Simple and charming Koh Lipe

It’s always fun to celebrate New Year’s in a different environment, like on a beach somewhere in Thailand.

The beach was hardly recognisable with all those colourful decorative lights. Short bursts of fireworks enlivened the atmosphere now and again, a preview of the feast of fireworks to come at the stroke of midnight.

You just know it’s going to be a good send-off for the old year when you see rows upon rows of huge fireworks placed strategically all around the beach.

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What a glorious sight — the first sunrise of the year from Sunrise Beach.

In fact, I felt like I was in a scene straight out of Disney’s Rapunzel. Festive music filled the air as happy revellers danced on the sand. Every beach bar played it’s own kind of music but the different melodies seemed to gel somehow.

People lit hundreds of paper lanterns, and my spirit soared every time one floated into the air, carrying the wishes of the person who released it.

I soaked in the surreal atmosphere. It felt great to be ushering in the New Year in Koh Lipe, a tiny island in Thailand, instead of being stuck in brightly lit and traffic-congested Kuala Lumpur.

Koh Lipe, meaning “paper island” in the local Choa Ley language, is a small island in Satun province in the southern part of the Andaman Sea. It forms part of the Butang Islands in Tarutao National Marine Park.

This spot of paradise used to be one of Thailand’s best-kept secrets but it has changed as more tourists discover it. What once used to be a quiet, laid-back island frequented mainly by local tourists is now a growing hot spot for Westerners escaping the touristy scenes of Phuket and Koh Samui.

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Sunrise Beach and the long-tail boats that are used to ferry tourists.

And more and more backpackers and Malaysians are heading there because it is an easy, one-hour ferry ride from Telaga Harbour in Langkawi. Although the island has undergone rapid changes, it’s not all for the worse. More luxury resorts are being built and more shops, restaurants and bars, massage centres and tattoo centres are springing up in town, a great boost to the local Choa Ley economy.

The beauty of this island is that you can enjoy serene, untouched spots knowing that modern amenities and people are only a stone’s throw away. The island is divided into three main areas of accommodation — Pattaya Beach, Sunrise Beach and Sunset Beach.

Pattaya Beach would be the most popular place to stay with its dozens of chalets, restaurants, bars and massage centres. This is the venue that hosts the New Year’s party every year. It is also where you’d land if you were coming from Langkawi. A small shack serves as the immigration checkpoint.

If you’re looking for a quieter spot, try Sunrise Beach. The wind and waves are slightly stronger here but there’s definitely more space. And it’s also a much better spot to steal peeks at topless sunbathers, if that’s your kind of thing.

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Lipe kids having a bit of fun

Sunset Beach is the quietest of the three as it has only a handful of resorts. It’s slightly further away from town as well. I found the waves here to be the calmest, being sheltered from the winds. Besides sunbathing and relaxing, you can do snorkelling straight off the beach, especially around the two tiny nearby islands of Koh Kra and Koh Usen.

Diving is also a favourite on Koh Lipe, what with the great dive sites at Koh Chabang, Koh Sawang, Koh Phung and 8 Mile Rock, not to mention the Yong Hua wreck dive site. Just ask any of the dive centres in town for the best rates and trips.

There are not as many bars and restaurants here compared to the more popular Thai islands, but Koh Lipe still offers a decent night scene.

You can lie back on a Thai mat on the beach with a cocktail or beer in hand as you enjoy the sounds of the waves crashing on the shores or a live band in action. And there are plenty of restaurants serving fresh seafood, Thai pancakes and fruit shakes.

If it’s young girls, drugs and sleazy bars you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place. The crowd tends to be of a more mature set, so the place is perfect for families. It was a nice change to see families walking the streets, kids in tow, instead of skimpily clad girls soliciting customers.

This being a small island, people are friendly. Strangers will nod their heads and say “hi” as you walk along the beach. I noticed that the bulk of the backpackers came from Europe with sunbathing and snorkelling in mind rather than a drunken night out. It’s not uncommon to meet older couples who stay on the island for months on end as well.

I met an American guy and his German wife, both in their 60s, who stay on the island for four months every year to escape the cold winter back home!

We were also fortunate to make friends with the local Choa Ley or Sea Gypsies who are mainly fishermen and boatmen. They speak Malay as well, but we found it quite hard to fully understand what they were saying. One of the fishermen invited the lot of us to his house where he treated us to a meal prepared by his wife on the verandah. The food, similar to Malay cooking but with pork, tasted great.

Koh Lipe is simple and charming. I initially thought a week on the island would be too much but when it came time to bid farewell, I left with a heavy heart. I will return soon and, hopefully, the place will be just as I remember it.

Written by: Joleen lunjew

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