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Koh Lipe, Thailand: Tarutao Marine Park is the definitive paradise

Koh Lipe is a small island in Southern Thailand, near the Malaysian border – just 40km from Langkawi, in fact. This area, now the Tarutao Marine Park, has a rich, salty heritage. It was a penal colony for Thai political prisoners in the 1930s, a base for some particularly ruthless pirates during the Second World War, and is the traditional home of the Sea Gypsies or Chao Ley.

In my book, Tarutao Marine Park – one of Thailand’s oldest national marine parks – makes a strong case for being the definitive paradise. The park covers 1,500 square kilometres and includes 51 mostly uninhabited, jungle-clad islands. Tarutao, Adang and Rawi are large and mountainous; Tarutao is 25km by 11km and rises to 700m. The surrounding Andaman Sea is coral-rich and crystal-clear.

Although Koh Lipe itself no longer qualifies as paradise, it does make a good base from which to explore the area.

Getting There
My wife, our two young daughters and I flew to Langkawi before taking the speedboat across to Koh Lipe. This was our first holiday with our latest addition, a six-month-old, and we did not travel lightly. “Herding cats” was an expression that oft came to mind throughout our eight-night break. (They do sell nappies on Lipe.)

After a 15-minute taxi from Langkawi Airport to Telaga Harbour (15 minutes; S$10), we were forced to jump through various immigration hoops, but we finally boarded the impressive craft that was to be our conduit to Lipe ($100 return).

At this point, the sun shone and all was jolly, but not five minutes beyond the harbour’s shelter the horizon took on an inky complexion. The advertised 45-minute crossing took twice as long and I was glad when it was over. Fortunately, kids being kids, they slept the whole time as we pitched and yawed in confused seas. I turned as green as the requisite raincoats that were handed out. Every good holiday should begin with a proper voyage! An alternative route, by the way, would be a flight to Hat Yai, a taxi to Pak Barra and then the ferry boat from there. Both routes are satisfyingly challenging.

Pros and Cons
Koh Lipe is about 3km by 2km. The entire eastern side of the triangular island is Sunrise Beach (over 2km long), while the southern side, the main hub, has the sweeping, at-times glorious, Pattaya Beach (about 1km). The northern side has a few small strips of sand, Sunset Beach probably being the best

The atmosphere of Lipe is generally good – it’s a family-friendly sort of place, very laidback, with plenty of multi-generational Scandinavian families and couples. Sleaze appears to be absent and there were no marauding singles, nor ageing men with youthful girlfriends. The season runs till May or June and opens up again in October or November. Early or late in the season afford more options and better prices.

But – and there are some fairly significant buts attached to Koh Lipe – this is an island that has developed fast. Five years ago, there were about 20 long-tail boats in the whole place. That number has risen tenfold, and the number of rooms, resorts, restaurants and reggae bars has increased proportionally. The island’s infrastructure, such as it is, is stretched to capacity. It is rumoured that a moratorium is due to be imposed next year upon further building, so a rash of projects are rushing to finish. A cease-build is much needed for the island to have any chance of maintaining its appeal.

There are also too many dogs, though moves are afoot to rectify this – good work, Koh Lipe Vet Care Project. Those with a fear of our canine friends should perhaps holiday elsewhere. Many resorts are expanding, their existing stock now weather-beaten and threadbare. Regulation should prevent valuable island space being used up for new accommodation as old, poorly executed bungalows are left to crumble instead of being refurbished.

Clearly, someone with sense and integrity is taking an interest. In 2008, a proposed resort on Koh Adang – which is supposed to be a national park – was cancelled by the Thai State.

With Koh Lipe, it’s really all about the surrounding islands and waters. Tarutao, Adang and Rawi offer government-owned accommodation, and camping is possible on all three – from Lipe, Adang and Rawi are just 20 minutes away by boat; Tarutao is over an hour. The park charges a small entrance fee. These accommodation options, while cheap, are as basic as it gets, and this is where Koh Lipe comes in, providing comfortable places to lay one’s head and pretty decent food and beverages. Mojito Bar, anyone, or perhaps a thoroughly acceptable and “proper” Italian pizza at Fino?

Sleeping

First choice for accommodation would be the recently opened Serendipity (from $280),indeed a lucky find. Perched on the island’s peaceful southern headland, each of the 10 very comfortable bungalows has breathtaking views over the sea to Langkawi. They’re also agreeably breezy, as is the restaurant that clings to the rocks above a charming though diminutive beach.

The nearby Viewpoint Resort is a more basic and less expensive option. The Serendipity-related Castaway Resort on Sunrise Beach offers tasteful, local-style chalets, but density is on the rise. Neighbouring Idyllic Resort looked gorgeous from the outside, but is currently surrounded by building work that brings into question its very top-end pricing ($500-plus).

Over on Pattaya Beach, there’s the rather pedestrian Bundhaya Resort. Large and charisma-free, it does have a very good seafood barbecue every night. The Blue Tribes Resort next door has better-quality chalets; these two occupy the best part of the beach, but it does get busy. For much more economically priced huts, check out Moonlight; no air-conditioning but nicely done, close to the beach and with mosquito nets. Trouble is, they’re almost always booked out. On quite lovely Sunset Beach, Porn Resort looked resistible and dilapidated.

Eating and Drinking

For eats, there’s plenty to choose from; Pee Pee Bakery would not be out of place here in Singapore with its first-class croissants and coffee. Spider Monkey Café further up the shopping street offers good food in a great environment. There are boutiques for retail therapy and massage options galore. Mellow Mango Bar is modern, friendly and mellow – though not quite as mellow as the Reggae Bar near Bundhaya. This is a great place to install oneself and relish kid-free time with the waves lapping and the music pumping. Pattaya Beach assumes a very agreeable atmosphere as the sun drops, with candles, mats, sand sculptures and lots of music – something of the Glastonbury spirit, but in 30 degrees Celsius and with the sound of the ebb and flow of the Andaman.

To get to Koh Lipe, there are various flight options from Singapore, including Tiger Airways to Hat Yai in Southern Thailand or AirAsia to Langkawi.

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