Delightful Thai Beach Resorts 5a – Ko Lipeh Island
People wise, it is more interesting to go to Isaan, Bangkok, Central or Northern Thailand. And Thai people are Thailand's greatest attraction.
So why go to the southern beaches anyway? The water's too wet, the sun too hot. People outside the hardcore tourist biz can be mellow, nice and sweet; but they're never as lively, fiery, grounded, playful, exotic and entertaining as Khun Isaan, as individual and tough as people from Bangkok or Chiang Mai; as, say, earthen as people from Phitsanulok or Phetchaboon.
So why go south?
In recent times, I admit I shifted south. There have been whole 30-day-spans I only spent in the sand.
Khon Kaen, Udon Thani and Nakhon Phanom had been on the menu. But after 30 days, they didn't make it onto the bill. Not even Bangkok.
Once I am used to a barefoot lifestyle, barefoot and in shorts – and that *within* the local etiquette – leather shoes and long trousers are such a turn-off. Seems ridiculous attire in steamy clime. Once my feet stick in Krabi, Samui, Trang or Satun sands, I don't even manage to spend two days in Krabi town or explore Nakhon Sri province by car (which I have been planning for ages). Slurping Mai Tais with my feet in the sand while listening to mellow tunes sometimes appeals more than seeking out noisy, dusty food garages in grubby towns where you'd have to talk Lao to get what you not even wanted.
I DO miss Isaan people. They are so fantastically communicative. I admit that since engagement, Isaan lost part of its fascination.
Instead I seek out cramped bland tiny isles like Ko Lipeh in Satun province, close to Malaysia.
Most tourists to Ko Lipeh take the boat from Pakbara in Satun Province (one or two hours), with a preceding lengthy ride from Krabi, Trang, Had Yai or even Bangkok. Recently a new option has come up, the Tigerline bullet boat between Ko Lanta in Krabi and Langkawi in Malaysia, with a few stops in Trang province and another call at Lipeh island (might be a handy visa run option too). Lanta to Lipeh is a steep 1900 baht one-way, just like a domestic flight from Bangkok; the "promotional offer" had been 1600 baht.
I've used Tigerline on two different occasions: once from Ko Lanta to Had Yao in Trang province (see previous articles), later from Had Yao on to Ko Lipeh. On both occasions, the boat had been late at least one hour, and locals say it is always late.
Tigerline would be a convenient way of leaving Ko Lanta without using the two inefficient ferries to the mainland. But on the Lanta beaches, where they sell international airline tickets and vouchers for anything under every second casuarina tree, Tigerline cannot be booked! You have to visit Lanta's main tourist bazaar of Sala Dan to book Tigerline there. Even in Sala Dan, the Tigerline service does not appear on the timetables they post in every ticket shop. I only learnt about Tigerline by chance when googling for Ko Lipeh.
So, the Tigerline boat leaves Lanta almost empty. The enclosed lower deck has two large rooms: The first, front room is relatively quiet and sports air-con. It is much colder than in Bangkok's skytrain. So all tourists move to the second, back room, *way* noisier and hotter, but preferring to sweat over catching a cold.
The large Tigerline boat stops 100 meters off Lipeh's Pattaya beach. We are approached by a speedboat of a square-like design I never saw before, and four Thai guys in neat pink polos jump out. They force everybody to buy a 200 baht ticket for the nearby Tarutao national park. We all protest: Ko Lipeh itself is not part of the national park (thus the heavy development on Lipeh). The pink guys don't relent: We are to buy the ticket, and they say it's valid for all of our stay. Maybe they could explain more, but the top pink guy is too busy keeping his chewing gum chewed. The tickets have almost only Thai print on them, and when I show them to an otherwise knowledgeable agency guy on Lipeh he can't say whether they're real or fake. Having to pay much more for a national park than the locals is painful enough, and having to pay without even entering the national park hurts even more. It feels like one of those official Cambodian border scams.
