Nowadays, it can be tricky to find the idyllic tropical Thailand that existed before the package tourism boom. However, if you venture beyond the busy beaches of Phuket, it's still possible to reach a pocket-sized paradise.
On a recent trip to Thailand, I was lucky enough to explore a new island – Koh Lipe. This L-shaped island in the Andaman Sea is part of the Tarutao National Marine Park, near to the border with Malaysia. Harder to reach but worth every inch of effort, it's a step back into unspoilt Thailand.
Thai Airways fly direct from London Heathrow to Bangkok, and for this trip, I flew in their Business Class cabin. One of the many benefits of flying in Business Class is that you get access to a lounge and can enjoy a cheeky glass of bubbly while waiting to board.
Thai Airways don’t operate their own lounge, which means you get to choose from several lounges operated by the Star Alliance partners including the Lufthansa Senator Lounge, United Airlines Club Lounge and Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge.
Onboard Thai Airways A380, there’s a spacious Business Class cabin with a seating layout of 1-2-1, perfect for travelling alone or as a couple. Lie-flat beds make the flight whizz by in comfort, and the food is outstanding – they offer both a Thai and Western menu.
As we were connecting on to Hat Yai in the south east of Thailand, we didn’t need to collect our bags in Bangkok; we just cleared immigration and boarded our next flight with Thai Smile. This was a new airline for me, and I was impressed. They’re a full-service economy carrier, so snacks and a drink are included free of charge, and the seating on the Airbus 320 is very comfortable. The flight is only 1 hour 25 minutes, with less than 2-hour connecting time in Bangkok.
Hat Yai offers a range of accommodation if you need to stay overnight, but we headed straight to our first destination, Pak Bara on the west coast. Pak Bara is home to a UNESCO-recognised Geopark (offering fabulous geology and beautiful beaches) and is the departure point to some of the best snorkelling and undiscovered treasures that Thailand has to offer.
From Pak Bara, we took a speedboat over to Koh Lipe. This island is accessed only by speedboat from the mainland and the 2-hour crossing operates year-round. From Pak Bara, you can also connect to Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi and Phuket. Koh Lipe is close to the Malaysian border, a 90-minute ferry ride from Langkawi (this service operates from late October to May). You can read our blog about crossing from Malaysia to Thailand by boat here.
Spending time in Koh Lipe was the highlight of my trip. The island is perfect for honeymooners, families and anyone who loves pure white sand beaches, pristine clear water and boutique accommodation. It’s a very popular holiday destination for Thai and Malaysian tourists too.
The island is tiny (just 2km long) and is part of the Tarutao National Marine Park in the Andaman Sea, which is well-known for its coral-rich waters, hence the fantastic snorkelling off the beach and dive sites within easy reach.
There’s no need for public transport here. In fact, I didn’t see one car and you can pretty much walk everywhere.
There’s a choice of three idyllic beaches: Sunrise, Pattaya and Sunset, all with talcum powder white sand, clear water and a backdrop of lush forest. You can snorkel straight off the beach, or simply find your spot to relax on a lounger overlooking the turquoise water and do absolutely nothing.
You can also opt to go diving in the Andaman Sea where the coral is amazing. There’s even a shipwreck dive site! Most of the dive sites are scattered around the island and accessible by boat within 25 mins of Koh Lipe.
If diving isn’t your thing, you can join a longtail boat excursion to the nearby islands of Koh Adang, Koh Yang and Koh Rawi, and hop off along the way for some incredible snorkelling opportunities – yes, we found Nemo!
After all the diving and snorkelling, why not get a traditional Thai massage to unwind? Mine cost around £12 for an hour at Bundhaya Resort, an absolute bargain and despite (or maybe due to!) a rather rigorous handling by the tiniest Thai lady, I felt amazing afterwards!
Walking Street is the place to go for a huge range of dining options and shopping. This is the main street of the island – 20 minutes from end to end! You’ll get the best authentic Thai food at incredible prices. The seafood is extraordinary in Koh Lipe. I recommend you also try the Seafood BBQ at the Idyllic Concept Resort, right on the beach as the sun sets, it’s magical.
High season runs from November to April, with warm sunny weather and little rainfall. Low season is from May to October. Temperatures tend to range from 26-28°C throughout the year; however, in low season, you can expect several rainy days. As you’d expect, it’s a lot quieter during this time, meaning some bargains on the accommodation front.
There are a surprising number of places to stay on this small island – 145 in fact, I was told. The options range from the most basic hostels, through to some fantastic boutique resorts. You won’t find any big chain hotels here, but you’ll find some lovely choices very suited to international travellers.
One of my favourites was Akira – a beautiful 4.5-star resort with a brand new 5-star sister resort due to open in 2019. I also loved the Idyllic Concept Resort, which has a stunning setting right on the beach.
I stayed at Bundhaya Resort, which is located right by the island’s jetty, making it a convenient choice when heading off to explore the Marine Park. They also have a sister property next door, the Bundhaya Villas.
I think a visit to Koh Lipe would make a superb addition to any multi-centre trip to Thailand or Malaysia. It’s easy to combine Koh Lipe with Langkawi, then head up to Phuket, finishing in either Chiang Mai or Bangkok, or venture south from Langkawi and add in Kuala Lumpur.