Malay Peninsula 11: Koh Lipe, pt. 1

For those who have just joined my Malay adventure, be warned that this is not an idyllic tropical vacation. I didn’t book a package tour and the consequence of managing all my own transportation was an increasing series of unfortunate events that at best forced me to learn and grow as a person, and at worst made me want to drop Thailand off the edge of the galaxy (it’s a disc, it totally has an edge). Koh Lipe is a tropical paradise. It came so close to being the real blue ocean, beach bumming, umbrella drink having vacation that I’m dreaming about. Maybe next year.


The Langkawi Ferry Terminal

20170124_091315The only way to get to the small island of Koh Lipe is by boat. I booked online in advance because I didn’t want to worry about tickets selling out. The only reason I was in Langkawi in the first place was to catch this boat to Koh Lipe. After the walking fiasco of the day before, I opted to get one of the islands fixed rate taxis back to the port and arrived 2 hours before the ferry’s departure time, as I was advised to do.

The ferry terminal on Langkawi is like most transportation terminals in Malaysia in that there are a million teeny tiny travel agency booths selling tickets for all the same things. All I had to do was find the agency I booked  with and check in. After going around the entire block without spotting it, I was forced to approach another booth for directions to one of their rivals. The first people I asked tried to tell me that it had closed down.

Trying not to freak out on anyone, I pointed out that I’d already bought my tickets online and once they realized that I wasn’t looking to buy tickets (read not a prospective customer) they pointed me in the right direction. This turned out to be nowhere near the other offices and in a totally different building on the second floor “above the Baskin Robbins” (information that could have been included in the email, thanks not thanks Tigerline).

When I found the office it was not open. The email said it would be open 2 hours before and it was now 90 min before. I was told 10 minutes (this is never true, it’s a mythical number that people in developing countries have learned to say to people from first world countries because it’s short enough to keep us from complaining or going someplace else). I sat down to wait, and about 20 minutes later someone came by to have us fill out paperwork and collect our passports.

I had not had breakfast or even coffee yet, as my base plan had been to check in and get my ticket, then to eat at the terminal where I had seen many restaurants the day before. I also had to change my Malay ringits to Thai baht because we would have to pay the longtail boat fare and national park fee in cash as soon as we got to the island. However, when Tigerline told us to show up an hour before departure, they really meant show up and wait around in their tiny waiting room. The staff (when they showed up) were helpful and friendly, however, and I was able to get away when I explained my predicament with the promise I would be back at the meeting point on time. I was in such a hurry that I did things out of order, changing my money before buying food. Since most places in Malaysia only take cash, I ended up at Starbucks for a breakfast I could buy with a card. This is my sadface. Especially since I loved the Malaysian coffee so much.

Where Are You From?

When your skin color doesn’t match the local population it’s a little obvious you’re a foreigner. The “good news” (no, not really) is that white privilege exists everywhere and that the worst thing that’s likely to mean for me is getting overcharged. More often than not it results in people going out of their way to be gracious hosts and good representatives of their country to me. The question I get asked most often is “where are you from?”.

I have hated this question my whole life because my parents are military and we moved for the first time in my life before I was even a year old out of the US and to a foreign country. With my family I lived in 3 countries and six states within the US. I’m not even sure how the word “from” applies to me. Now that I live abroad it’s even more complicated. While I’m in Korea (where I live right now) it’s easy enough to tell people I’m from America, but taking vacations I’m like “uh, well, I’m American, but I don’t live there anymore”, or “I’m American, but I live in…” whichever country I happen to be calling home these days.  It’s not just about distancing myself from the negative perceptions of American tourists (although that is a part of it). It’s an attempt to give an honest answer. I may be an American and a tourist but I’m not going back to America at the end of the holiday, and I think my cultural perceptions are at least bit broader than the average tourist.

That morning in my tired, rushed state I just said, “Korea” when I was asked and then watched the look of confusion spread on the baristos face. “You don’t really look…”, he started, but was clearly unsure of how to finish the sentence without sounding offensive. I realized my mistake and came to an awkward rescue with my patented “English teacher abroad” explanation. The poor guy looked so relieved I couldn’t help but laugh.