We are not yet on solid ground. For the last 100 meters by long tail boat you have to pay another 50 baht. Our Tigerline boat is met by only one long tail which cannot take all the customers. Until a second long tail arrives we wait over 20 more minutes – even though the beach is parked full of long tails and the Tigerline staff *could* have called ahead ordering enough long tails. They could also have divided the long tail passengers by their different beach destinations. But then, why, as Farangs flock anyway.
I've watched the backpackers on Ko Lanta booking onward travel to Ko Lipeh by the boatload. Scared that I won't get accommodation on Lipeh, I call ahead. At that time I stay on Trang province's Ko Libong (see previous story), where my mobye captures almost no signal. I try to reach a certain Pattaya Song resort on Lipeh, it seems an attractive place according to the Lonely Planet, but Pattaya Song don't answer. The only place that I finally reach is Varin Resort, and they promise to keep me a room.
Upon landing on Lipeh's main Pattaya beach one gray mid-December afternoon, Varin has the promised free room for me. Actually, they have at least 50 free rooms. Other resorts have many vacancies too. My chosen Varin has eternally long rows of new bungalows, all with tiny verandahs nicely shaded by newly-planted bush with yellow flowers. From your verandah, you see 50 other verandahs and nothing else, because Varin has blocked the entire sea view with its uninspired canteen-like beachfront resto.
At Varin's, I take the cheaper 1000 baht bungalow. It is new, clean and neat and the windows have mosquito screens to give me a breeze in the night. Air-con and ceiling fan are there. The toilet/shower area is only separated from the bed by a half-high wall. The opening to the rest of the room can be closed not by door, but by a transparent shower curtain. This scheme brings you real close to your partner. The shower is cold, the toilet has to be flushed with bowls of water.
When I return late at night, I almost don't find my bung in all these endless rows. I climb up two wrong verandahs before I make it to my own room number. The number plates are so small. And of course, much later that night, I hear several tourists walking up to my own doorstep, even touching my door, about 50 centimetres away from my sleepless ears. I am not scared about robbery, because I know what I will hear next: "THIS IS NOT OUR ROOM", they shout to each other, "HAHA", and trample back down the wooden stairs again. Tomorrow I'll block my verandah with a chair, I think to myself on the linen, when I hear the next tourists stomping up my place and testing the keyhole – "OH, THIS IS NOT OUR ROOM, HAHAHA".
Next morning I check the Pattaya Song bungalows, as they were recommended in the Lonely Planet. But they look cold, neglected, inefficient, charmless and not at all mosquito-tight.
Finally I move to LeePae Resort. I like this transcription of the island's name and also their cooling coconut and casuarina grove, where they have a slightly bizarre bungalow collection, scattered around in odd angles like dices. My charmless, tiled thing costs 1800 baht including micro breakfast. But at least I get hot shower, air-con, a regular flushing toilet and a verandah looking right onto the sea! So during those afternoon downpours you can sit on your verandah and watch the sea change colours. They didn't build two steps up to verandah level; instead, LeePae Resort provides a ramp of white Lipeh sand – and of course no water or doormat to clean your feet. The bathroom door can't be properly closed from the bedroom side, because there is no door handle. Every morning when I go to the bathroom, five suicidal mosquitoes approach.
The half-friendly lady behind the LeePae Resort counter says I will only get a ten percent discount if I stay five nights on a string. This I can't promise. After some chit-chat in Thai and about my liking for phratet Thai she warms up and says she will write the ten percent promise into my record: once I assembled five nights she would deduct ten percent for every night so far. When I check out after only *four* nights, she deducts ten percent for every night anyway, so I make a last friendly Khop khun khrrrrap.
"When you need room cleaning, you bring key and tell us, ok", the counter lady at LeePae resort had said. This had been the policy in other lower midrange resorts on the Andaman coast as well. So I hand in the key for room cleaning and depart for a lengthy coffee degustation at the Beachside Bar. When I return, the room is neat and clean indeed – and the door not locked. (Would you tell reception?)
