as I had brought some repellent.
A few mosquitoes? Ho ho ho – and a rather rueful “Ho ho ho” at that – nothing as cheery as the Ho! Ho! Ho! from the Thai Santa Claus.
A few mosquitoes?
There were squadrons of ‘em! While trying to read in the evening twilight I curled foetally around the gadget guaranteed to destroy every insect within a ten-mile radius. The gadget certainly gassed me but was ignored by the blighters who dive-bombed me from every direction. The cabin was certainly “sea view” – peering through the clouds of mossies – and it did have a fan, but no chairs, no bottled water and no beach towels (although there were signs telling guests NOT to take shower towels to the beach). But it did have mosquitoes that clawed their way – no – they just flew merrily, singing happy little mosquito songs, as they swarmed through the inch-wide gaps in the bamboo walls and floors and thatched ceilings. To be fair, the comfortable bed had netting around it and the monsters were thwarted in their attempts to get me once I had gone to bed.
However it was not a case of a Samuel Pepys diary entry, “And so to bed” and so to sleep. Because my cabin was right down the front by the beach, it was also just a few centimetres away from an alleyway that was full of motorbikes, motorbike taxis, motorbike drivers and every coughing and spluttering islander resident on Koh Lipe. Even the torrential and unseasonal rain could not shut them up.
Next day I moved next door to the surprisingly mosquito-free Akira Lipe Resort with its huge air-conditioned rooms, cable television, so-so breakfasts, marble bathtubs, comfortable armchairs on spacious balconies overlooking vast swimming pools and roof-top terraces – and had a very comfortable four or five days – and enjoyed every penny of the extra charge.
Suitcases on the beach
The Akira – like the island – was full of Chinese, Russian, Scandinavian, Italian, Spanish and Thais – most of whom had at least three or five small children in tow. If Pattaya is Thailand’s sex capital, then Koh Lipe must be its family-friendly kingdom with its clear calm waters and delightfully sandy beaches. It is certainly the only place I have visited where small boats drop travellers on the beach. OK – lots of places are remote enough for travellers to be dropped on a beach … but here the visitors then dragged their wheeled suitcases along the beach as if they were checking in to a city hotel. Others – who had though about things – had backpacks or bags that could be slung over shoulders.
Koh Lipe is not a secret any more – but it still has a bit of a frontier feel to it, and is a delightfully slow, laid-back and welcoming place. I watched men unloading cartons of beer and huge baskets of fruit, dozens of racks of eggs, a washing machine, bags of rice, huge bunches of bananas, two small bar refrigerators, bottles of gas, bottles of air for the many dive businesses on the island: everything comes in by long-tail boat and everything goes out the same way.
The downside of being so remote is that everything costs a bit more – a small can of soft drink that might sell for twelve or thirteen baht on “the mainland” costs at least twenty-five baht on the island and a twenty-baht ice cream, once it has been ferried to the island and offloaded onto another boat and then carried to the store costs an unremarkable and unsurprising forty baht.
In June 2009 there were apparently no cars on the island – there are now only a few – but as there are very few roads and plenty of motorbike taxis, cars or trucks are not really necessary. Visitors can walk around the whole island in a couple of hours – unless they get lost – like me – and try to take a shortcut through the large Royal Thai Naval compound at one end of the island. Not a very friendly greeting – and no sign that the sentries had ever heard that Thailand was supposed to be the Land of Smiles …
However, plenty of smiles were found everywhere else and in the numerous reggae / Bob Marley bars along the beach and up in the steep hills one could almost suspect that there were chemical additions to the beer to get the vast smiles so radiant on the dreadlocked heads. I saw only two official looking fellows (apart from the navy guys) and do not think they were actually police officers – they were not in the skin-tight brown polyester uniforms stretched over the portly stomachs to be found on policemen everywhere else in Thailand.
Fine dining today
With the exception of Christmas Day, it rained on and off every day I was there. The seas on the east and north coasts were very choppy, so I did not take advantage of the many snorkelling and diving day trips offered to the scores of islands nearby – including Cat Island and Rat Island. For some reason the rat is larger than the cat. I snorkelled in the bay in front of my hotel on Pattaya Beach (no getting away from the place after all!). There are several huge areas of sea marked by floats as swimming areas – the many long-tail boats pull in to the beach in the bits between the “fenced” areas. Most of the coral in these places is dead with just a few live soft corals, but tons of colourful fish of all sizes seem happy enough to add their splash of colour to keep the tourists happy.
I was certainly happy to eat quite a few of them.
Perhaps in 2009 visitors had to catch their own meals and cook them over coals on the beach, but now there are numerous great eating-places – lots of fresh seafood, of course, but also lots of fine Italian restaurants, scores of cheap and cheerful Thai eateries and even a sandwich place run by a French couple. It was quite unusual in Thailand to have waiters who were not Thai. It was also quite unusual to be able to go to a 7-11 (Yes – even on Koh Lipe the ubiquitous corner stores are … ubiquitous) and buy a bottle of wine at 3.00 pm: in the rest of the Kingdom alcohol cannot be bought between the hours of 2.00 pm and 5.00 pm. This strange ruling is apparently to stop school kids getting plastered after a disastrous maths test in Period 9 at school.
In my almost-circumambulation of the island I passed a school (the only school?) built a few metres inland from Sunrise Beach. It must be hard for the island kids to sit in those maths and Thai culture classes while outside bright red Scandinavian kids are doing handstands on the beach and tumbling into the ocean on Christmas Day – not that that day is actually a holiday in Thailand! We celebrate all sorts of Buddhist and Royal public holidays – but no Christian holy days.
But for the visitors Christmas was – as always – big business. Every shop was decorated with tinsel and flashing lights, special Christmas Eve and Christmas Day menus were prominently displayed, Christmas songs blared from most shops (not the reggae places perhaps) and enterprising kids had carved and built and pounded quite impressive snowmen and decorated Christmas trees out of the hard-packed sand along which they all dragged their suitcase the next day, heading back to “civilisation” via long-tail boat, landing pier, speedboat, the huge jetties at Pak Bar and the buses to Satun …
No – that’s not a misspelling.
“Satun” is one of the southern provinces of Thailand and one of the most disturbed ones as it is primarily a Muslim area with an appalling long history of violence – school buses bombed, monks and police officers assassinated, shops firebombed, drive-by killings, grenade attacks on an almost daily basis. Over 6000 people have been killed in the last ten years as the Islamic separatists battle for a separate state from the Buddhist majority of Thailand.
Perhaps this is why, as one approaches the airport, every vehicle is stopped, searched, and the driver’s ID card photographed. Why there are soldiers in full flack-jackets nursing automatic weapons at checkpoints. Why soldiers patrol the inside and outside of the terminal buildings.
It all came as a very sobering reminder of reality after a week of lotus eating.
- Journey December 2014
- Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2015
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