Entering Thailand by Sea

20170124_111025There are no piers on the island. Instead, the ferries anchor a ways out either at floating piers or just in open water. The one I arrived on docked with a patch of floating platform where we could transfer ourselves and our luggage from the speedboat to the smaller longtail boats that would take us to the island. I was amazed to see people arriving with massive piles of baggage considering the situation and was once more grateful for my decision to keep my luggage under 7kg.

20170124_112040The longtails are small boats, named for the motor at the end of a long pole that juts from the stern and into the water. No more than a dozen people can board a longtail together, so the ferry passengers broke up into smaller clusters. Once the longtail arrived at on land, the local operators would hop out and drag the bow a little way up the beach and tie it to a mooring anchor there. The only way for us to get out was to take a splash in the sea. I quickly shed my socks and shoes and tied the laces to my bag, then rolled up my pants and took my first steps into Thailand through the sparkling turquoise water.

The immigration and national park offices are on Pataya beach, and I trod barefoot through the pale sand to join the queue. Best immigration line ever.

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Getting Settled In

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Koh Lipe is 2km long and 1km wide. There are no cars, although it does boast a fair number of scooters which are the only taxis and freight transit around. The bright blue pavement of the main street, nicknamed “walking street”, is perfectly friendly to bare feet and most of people walking around were wearing some version of swimwear plus a light cover. Even outside the rainy season, SE Asia is subject to plenty of rain. I had arrived in sparkling sunshine, but shortly after I began to explore there was a brief but intense shower. It was strange that so many people dressed in swimsuits still ran for cover from the warm rain. I was still carrying my backpack and didn’t want every piece of clothing inside to wind up wet, so I huddled under my umbrella.

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Getting a SIM card on Koh Lipe was so easy and cheap I only mention it so anyone looking for advice won’t be worried. Just follow the blue street till you see a sign for SIM cards and inquire within. After getting back online, I stopped in at a cute restaurant for my first pad thai in Thailand (but not my last, I love that stuff). The rain came and went a couple more times while I was eating but finally dried up enough for me to feel safe heading out to try and find my cabin.

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Lipe Camping Zone

Google maps is not the most functional thing on a roadless island. It doesn’t do walking trails. Following the paved roads toward my cabin’s GPS co-ordinates took me the long way around the island. Eventually, I ran out of paved road and walked cautiously down a muddy path that had deep chasms cut by the rainwater making the walk a little more like a hike. Finally I found the campground deep in the jungle. Ok, you can’t get that deep on a 2x1km island, but it was halfway between two popular beaches on a muddy path surrounded by trees. It
felt deep in the jungle. As I stopped moving a cloud of mosquitoes descended on my sweaty ankles.

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20170124_144512The hostess was wonderful and kind. She brought out some repellent for me even before we finished checking in and got me settled into my cabin. Walking past the tents on the ground, I was extra glad I hadn’t made that choice given the rain. There were no real walkways in the campsite, so I was picking my way carefully down steep slopes and muddy banks. The cabin was equipped with a sort of futon on the floor, a mosquito net, and a fan. While I settled down to check the dryness of my bag and sort out my belongings, the rain began again in earnest. The path in front of my cabin turned into a river. Knowing that tropical rains are often breif, I decided to wait it out. My main activity for the day was written on my itinerary as “beach bum”, so I wasn’t in a particular rush. 

Sunset Beach

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When the skies finally stopped falling, it was late afternoon and I emerged from the cabin to head over to Sunset beach and find out if there was any sunset to be had. Koh Lipe is stunning. Even in the rain it is beautiful. I followed another tiny mud path to the far side of the island where I enjoyed taking gray sky pictures of the beach and mountains until the rain drove me into the shelter of a nearby cafe/bar. As I sat there enjoying my happy hour mojito and watching the rain, I was awestruck by the trees across the bay where white clouds rose from the canopy like the breath of hidden dragons. I once saw a documentary on rain-forests that explained how the moisture from a jungle would evaporate in great plumes, but this was the first time I got to see it in action. 

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The rain eased up, but the cloud cover prevented any sunset light from reaching the shore. When it became apparent that the night was closing in, I headed through the jungle path to back to Pataya beach. I had hoped to spend the evening on sunset beach watching the famous sunset and seeing the stars come out in a low light pollution zone, but mother nature had other plans. Despite the rain, I enjoyed my first day on Koh Lipe. I liked the cozy atmosphere of the island and the ease with which I could go from a nearly empty beach to a bright nightlife spot. I have to say that while there was no sunshine, “beach bum” accurately describes me for the day, since I spent as much time as I could in site of the shore or with my feet in the surf. I finished off at a fancy restaurant which made me really appreciate the contrast between my own accommodations and what else was available on the island.

