Thailand Fling - Part 6...Christmas Island & New Year, New Country
Koh Lipe, Thailand and Langkawi, Malaysia – December 2022
Departing the mainland from the Thai region of “Satun”, we did wonder if we were about to enter “hell” on our arrival in Koh Lipe. Having been relatively spoilt so far with (almost) deserted beaches and low-key resorts, the overcrowded pier and sunbed strewn waterfront was a bit of a shock to the system. I had read that this beautiful, car-free island with its stunning beaches was in danger of being over developed, but as we dragged our case down “Walking Street” we didn’t expect it to resemble Oxford St at rush hour. Barely wide enough to walk side by side, motorcycle taxis competed for space with pedestrians, scooters and shopfronts!
I thought I’d had the foresight to book a hotel a few hundred yards away from the main slog but my “cunning plan” was to come back to bite us later. On the plus side, this small island was very easy to get around as most of the beaches were less than a 30 minute walk away, along sandy lanes. The downside was that it obviously catered mostly to young tourists (copious bars, souvenir shops, tattoo parlours, hostels etc…), and they had descended in their hoards for the Christmas holidays.
Pattaya Beach was our closest beach and by far the busiest, with longtails and ferries endlessly unloading more visitors, and was lined with flashy hotels with several more being built. The other main beaches, Sunrise and Sunset were on the other sides of the island and offered slightly more of a restful feel.
Koh Lipe and the surrounding Tarutoa National Park are blessed with coral-rich waters and numerous dive sites, so we finally “took the plunge” and booked ourselves a day’s scuba. The ever-patient young French instructor, Greg, took us through our paces as we both needed a refresher after so long. Like riding a bike, it all came back to us and we were soon spotting trigger fish, Sargent Majors and a large moray eel peeping out from a rock. I was horrified to see nature at in the raw on our second dive – a giant trevally chomping on a big yellow and black banner fish – eeeww…
Feeling our age we spent the next few days recovering from our exertions, and walking to the far end of the main beach found our own private little cove, overlooked by most tourists. It was situated adjacent to the Thai Naval base so looked a bit off limits but the friendly sailor waved us through the guard post and we spent a pleasant couple of hours each day, soaking in the shallow bath-like waters…bliss!
Christmas was fast approaching and things were livening up much to our disappointment! Neither of us particularly enjoy the fervour of this time of year and we had hoped to avoid the crowds! It didn’t help that the only bar that was open until the early hours of the morning (and boasted “the best sound system on the island”) had relocated just over the road from our hotel and you guessed…Christmas Eve was party time! No “silent night” for us. We did however enjoy a pleasant Christmas dinner at the Italian restaurant round the corner, run by a charming Sly Stallone lookalike, and the home-made Tiramisu more than made up for the lack of Christmas pud!
Things picked up on our last night when Toi, the charismatic landlord of the Rasta Bar we walked past each day, finally convinced us to sample his eclectic selection of cocktails and local moonshine. At least we slept well that night!
New Year, New Country
The short border hop over to Langkawi in Malaysia was only an hour by ferry but the difference between the two countries was noticeable. I hadn’t visited the island for over 20 years, and then we stayed at the exclusive Andaman Hotel (which I was shocked to learn had burnt down in a terrible fire a couple of years ago). Tourism had obviously burgeoned since then, assisted by the weak Malaysian Ringgit, cheap accommodation and copious duty-free outlets.
Our small but friendly family run hotel was a ten-minute walk from Pantai Tengah (via the building site of another huge, monstrous hotel development). The beach itself was pleasant but wasn’t a patch on the Thai beaches we’d left behind. A mile up the coast was the boisterous Pantai Cenang, full of noisy jet skis, banana boats, cars, and lots and lots of PEOPLE!! The only redeeming factor was it was also home to one of the island’s few ATM’s and several very good duty free stores where one could find a half decent bottle of wine for under a tenner!!
Concluding that if we couldn’t beat ‘em, we’d join ‘em, we became honorary “tourists” for the week, and planned a few excursions over the course of the next few days. Being adrenaline junkies, we had a wet and wild day out at the Splash Out waterpark, which was pleasantly uncrowded.
We discovered a couple of excellent bars close by, one of which featured great cocktails, draft Guiness and a large screen showing 80’s videos, and spent New Year’s Eve on the beach watching the nearby fireworks. The new year started with a “splash” on a sunset cruise where, not only were we full to the gills with the free-flowing drinks, but then cast over the back of the boat into a giant net for a salt water “jacuzzi”. All good fun.
Having found our sea legs again, we braved renting a car and drove up north to the UNESCO endorsed Kilim Geoforest Park for a mangrove tour. Being a mere 500 million years old, the area is home to a diverse collection of flora and fauna including water monitors, flying lemurs, pied hornbills, monkeys and squirrels. Our friendly guide gave us the low down on the importance of mangroves as fish nurseries, protecting the coastal communities from storms and capturing huge amounts of carbon, keeping down CO2 levels. Who’d have thought those weird leggy looking trees were so vital…
The highlight was watching the sea eagles and kites circling over their feeding area, and the so called Crocodile Cave where there was thankfully no crocodiles, but families of bats hanging from the roof and keeping the mosquitoes at bay much to Ian’s relief. Further on, the guide even spotted a sleeping viper on an overhanging tree branch. The eco ethics of the tour were sadly let down by the visit to the fish farm where different species were kept in small enclosures for tourists to watch and feed. The return route along the coast passed by the pretty beach of Tanjung Rhu which we visited later for lunch at the Scarborough Fish and Chip café!
The “high point” of our stay was a strenuous climb up to the Telega Tujuh, a striking series of waterfalls followed by a visit to the much vaunted “Panorama Langkawi” complex. A cable car whisked us up to the top of the second highest peak on the island, providing breath-taking views of the jungle canopy far below as well as a birds-eye view of Langkawi’s surrounding islands. Right at the top, we walked along the impressive single pylon Sky Bridge – one of the longest curved pedestrian suspension bridges in the world, second only to the Golden Gate. Good job we liked heights!
Back down to earth, we enjoyed a quiet evening at the local Spanish (yes!) restaurant before our first flight for several months (we are trying to save the planet, honestly…).
Next Stop: A very different island…