From the sweaty city of Penang we headed North overland. On a mini bus at 5am and at the Thai border by around 9am. It was going to be a long day for sure. An hours stop at Hat Yai allowed us to grab a quick coffee and bite to eat then it was back on a different mini bus to take us over to Pak Bara on the West coast to catch our boat over to Koh Lipe. It's supposed to be quiet season now but due to a lot of Thai national holidays around this time the ferry port was bustling with local tourists. Our boat was packed to the rafters and annoyingly it seemed to have a combination of day trippers as well as people using it as transport to the islands. This meant that we stopped off at two other islands en route to Lipe. Now this may not sound a bad thing to most folks when you think of cruising around the Andaman on a boat taking in a few sights but these were literally 15 minute stops of 50 sweaty people crammed into a small boat all piling off onto a beach only to be called back a very short while later and then heading off again. All we wanted to do was get to Koh Lipe and settle in. Eventually we did that after around 10 hours of travel.
The turquiose waters and white dusty beaches were a welcome sight as we arrived at the jetty moored off shore
. We have been to Koh Lipe before and as we headed off in search of our hostel I hardly recognized the place. It seemed different and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Is it more developed now? Are there new roads running around the island? Nothing seemed to make sense but as we rounded a corner and headed up walking street it all slotted back into place. It was distinctly more busy. Local tourists packed the place out everywhere you looked, like some kind of exotic Thai Blackpool. Groups all adorning their newly purchased 'I Love Koh Lipe' T-shirts and baseball caps. It was an interesting sight.
We had booked one nights stay in a hostel with the intention of finding somewhere cheaper to stay once we were there. Checking the usual booking sites online had told us that most of the places on the island were either full or too overpriced but we knew there would be others so our first mission was in search of some decent cheap digs for the rest of our stay. It soon became clear that Lipe has moved on a lot in the last two years
. There are no decent cheap digs anymore. Last time we got a good clean private room for £10 a night. Now you pay at least £20 for that privelage so back to the hostel it was. The hostel was still fairly pricey at £15 for the two of us but to be fair it was great. We got a double bed in a mixed dorm with lovely fresh cool aircon so couldn't complain really and after sorting out another couple of nights we headed off to enjoy some beach time and a good long dip in the crystal clear waters around the island.
As night drew in we showered and headed off in search of the local 'high bar' to see if we could sample some local wares and it did not take too many conversations with the locals to be pointed in the direction of a ceratin nameless bar on Pattaya beach. There we met a guy again who shall remain nameless for this entry who is easily one of the most charasmatic and friendly Thais I've ever had the pleasure to meet. The guy is an absolute character. He was obviously well on his way when we arrived quite early in the night and he was more than helpful in introducing us to his boss who was able to arrange something to help us relax and settle into island life
. Result! A very pleasant night ensued and we sat on the beach front enjoying the music, live fire shows and the amazing funny and friendly craic of our new found friend, a great first day indeed.
The next morning was one of if not the most bizzare experiences I've had since starting to travel. On our last trip we met a lad from Canada named Mark whilst on a boat down the Mekong river in Laos. We spent a couple of days with him, in particular a very pleasant evening in the tiny local village of Pak Ben when I'm sure our weed was laced with opium, so yeah a very pleasant evening indeed. After a day in Luang Prebang we parted ways. Basicly he just checked out and left. No goodbye, no exchange of details or the usual Facebook 'add' that quite often accompanies meeting someone new on your travels. We just parted ways and that was fine, some part time company with others as disposable friends is always nice when your away. So I'm sat downstairs in the hostel having my morning coffee and then this familiar face suddenly appears coming down the stairs
. He looks at me and we instantly recognize each other. I've bumped into people in the past while traveling in different countries but I think that happens quite frequently. There are a lot of generic routes through certain countries that travelers take so it's inevitable but this was different. This is a completely different trip, two years later, originally met the lad in Laos and now we are at the same hostel on the most Southerly Thai island in the Andaman! I don't know what the odds of that happening will be but I'm sure more of a longshot than Accrington Stanley ever winning the Premiership let alone Leicester City. So we had a good catch up on where our lives have taken us since our first encouter. He works 9 months a year and travels Asia the other 3, this time he decided to check out a new Thai island which just happened to be where we were as well at the exact same time. Safe to say we saw him quite a bit over the next week or so as none of us seemed intent on leaving Lipe any time soon.