Funny enough, the receptionist at Varin's had recommended that I take the room without breakfast coupon. So on my first morning on Lipeh I'm free for a short beach walk over to Bundhaya resort – obviously the top dig among Pattaya beach's 12+ places to stay. (Bundhaya is chao ley ("sea gypsy") language for a short storm.) The breakfast buffet at Bundhaya costs 200 baht, but for coffee you have to mix your own *Nescafe*.
Fortunately, Pattaya beach harbours a few atmospheric beach bars serving cocktails at night and "real coffee" in daytime. At Beachside Bar it's possible to get a mug of very good real coffee with a second mug of hot milk next to it, all that in an ambience of cozy driftwood furniture, tropical plants, sand floor, shadow, breeze and sea view – perfect for hours of reading and writing.
As the pitch black Thai guy just arranges coffee and milk on my driftwood table, a Thai micro cat hops along and starts to lick the spoon. The Thai guy laughs and doesn't think more of it. Before I can interfere, the feline swills some of the hot milk from the mug. After two hits on the head the micro cat has learned that the milk mug is off limits – it slurps my coffee.
Finally I grab my book. To even enhance my Thai beach holiday experience, the chainsaws, compressors, generators, Hilti hammers and tile cutters from a hidden development in the back set in.
For dinner, the Pattaya Song resort, recommended in the Lonely Planet, features Italian cooking by an Italian chef, so it should be my preferred dinner place. But the restaurant is so grubby and tucked away from the beach that I simply can't settle there. Blaring English TV in the rain-proof area, naked neon lights – even riverless Isaan towns have nicer eateries.
Most nights I end up eating at LeePae Resort, not because I stay there but it's about the only place on Pattaya beach with lie-down dining and fairy lights in the palm trees and casuarinas above. It's a far cry from my favourite fancy beach boulevard, Samui's Chaweng beach; but it's lovely enough and the DJ plays moody Farang tunes from Nataglia Imbruglia, Norah Jones or Mink DeVille on the island's best beachside PA. Food and cocktails there – forget it.
On LeePae Resort's confusing menu I finally discover "fish filet" – perfect for lazy me, I think. What I get is fish chopped into many parts. Every single piece contains more fish bones than I ever swallowed before.
For after dinner chilling the multilevel lie-down bars at the western end of Pattaya beach are atmospheric enough, and the cocktails go down well. Unfortunately they play mostly either reggae or hip-hop music. Otherwise it's UB 40 or Manu Chao, and that on crackling cheap sound systems.
Finally I can't go to LeePae Resort anymore – I don't like to pay for their unambitious food just because of the atmospheric setting. Before I depart for the loneliness (and presumed Thai-food-onlyness) of Ko Bulon Leh I try "Fino" on the village promenade for Euro grub. They promise "Italian Pizza", but after one hour of waiting I get a rather non-Italian one that's not worth a return trip. Thai staff are extremely friendly and polite here.
I can't get over my hunger for Euro food and olive oil stuff. I finally try the Italian, but neon-cold charmeless CNN-noise-filled Pattaya Song restaurant.
And yes – I get one of the best lemon juices I ever had in Asia (Italian places know how to do it). The pizza is one of the most delightful I had in Asia (right there with Phnom Penh's Le Duo and easily better than the in-pizzerias along Bangkok's Thanon Sukhumvit). Real tomato sauce and oregano! The salad comes with salt, pepper mill and olive oil (but no balsamic) plus about authentic Italian white bread. And see, the menu also features espresso and cappuccino, I notice, anticipating my next daytime meals.
Such good food I think, and even a tad cheaper than "Fino" on the village lane (see above) – why is this large restaurant empty, except for one elderly Farang couple four tables away from me?
One table west of the couple sits a burly guy with tattoos, muscle shirt and pony tail. He talks, no shouts with a very loud voice. It's obviously English with an Italian accent, but all I understand are strings of highly offensive swearwords. He shouts himself into more and more of a rage, all the time having to compete with CNN noisily reporting the newest Iraq fatalities. He holds the remote control in his hand, but doesn't mute the tube.
