Our first Thai landing place brought mixed feelings. Beautiful beaches, sea gypsies on longtail boats, lush forest; juxtapositioned with a ratio of foreigners to Thai of around 10:1, severe overdevelopment around the beaches, rubbish and the feeling of being in a tourist resort. Overall I was not impressed.
Having said that, Lipe did have its heroes:
Thai beach travellers travel shop – a total life-saver from where we booked ferries, rooms, got cash (at a 5% commission, there is no ATM on the island) and asked for suggestions for quiet places where we could get away from the crowds. The lovely people there are absolutely great. And they have internet!
Pancake place at the beginning of Walking Street – this quickly became our Lipe staple since yummy pancakes, ginger tea, papaya salad, pad thai, yoghurt and muesli and a lot more pancake clearly impressed us. They have wi-fi and extremely sweet staff who were patient enough to actually make my weird request for honey, ginger and lemon pancake.
The taxi-men, boat men, ferry staff and island people who gave us lifts, took us extra bits for free, helped us find our way, fed us and sorted our issues quickly during errand visits from the wilder islands.
The Lipe rubbish situation
Koh Lipe is a clear example of what happens when a place does tourism before it plans environmental management. Piles of rubbish everywhere, a central massive waste tip and who knows where waste water is going. Although technically part of the national park, Lipe seems to have escaped the protection afforded to the other islands. Speaking to locals we found out that plastic and cans are collected and shipped off the island to be recycled while everything else goes to the central tip to be burnt. It’s good that there is some attempt at waste management, however it’s far too little to actually keep the island from being taken over by rubbish.
It would be wonderful to see sensitive islands like the Koh Tarutao islands really focus on reducing rubbish and switching to more environmentally friendly skin, laundry and household detergents. Packaging could switch to biodegradable only with incentives to reduce and reuse, cleaning agents sold on the islands could all be grey water friendly (since they end up in the sea and rivers quite rapidly) and both tourists and locals could be educated about where rubbish and detergents end up and what the impact is. Reality is that unless the islands literally clean up their act fast, tourists will quickly shift their attention elsewhere, leaving ravaged islands that are but a shadow of what they once were.
Needing a break from the tourist central that is Lipe, we hopped over to Koh Tarutao, an island about an hour and a half away by speedboat (cost 400 – 450 baht each way) and thankfully under proper national park protection. Landing on the pier we paid the National Park entry fee (200 baht for non Thais) and got into out ‘taxi’ – a cab truck with two benches and metal bars on the side which ferries people from one area of the park to the next.
Our chosen destination, Ao Molae, turned out to be wonderful. Simple beach huts metres away from the beach (600 baht a night) that included a bed with an entertaining mosquito net, a basic toilet / shower room which was reasonably clean and came complete with an interesting array of insects and other small animals and a beautiful glass topped table filled with sand and seashells from the beach. Pampering amenities also included two National Park branded towels and white sheets with a green National Park motif that makes you feel a little like you are on a scout trip somewhere. The mosquito net on the bed was an adventure in itself. It was suspended from the ceiling on a small round frame at the centre of the bed, meaning that you had to tuck in the sides underneath the mattress and stretch it all out to have some semblance of space on the bed. Getting in and out from a narrow slit, in the dark (electricity is 6pm till midnight only), trying to not let the lurking mosquitoes in was a mission, albeit a hilarious one that involved much confuddled middle of the night giggling on my part.
Equipment adventures aside, Ao Molae and Koh Tarutao were nothing short of magical. Picturesque beaches, dense forests, little islands in the distance creating picture perfect views, peace, a little restaurant serving up amazing food and the biggest smiles ever, monkeys, wild pigs, sea eagles, birds and wonderful cicada sounds that envelope the whole experience. The place is truly lush.
Despite our resolve to just lay on a beach and be, we obviously ended up adventuring quite a bit in an attempt to discover the island. On the second day we rented bikes (200 Baht per day) and cycled to Ban Talae Wow, around 18 km away. The trip was a physical and mental challenge (for me at least, Murphs being a lot more bike-oriented).
So firstly the bikes were OLD. Very old. Not being the most mechanically minded person ever, it took me roughly half the journey to work out how the gears worked exactly. I had last been on a mountain bike a couple of years ago in France, however the rather flat terrain did not require the use of the full range of gears and I kind of got away with some pushing of levers which seemed to do the job most of the time. This time the steep hills meant I needed all the assistance the bike could offer. Being more bike-savvy, Gayle tried to talk me through the gears. Sadly her bike was wired differently to mine so I spent ages wondering why going up gears to make hills easier was actually making them more difficult. By the end of it I just did my usual thing and pressed levers until something made sense and I seemed to master the mysteries of geardom.
Breathless hills, copious amounts of bike pushing and some deliriously fun steep downhills later we actually made it to Baan Talae Wow which was beautiful but so much more about the journey than the destination. Having worked out the gear system, the journey back was a little less of an epic mission and I could join Gayle in frequent ooing and aaing at the countless colourful butterflies fluttering next to us, the autumn leaves in spectacular shades of orange, red and brown falling gently in our path, the massive trees, the cheeky monkeys and the birdsong along the way. Seriously magical.