This second day was an amazing one and re-affirmed to me what Thai islands are all about
. Lipe is a beautiful quiet island not usually on the tourist trail other than if your passing to or from Langkawi in Malaysia compared to what some of the more popular islands are like now. It's what Phi Phi was like 20-30 years ago. We lazed around on the beach all day and swam in the beautiful clean waters without a care in the world and despite the local holidays there was hardly another soul around. We bumped into Mark again on the beach and hung out for a while before we headed back for a quick shower and change and then back down to the 'high bar' to see our new Thai amigo and the others and to relax with our smoke. Before we knew it it was the early hours of the morning and a storm had started to move in, the lightning that had been in the distance for what seemed like an eternity was suddenly all around us and the heavens opened with torrents of tropical rain. As our new friend franticly ushered the few remaining people inside the thunder and lightning increased. I think the guy was genuinely concerned for everyone and having lived there for 11 years I trusted his knowledge when he shouted for everyone to gather together in one place in the centre of the bar insisting that we should all stay together
. As I stood up to move I was in two minds about going to the toilet first or joining the group and it's just as well I decided on the later. As I walked past the side of the bar where the toilet was there was a deafening crash of thunder and just 5 yards to my left where I would have been had I headed to the toilet I heard a fizzing crackle at the same time as the thunder clap and saw a streak of lightning touch down to the ground. I've never been that close to lightning in my life, not even anywhere close to that but I'm conviced if I had headed to the toilet instead of further inside I would have been struck by it, simple as that. The storm didn't let up for another hour or two and as we sat with the music playing we looked out at the amazing sight of the lightning above us lighting up the entire bay as if it was daylight. Every flash showed the beautiful light blue waters off, the sand and corals beneath and the longtail boats dotted about, it was an amazing spectacle. For those who have never visited any of the Thai islands it's hard to explain exactly the experience you get
. You've most likely seen the film 'The Beach' or read the book, seen plenty of photos of beautiful waters and long tail boats chugging away in the distance but the experience itself is hard to articulate into words or film, it's unique unlike anywhere else you can visit. What I love about Lipe is that it still gives you that small forgotten about island feel, a distinct charm. A combination of friendly locals, secluded beaches, pure clean waters and hassle free 'happy' nightlife. Those experiences can still be found despite the fact Thailand is more popular than ever and Lipe has given us a renewed taste for searching out even smaller quieter islands in search of that secluded paradise we yearn for.
Now I named this blog entry 'Some days later...' for a reason. The reason being that the rest of our days blurred into one. None of us wanted to leave Mark included. Every morning we would come downstairs and ask for one more nights stay, up until the point when we realised this was a bit silly so we paid up for an extra 6 nights as a block but even then it kept getting extended on a daily basis
. In truth we would have stayed longer than we did but as I mentioned Lipe is no longer as cheap as it used to be. I so wish we could have stayed longer though. The local visitor numbers dwindled over the days and the island became exceptionally quiet, just what we wanted.Our days were spent repeating a fairly similar routine. Lazing on the beach mixed in with snorkeling during the day, which was great as we got to see some clown fish amongst others. Our nights consisted of a quick cheap bite to eat followed by popping down to chill and have a smoke and a chat with our new friend and his 'family'.
