Thailand’s idyllic tropical islands have suffered from their popularity. They’ve been a huge draw for decades and the well-known spots seem to get busier and more cramped every year. Nothing takes the sheen off a beautiful beach like a noisy crowd of holidaymakers and a standing army of 20-story condo blocks.
But popular as the Thai islands are, if you know where to look, you can still find the Thailand of old—warm, turquoise waters…banks of vibrant coral…chalk-white sand…friendly locals—only minus the masses.
I came across one such place during a recent trip around Southeast Asia. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but it’s an island called Koh Lipe—hidden among an archipelago of 30 others which make up Tarutao National Park.
While tourists have been coming and going from the rest of Thailand, the island of Koh Lipe has been left to the Chao Ley—a nomadic sea people who would occasionally take up residence before setting off again in their elegant longboats in search of other fishing spots.
Even today, arriving on Koh Lipe is like stepping into a time warp. Despite its incredible beauty, tourists are only starting to find out about the island and they still don’t come here in any great numbers. There are no cars—transport is by foot or by bicycle.
Much of the island’s surrounding waters fall within the jurisdiction of the national park so sport fishing is banned. The fisherman’s loss, however, is the diver’s gain. This warm, reef-rippled corner of Andaman Sea teems with marine life.
Splash through the gently lapping water after nightfall at certain times of the year and it erupts in an alien glow. Microscopic phosphorescent plankton illuminates in tiny sparks of light when it’s disturbed. Don your snorkel for an otherworldly night-time dive akin to swimming through the stars.
Development has been allowed to run rampant in some parts of Thailand, but the beauty of Koh Lipe has largely been protected by both its inhabitants and the authorities. There are no high-rise hotels here—accommodation is in stilted teak and bamboo beach huts hidden among the tall grasses that run down to the beaches, or perched on the sand itself.
The development that can be found is restricted to a handful of beach hut resorts strung out mostly along Sunset Beach and a cluster of eateries close to the center of the island. Even the Chao Ley can still be spotted. They come and go from their own little bamboo village, much as they have done for countless centuries.
I stayed at the aptly named Castaway Resort, located on the quiet Sunrise Beach. Its well-finished hardwood bungalows are built in the traditional ornate Thai style, and are the best on the island. Rates start from 1,000 baht (or $33) per night in low season for a two-person bungalow. The Castaway’s in-house kitchen serves up well-executed Thai classics like pad Thai, kaprow as well as more exotic fare like its stunning lemongrass and ginger-infused grilled fish dishes.
The friendly staff can also arrange everything from a diving trip on hidden wrecks and a tour of the waterfalls and look-out points on the local uninhabited islands, to a relaxing massage right on the sand.
There are some great food options on the island, with many eateries specializing in barbecued seafood. Many display their weird and wonderful range of freshly hauled fish, crab and lobster packed in ice at their doorway—point at what you want and it will be on the grill in moments.
Part of the reason why Koh Lipe has managed to stay beyond the reach of the maddening crowds is its location—it’s not easy to get to. First, you need to catch a flight from one of the country’s main airports down to the Southern City of Hat Yai. Flights arrive quite late so the rest of the journey has to be made the following day.
This kicks off with a bus journey the next morning to Pak Bara Pier, not far from the Malaysian border, where you can catch a boat to the island. The long journey feels worthwhile when your feet touch Koh Lipe’s liquid-soft sand, but if someone figures out how to make it faster and easier for tourists, they stand to earn some serious money.
Editor’s Note: If you would like to travel to undiscovered beaches in Thailand or beyond, there is a way you can do it…for free. Here’s how it’s done.