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About the Accommodation

SE Asia is so cheap. So. Cheap. My cheapest room was in Ipoh and was less than 5$ (US). My average price was about 13$ per night. The cheapest thing I found on Koh Lipe (besides a tent) was cabin for 25$ a night. I looked at other places that were 5-10 times what I was paying elsewhere on the trip and went “oh no!” because somehow I lost perspective. Learn from my mistake. Spend the money. Hostels can be great, and I don’t mind shared bathroom facilities if it’s a clean place. I’ve been camping before. I’m usually ok with it. This is because I had never done so in a humid jungle before.

Did I mention I love Koh Lipe? I had a nice time in many other places on this trip, but Koh Lipe is a place I’m plotting how to get back to. One of the things I’m plotting is biting the bullet and paying for some lux accommodation. Why?

  1. Bathrooms. Most of Koh Lipe not only can’t handle paper (ok no problem. I’m used to putting my paper in the bin from China and Korea) but doesn’t even flush. Next to the toilet is a big tub of water and a ladle or small bowl that you use to transfer water from the tub into the toilet allowing gravity to swish away the waste with the added water. It’s not unusable, but getting to use the fancy toilet in the restaurant made me appreciate real plumbing. Plus, campsites or cabins with detached toilet facilities mean you have to get up and walk through mud and mosquitoes if you have to pee in the middle of the night.
  2. Mosquitoes. My cabin gave me a net, but by night two there were mosquitoes inside the net. There are fewer of the critters on the beach than the jungle, but fewer still in a solid room than a bamboo cabin.
  3. Sand. It sticks to you. You bring it home with you, and if there’s no way to rinse it off before you get in bed, or if your room is so small that bed covers ¾ of the floor, then you have a sandy bed. Ugh.
  4. Wet. It’s humid and it rains. By night two, everything in my room was damp and sandy. Having a separate space for changing out of sandy clothes and an air conditioner which dehumidifies the room are crucial to comfort.
  5. Soundproofing. Not only did I get to hear every word of the conversation my neighbors in the next cabin were having, I got to hear the guy on the other side hoarking up everything he drank that day.

Spend. The. Money. The most expensive luxury hotel on Koh Lipe is still only about 200$ a night. When you think about it like a 20$ a day backpacker, it’s impossible, but if you think of this in comparison with, say, Hawaii, it’s amazingly cheap.

Avoid the inland accommodations unless you just like jungles. They are cheaper than the beach front, but there’s reasons for that. I imagine with the right accommodation, Koh Lipe would be a 2km wide slice of heaven. Even with my cabin, it was quite possibly my favorite stop on this trip.

Cabin in the Woods: Night 2

My second night in the cabin was even worse. I had an amazing day full of snorkeling (which I will tell you all about in the next chapter) and finished off with dessert in the fancy restaurant again. When the whole day of exertion and excitement finally caught up with me, I meandered back inland to my tiny jungle hut. I couldn’t put on my shoes without the sandal straps rubbing the tender area on the top of my foot that had scraped some coral earlier in the day. My cabin had not dried out in the slightest during the day, resulting in a muggy, damp experience. While fighting to reassemble the mosquito net, I managed to spread more sand around the damp and lumpy mattress.

I also found a tiny frog and had to chase him around the bed for a while before he took off. I’m not scared of frogs, but I didn’t want to roll over on him in my sleep and hurt him. The campground shower was just enough to rinse most of the seawater out of my hair. I struggled to clean my injuries with inadequate facilities, tried unsuccessfully to sweep the sand off the damp mattress, sprayed for the mosquitoes that made it inside the net, and fantasized about staying in just about any other hotel on the island. Indeed, if I had stayed any longer on Koh Lipe, I would have booked a new place, but I decided I could rough it one more night and lulled myself to sleep with the memories of my amazing day.


The moral of this story is that Koh Lipe is a magical place, but I am not rough-it enough for jungle camping. Fortunately, there are other options for next time. And if the dour tone of the last few posts has got you down, stay tuned for Koh Lipe part 2, where I share the wonderful 4 island snorkeling trip and my first experience with glowing plankton!

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