At this point I should probably mention that we started to ask maybe too many questions of our new friend and his boss/family. Everyone has heard of Thai mafia but maybe never experienced it first hand. Or more than likely if you have been to any Thai island you probably have experienced it but not even realised you are in the company of such people. It's not what you imagine. It's not some elusive Godfather and family that distance themselves from the real world and control others like puppets
. It consists of normal people that look after what is theirs and each other. I could tell our guy was a little reluctant at times to open up and at times we backed off from the conversations we were getting into but we still got a glimpse into their lives and how it works. The guy, his family and his boss basicly look after what is theirs. His boss has a total of 12 bars on the island not just the one we had been visting and also has some accomodation on the island as well. The family that have just opened the relatively new hostel that we stayed at appeared to be a similar set up as well as the same people at the hostel appeared in numerous shops around the island, all owned by that one family. Koh Lipe is owned and controlled by a small number of families despite the numerous places on the island. These families need to protect what is theirs and although the family are on very good terms with the local police, hence the nature of the 'high bar' business. They also have to stand up to other 'families' that at times come from the main land to try and take control of the island
. You have to realise that this is prime real estate within Thailand so it's a very desireable target for others. On top of that you also have the government to contend with. The Thai government are not renowned as being the most clean and uncorrupt in the world so they also have to deal with the fact the government want a slice of the action as well. You get the picture. Sunset beach where we stayed last time we were here is no longer the place it once was. The government now controls that area and are building their own money generating projects. I suspect most likely a trade off between the families on the island and the government. The government now has its own small slice and they now leave the rest of the island alone to the families. On top of that there is also another element involved in Lipe. On Koh Adang a larger National Park island just opposite Lipe maybe only 200 yards away there is a small cove with what appears to be a resort. Now this isn't any resort you can find online or book in any way. The only accomodation on that island is National Park (Government) accomodation
. The last time we were there we passed a high chain link fence with barbed wire on the top that covered a fair area around the 'resort'. The only way to reach it is by boat. Havng asked around this the guys expression changed a lot but the basics we got from it is that the place is owned by the Thai King's son. He doesn't want Lipe to expand too much more so he obviously also has some interests around this area and as our friend explained the Royal family are also massively powerful people within Thailand. They don't like the government and like any other 'family' they also defend and look after what is theirs. It seems like a fairly complex set up of competition and control and it was a very eye opening insight into how it all works. Scary at times to talk about but interesting non the less. Having spoke with Mark we decided it was probably best not to probe or ask any more as these are not the kind of people you want to get too involved with so best to keep it as friends and not pry any further. And great friends they were as well
. I've never felt as comfortable and looked after in Thailand as I have this time on Lipe. Great company and hospitality and an amazing beautiful small quiet island experience.
So some days later (12 if I'm counting) it was nearly time to leave. Mark was leaving a day ahead of us. We sat the night before and talked around how it would be intersting not to take each others details and just see if fate would throw us together again at some point in the future and how that would be a beautiful thing if it did. He doesn't use Facebook or social media only email and we spoke loosely that we would grab each others email address in the morning before he caught his early boat to Pak Bara. The following morning I was up early as always and headed down for my usual coffee. I was there with more than enough time to catch Mark before he headed off for his boat and as time ticked by I wondered if he had decided to stay one more day and had not woken up yet. After a while it hit me that he had decided on another option
. He had left early enough to make sure he missed exchanging details and just left everything to chance and fate. I like that thought a lot, it sits so nicely in my mind that maybe one day our paths will cross again and given this experience and encounter it wouldn't surprise me if they did.
Yet again we extended by one more final day as a last minute decision. You really can't get enough of a place like Koh Lipe, it truly is an amazing experience. We are now more determined than ever to seek out quiet island life and avoid the busy tourist hubs that are over ran and over priced. It's a tough task but there are plenty of islands around that we have yet to explore and enjoy. Next stop now is back to Langkawi to help out with Narele's animal shelter for at least a month. It's a great place and a worthy cause that will allow us to give something back yet again in exchange for parking up with minimal expense. No accomodation or food to pay for but more memories to be made.