His monologue gets louder and more aggressive all the time. From his Italian accent and his bossy behaviour I guess he's the owner.
I can't feed me pizza against his vulgar rage. After haven eaten only one third, I give up. I walk up to the presumed boss and at the same time ask the bill from the service.
"Are you the boss here", I ask politely?
"Yes, why", he barks pugnaciously.
"You talk so loud, and your language is so offensive, it's difficult to enjoy your good food", I say politely.
"Yes, I have the best food on the island!! For 20 years now!!! And what – I can talk loud as I want!!! We talk about serious things, you know, the tsunami!!"
The other couple steps in, reconciling: "Why, he's just an Italian guy, can't stop talking."
Now if this had been just a loud, theatrical Italian conversation about food and football, I'd love it. But it's not. This is a hooligan by the name of Stefano, determined to destroy.
It's a bizarre constellation in a large, empty eating hangar lit by naked neon lights. Now Stefano gets aggressive. "You are so egocentric", he yells, "you want everybody to shut up so that you can eat your pizza in silence!"
"I am not egocentric", I reason politely, "and I never demanded silence. I just pay and leave. I only asked who is the owner, and then you asked back."
"What country are you from?" – "Yes, I knew it, you ALL are like THAT!!! – "Do you stay in my resort, I KICK you out!" He asks his staff if I stay there. Haha, and I had tried desperately to call him from Ko Libong (see above). Upon arrival I had then checked his bungalows, but rejected them even without asking the price.
As he gets louder and louder, the Thai staff look more worried. Maybe they think I complained about the food, but there is no word directed to them. "Check bill", I repeat to the waiter who only now starts to write a receipt. I pay tip-less and leave while Rambo Stefano keeps yelling from behind.
As I walk out over bare concrete past a row of neon lanterns I ponder two things:
– Too bad I haven't told Thai staff that the food was great.
– Will he shoot me in the back?
But then: Those people drown you with a stone tied to your feet, right? As it's low low tide on Ko Lipeh's Pattaya beach, I should have little worries. I make it safely to the next cocktail bar.
The beach eateries play Thai music only when they expect no Farang customers. One late night I settle at small, empty Moon Light Bar playing ballads by Thai rocker Sek Lohso, great stuff played for staff only.
Another time before sunset, a beach bar DJ plays a certain Thai duet that I heard live a lot in Kum Punn pub – it's a nice pop tune. He plays it just for the staff to arrange chairs and candles. I approach the DJ and ask if he can copy that song for me. He says something of 50 baht, but maybe he thinks I need a CD copy. Instead, I produce my USB stick. While he sends the MP3 onto the stick we get into a Thai conversation about Thai music. He is from Bangkok and quite amazed about my micro Thai language skills and about my upcountry meandering in search for the ultimate live music pub. When he knows my musical preferences, he quickly copies another 500 megabytes of Thai MP3s onto the stick! Upon goodbye I shove him 100 baht. He refuses immediately – "no, certainly not!" Why, I say, I'm happy, one beer for you. He refuses with an indignant face. Music. Connecting people.
Back on my laptop, the Windows explorer shows the MP3 file names in Thai script! I never knew of that talent. I can play the songs in Media Player, but my preferred MP3 software refuses to even show the Thai files. Only when folder *and* file names are *completely* Roman script, it delivers the music.
The "Pooh's Bar" a little inland even has a live show one evening. It is the most atmospheric bar on Ko Lipeh, with various levels, bars and seatings including relaxed, clean lie-down-seating. The cigarette smoke there smells unusually sweet. The waiters are two tall Thai guys, wearing long sarongs, but no shirt at all; if they want a Polynesian feeling, they'd better have waitr*esses* like that.
The waiters smile at me from across the tables, but don't approach to take an order. It's 9.30 pm and I am really hungry. When after 15 minutes I finally get one bare-breasted, sarong clad guy to my base, he says "Oh you want food? Food finished already." There are ten other eateries around still buzzing with customers, but I wanted to check the live music, so I order a cocktail. Ten minutes after that another table of westerners gets a big Thai meal, and another ten minutes later most of the staff sit down for a big Thai dinner.
