Travel & Leisure Southeast Asia – July 2010
I didn’t expect strollers. Yet there I was eyeing an army of young mom’s wheeling prams along Hat Pattaya, a crescent of white sand that rolls into Ko Lipe’s main long tail harbor. This is Lipe’s gateway, and I’d landed here only moments before thinking of the whispers shared with me by a gorgeous French-Thai hippie chick on Ko Phayam. Barefooted, bra-less and slightly unwashed (as true hippies tend to be), she had a beauty deep and riveting. Factor in the fact that she grew up on the sweetest island in the North Andaman, and her recently achieved degree in international relations from the Sorbonne, and you get the kind of lady that can convince a guy like me of practically anything. “Go to Lipe,” she said that recent afternoon. “It’s amazing!” Then she blew me a kiss. So, naturally, I went to Lipe.
Although, I’d made a reservation in one of Castaway’s, stylish all-wood split-level bungalows on the east coast, I’d arrived a day early, and decided to nest on Hat Pattaya for a night. As I made my rounds I noticed that this beach had two personalities. There was the old – signified by bamboo and wood shacks that recall the colorful blast of Ken Kesey ramshackle that once dominated the beach – and the new, sprawling four star, mostly concrete, resorts that have everything from air-con to wifi to sunken pool bars.
Just as the sun was setting I found Paradise, a humble, tasteful bamboo bungalow property on the north end of the beach within 100-meters of a poetic, boulder strewn headland (in the end, I preferred ramshackle), dropped my bags and popped next door to Daya, a local restaurant serving some of the freshest and sweetest grilled seafood I’ve ever had. The king mackerel was especially exquisite. All in all it was a damn fine evening, even if a sun-scorched Scandinavian family of four was sharing plates of mushy pasta in cream sauce and boiled hot dogs two tables over.
Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear. I like children and I have no problem with young families. It’s just that when young families (read: package tourists) have landed on a supposedly under-the-radar and idyllic destination, that place is about to change. Or in Lipe’s case, it already has.
In the distant past Lipe was a dreadlocked pirate hideaway. A place to bury treasure and wait out howling storms. Less than a decade ago, it became the nomad’s waking dream. Blessed with two wide white sand beaches kissed by sapphire waters, separated by lush, jungled hills, and within spitting distance of protected coral reefs and massive islands thick with wildlife, this was where the backpacker trail led if you were lucky enough to hear the whispers. Unfortunately, whispers, when multiplied, become a buzz then a roar – you know, the kind generally associated with bulldozers.
The next day I saw the bulldozers flattening a recently cleared hill above Hat Pattaya. I’d been trying to head east to Hat Sunrise, Lipe’s somewhat less developed east coast. So I made my way along the maze of narrow concrete streets, past Kafair, a hipster café’ blowing jazz through its doorway, past the tattoo parlors, bakeries and restaurants – some of which were franchises of well-established businesses on Ko Phi Phi and Railay – both once glorious, pedestrian only destinations that are drowning in over-development. Long story short, I got lost, and wound up here, watching belching machinery steamroll and pave Lipe. I kept exploring the hills and found the island’s power plant. It was built and is operated by Phi Phi Electric.
From there I followed the trail along the ridge then downhill and noticed a large plot of stilted huts standing shoulder to shoulder and fenced off in barbed wire. It didn’t look all that different than refugee camps I’d seen when covering the humanitarian crisis in Eastern Burma, except this wasn’t a camp at all. It was more like a reservation. Living here, crammed together, were an overwhelming majority of Lipe’s original descendents, the chow lair or sea gypsies.
“The local people sell to Ko Tong maybe ten years ago,” said Kun Uddhi, a dreadlocked, inked-up Ko Tao native who now rents kayaks on Hat Pattaya. The more I asked locals like Uddhi about Lipe’s development boom, the more I heard the name Ko Pi Tong.
A Satun native, Tong made his money on the ecologically dubious and lucrative enterprise of collecting swift’s nests, which he’d export to China where they’d be stewed into birds’ nest soup. In Thailand armed men always closely guard these collection points. Tong consolidated Lipe’s land after he bought out a Phuket developer named Go Kyiet. Kyiet was an early investor on Phi Phi and had marked Lipe as Phi Phi 2.0, but he ran out of cash before he could pay the local people who’d already agreed to sell. Tong went back to the chow lair families, most of who didn’t have proper documentation for their land. He offered them lump sums of cash. They accepted, which means that technically this was all legal, and that they participated in their own demise, but it isn’t quite that simple. See, the game was rigged.
“Here, when Ko Tong wants something, you cannot say no to him,” Uddhi told me.
Kun Pan, an elder, who lives in the cordoned off chow lair village explained the situation with a story.
“Before, we had the whole island, we all lived on the beach,” said Pan, a silver haired fishermen with deep lines worn into his leathery brow. “Ko Tong came and give us very small money. My brother and I, we not want to sell. The police come and take us to Satun. They said we had no land rights. They made us sell.”
Still, they did get paid. In some cases, Tong bought land for 500,000B per rai, which he’s now selling for 6 million. And there was more confusion. Tong let the people live on the land he bought from them for years. Most folks moved relatively recently.
“20 years ago, it was only backpackers who came to enjoy the nature and sleep on our beach,” recalled Kun Pan. “It was very good. There were no guesthouses, but was okay. Now you could never do that. Three years ago, everything changed.”
Yet, even given this upheaval, there is plenty to love about Lipe, which still remains a far cry from Phi Phi – for now. Windswept Sunrise Beach is especially spectacular with a long stretch of sugar sand that juts triangular in the north with spectacular views of Ko Adang, part of Ko Turatao National Park.
With brooding, densely forested hills, white-sand beaches and healthy coral reefs, Adang is Lipe’s wild playground. Divers drift along its reefs and soar over fields of giant clams. Inland are jungle trails and weeping waterfalls, including the creek bed scramble up to Pirate’s Falls, which is rumoured to have been a freshwater source for pirates. Long tails are no longer allowed to beach on Adang, so my captain moored on an offshore buoy, which meant I had to swim to shore. Once on land I hiked the steep, three-tiered Chado Cliff trail and came face to face with a small barking deer – about hip-high it would remind Princess Bride fans of the ROUS (Rodents of Unusual Size) albeit with a much less rabid demeanour – before standing on a stone outcrop overlooking the vast Lipe-Adang archipelago.
From this distance everything looked peaceful. Lipe was still ringed with turquoise shallows and blanketed in jungle green. Long tails and speed boats still buzzed and bumped their way between untouched islands within Lipe’s orbit and families or no, I would soon learn that there remains plenty of silky sugar-white sand space for travelers of any ilk on Lipe. But with another looming four-star face-lift slated for the off-season, it isn’t the present most long-time locals and Lipe-lovers are worried about. It’s the future.