The live music meanwhile is nothing to write home about. They play Thai and western favourites, and as so often in the south, it's half reggaed and half mellowed to an almost Hawaiian style, watery with no appeal. The lead singer quavers like a Napolitan troubadour.
When a large Thai group leaves, the tables are re-arranged – with me and my Mai Tai being shoved behind a pillar, into a viewless location. The cocktail is only half-finished when the band pauses seemingly forever. It takes only ten more minutes to get a bare breasted waiter to my table. He says I cannot pay the bill now and for explanation points to the cashier, who is still enjoying Thai dinner with the other staff. Finally he makes up his mind to take my money and seems surprised that I don't tip him. There must be a reason why this place is called "Pooh's", I think as I wander out.
Back in Ayuthaya and Chakri times, Lipeh's Pattaya beach must have been a stunner of sorts. About a mile long, softly bending, 20 or so meters of compact powdery white sand, backed by swaying cooling casuarina trees.
Most, but not all beachfront lots are now bungalowed. It's a crude mix – grotty dirty wobbling rasta backpacker huts next to efficient solid sterile midrange businesses like Bundhaya or Varin. Most have cut away too many casuarinas, which deeply hurts the beach line. Actually, only around LeePae Resort the beach forest reaches visibly higher – they've placed some of their bungs between the existing trees instead of chopping it all down; of course this doesn't allow long military rows of accommodation like at most other places, and LeePae charges for that ("we are the only free-standing bungalows", they had said when I had tried to negotiate).
Further dampening the potentially tropical South Sea feel are the many long tails mooring. They park in thick blocks in marked areas; so other sections of water remain free for bathers. But it feels rather odd, splashing in these boat-free rectangles walled up by long tails left and right and more speed boats and bigger ships further out in the bay. Lipeh's long tails also produce some of the most aggressive farting I have ever heard, of course also reaching out into my beach bungalow.
From the beaches I've seen so far, I would describe Lipeh's Pattaya beach as a Samui-style mini-Chaweng (see previous article). Similar are the density and low-rise character of the establishments, the atmospheric beach bars with their lie-down seating in the sand, the gentle curve of the white sand beach. Some notable differences:
– the white sand at Chaweng is even nicer, softer and sole friendly
– the beach line at Chaweng looks less hurt by the development
– Chaweng beach has lots of atmospheric accommodation, while at Lipeh's Pattaya beach it's either dinghy, charmeless or monotonous
– Chaweng beach has lots of highly atmospheric worthwhile eateries and bars, easily outperforming Lipeh's Pattaya beach (Lipeh's cosiest options are on the inland dirt boulevard)
– Lipeh's Pattaya beach faces south, getting sun most of the time, but neither sunset nor sunrise. Chaweng looks east, producing eerie sunrises and soothing shadow in the afternoon
– Chaweng is ten minutes by car from the next airport; to get to Lipeh's Pattaya beach from Had Yai airport, you need at least 1,5 hours by car plus one hour by boat (often more on both hops, and not seamlessly plannable)
Ko Lipe is just a few kilometers in diameters. From Pattaya Beach's Varin Resort on sand-crusted clay a trail forks inland – first to a village of chao ley people (local "sea gypsies"), then on to other sand strips known as Sunset Beach, Sunlight Beach and, guess what, Sunrise Beach.
Beyond the village, you walk through forest or wild grass, still on a solid sand crusted clay trail. On dry days all of it can easily be done barefoot.
The main walkway from Pattaya beach over to the village is lined with the usual restaurants, minimarkets, internet, massage, tattoo, shirt and ticket shops. Mostly those reside in wooden shacks, but they have already built one long row of egg-carton Chinese-style shophouses as well. It's the perfect place for a late afternoon passagietta amidst many other travelers and two villagers – show off your brand new neck tattoo and eyelid piercing here.
The other beaches are nice, quieter and much less congested than Had Pattaya, all harbour a few resorts, on Sunrise beach it seems to be an even mix of a few tourist places and a few village huts. Sunlight and Sunrise beach are actually one beach going around the corner; next to the village, they have quite a few long tails parked. It's not dirty. No other beach has Pattaya's striking white sand though. It's a pleasure wandering around the isle and switching within a few minutes from east to west coast and back.
The more remote west coast (less inspiring Sunset Beach) has only one or two resorts, a dive shop and the Flour Power Bakery. There the customers sit in a muddy viewless backyard and eat cherry cake and muffins to the hum of a generator.
Now here we are, in vastly Muslim Satun province, which came under full Siamese control not before 1925 – but on Ko Lipeh at first I don't spot one Muslim; so different from Ko Libong, one province to the north (see previous story). Instead you can watch topless touristesses and blond-dyed Rasta-Thais. To top off the exotic bestiarium, LeePae and Bundhaya resorts employ hordes of scary katoeys serving food and handing out room keys; I call them The Anda-Mans.
Young backpackers with sunglasses, lip piercing and sack-like trousers cross the chao ley village with smile-resistant stiff upper lip. The locals hang out on the front porch of their simple, but not poor houses of wood planks and corrugated sheet iron and don't seem to notice the tourist caravan. One early morning I see only sarong-clad chao ley women outside, lighting up wood fires and washing clothes, dishes and themselves next to earthen water pots – a sight I last had in northern Laos.
Some chao ley kids ignore the tourists, others smile a friendly "Helloooh" and exactly one girl demands "TEN baht" at gunpoint. When you meet the chao ley people on the lonesome trails between the various beaches, there is always a friendly greeting. They nod thank you when you give way for their motorcycles.
One night after returning from Sunset Beach, I get completely lost in the wide spread black village where the houses stand around with no order at all. Fortunately, most front porches are manned with dining chao ley families. In the dark, I ask for "Had Pattaya" a few times and always get friendly helpful answers.
I've also had chao ley boat men who were polite, friendly, easygoing and usually a tad mellow – this seems to be the mood for many of the locals down there. I miss fresh, spicy Isaan people – until on of those grey afternoons I step into Wat Po Massage on the main village promenade. As soon as I'm on the massage bed, the lady starts to sing Isaan morlam songs as if drunk and kneads me following the rhythm. She's from Chaiyaphum, a cradle of good singers. I tell her I like it and a second gal appears. She (from Udon) hangs herself over the next, empty massage bed like a purring cat and flashes me some of the most electric, amazing Isaan smile I ever got. Of course she joins into the sing-a-song and even dances for me. It's not exactly relaxing, but a whole lot of fun.
These massage ladies sleep on the premises and basically work from 7 am to 12 pm. If a massage costs 400, the masseuse herself gets 200. The rest goes to the owner, an astute business lady from Pakbara on the Satun mainland. On my second visit at Wat Po Massage, I get an extra long treatment and 50 baht discount from the owneress.
Oh, and both masseuses who sang for me (by the names of Roo and Kafeew) are currently unmanned and would not mind a western partner, "no problem, Hans, SURE!"
Finally I even get to know a local Muslim. After running for my life from Pattaya Song restaurant (see above) I seek refuge in the Beachside Bar and solace in a Singapore Sling. Right in front of me on the sand I see the back of a tall, beautiful Thai lady with thick black hair down to her waist. She turns around, gives me a sweet smile and – flashes a thick black moustache.
Enter Mr. Shaah, a male Muslim hippie from Satun town who is the hello girl for Beachside Bar. Shaah joins my cocktail coach for a while with lots of sweet smiles and "na khraps". He recommends to spend a few nights in Satun town "to experience Muslim lifestyle, food and culture". He promises they have good live music and alcohol is being served even in this Muslim centre – "we are very modern, you know".
To round off our exciting intercultural exchange Shaah suggests I take a boat trip with him next day. The price he says would be a very reasonable 3000 baht only. I had been offered the same charter at Chao Ley Boat Trips for around 1000 baht.
A really excellent trip report!!!