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Published: September 16th 2008
"Which way to Thailand?", we asked. He moved out of the doorway, raised a crooked hand and pointed. Our eyes followed his outstretched hand. He was pointing down a long dark road. Groaning, we saddled up.
Apart from the solitary old man, nothing or no one seemed awake.
Or maybe, because it was pitch black, we didn’t see another soul. Memories of being stranded on the roadside at 4 a.m. in Yangshuo, China came rushing back and now, just as then, we cast constant, furtive glances over our shoulders. Far ahead in the distance, lights beckoned. Emerging from the darkness, we entered Malaysia’s Padang Besar immigration compound squinting in the brilliance of the white fluorescent lights. The immigration officer stifled a “what the…”
but his ‘bugged-out’ eyes indicated his sheer surprise at our sudden appearance. He slammed the ‘exit’ stamp on our passports and pointed away. We started walking. This was yet another long, lonely road but now we had different concerns. “Were we still in Malaysia”? “Were we already in Thailand or, worse, No Man’s Land”? A solid kilometer later, we crossed under an archway, rounded a bend and entered the Thailand’s immigration compound. Unlike his Malaysian
counterpart, the Thai officer couldn’t mask his surprise and interest. He whipped out his camera-equipped cell phone and started snapping upclose-and-personal pictures of us despite our protestations. Photo-shoot complete, the officer completed our paperwork and at morning’s first light, we officially descended on the former Kingdom of Siam.
A beat-up road sign propped up against a rubbish heap showed 1007 km to Bangkok, Thailand's capital. We had absolutely no intention of heading to one of Asia's biggest, most chaotic cities. At least, not right away. We were in search of a much quieter rendezvous. There were only two problems: there was not a bus or car or bike in sight and, even if there were, we had no Baht
. Not 'Bath'
. Thai Baht - the local currency. We still had a few hundred Malaysian Ringgit but no Baht and since we were in a rural area, no bank or ATM. With only two options, left or right, we chose 'left' and started walking. The only person out-and-about was an old lady. She was sweeping fallen leaves from the street. "Sawadee"
, we called out. She raised her head. A bright smile lit up her face. How we managed to communicate
that we had some Ringgit and needed Baht and why she had a fat roll of Baht between the folds of her shabby clothes remains a mystery but this lady offered us full cambio services without the regular commission fee. And then, on cue, a bus appeared and under the watchful eyes of about 50 passengers, we rode the bus for several hours to the Hat Yai bus station. We changed buses in Hat Yai and continued to Satun and then on a 'Songthaew' - a pickup truck modified with seats in the tray and a roof. Sometime after 1 pm we pulled up at the pier at Pak Bara, just in time to catch the boat. This was no ordinary boat. It was a gleaming white, streamlined yacht retrofitted for passengers and powered by six hundred horses. But then again, Koh Lipeh
was no ordinary destination.
Koh Lipeh, a part of the pristine Tarutao National Marine Park, is a tiny island 70 km into the Andaman Sea. The island boasts pristine white sand beaches, unbelievably aqua/turquoise/greenish-blue water, breathtaking sunsets and no vehicles. The bow of the boat raked upwards as the 600 horses revved and soon we were
flying across the waves and gazing out as solitary, uninhabited islands flashed by. A long curving, desolate beach lined with pine trees was our first glimpse at Tarutao. A few passengers disembarked and as the boat powered away from the beach head, we figured that we just might want to set foot on Tarutao. A full two hours of high-speed motoring brought Koh Lipeh in view. To protect the reef (and to deprive us of another 50 Baht each), the boat docked a significant distance from shore and a 'long-tail'
ferried us to land. Lipeh had three main beach areas and we stopped at the first, and most popular, Pattaya Beach. Bungalows and restaurants lined the strand, a few tourists baked in the hot afternoon sun and others played beach volleyball. Too many tourists here. We asked the captain to circle the island. He took us to Sunset Beach and we grabbed one of the last two remaining bungalows. Our beach was much quieter (less people and noisy long-tails) and had more shade and at dusk the skies displayed stunning shades of orange and gold. Sunset Beach was aptly named.
A series of dusty trails linked the various hotspots
on the island. The locals, who had either voluntarily left the coastline in fear of another tsunami like the one in 2004 or who had been ejected in the interest of tourism, occupied basic accommodations in the center of Lipeh. Most of the homes were constructed from zinc sheets, with outdoor baths and toilets. It took all of 20 minutes to stroll from one side of Lipeh, Sunset Beach, to the other side, Pattaya Beach. The closer we got to Pattaya the more commercial the island became. A few used-book stores, a ridiculously over-priced internet cafe, a tattoo parlour, several massage parlours and too many restaurants to tally, lined the walkway. On Pattaya Beach, quirky "Reggae Bars" boasting Jamaica's red, green and gold colors and island shacks competed for business with upscale eateries. Much to our delight and surprise we saw Alex and Chiara (remember them from Cameron Highlands?) waving at us from the water's edge. They had arrived a few days before. We grouped up for swims and long lazy days with books, chess and good conversations and on-the-beach, candlelight dinners of fish and Thailand's famous green curry - the one with a million peppers
Lipeh was a
beaut. From various vantage points we got sweeping panoramas over the Andaman Sea and marvelled at the clarity of the water and how the green waters close to shore merged seamless into the deep blue. We crisscrossed the island on foot, swimming when we got hot, eating when we got hungry and slinging up our hammocks when we got tired. A swift channel divided Lipeh from its only neighbour, Koh Adang, which jutted out of the sea and swept up to an impressive peak. We hired a long-tail for 100 Baht and landed on Adang. It was a world removed from the 'frenzy' of Lipeh. A few tents, which could be hired from the central ranger station, were scattered under the trees close to the sea. We lost ourselves amidst the forest trees, hiking for hours under the canopy before chancing upon Pirate's Waterfall which, while picturesque, was no more than a decent trickle down a bald incline.
A week passed. Island-life was too addictive. We had to break its hold. On the afternoon of our last day we got some great advice from a local. He said that if we swam out to an islet, a small tree-covered
hump ten minutes away, we would be rewarded with fantastic snorkeling and the chance to spot a resident Black-Tip Shark. We were hooked. We desperately wanted to see it. On the swim over we just about scared the orange off of more than a few clown fish (AKA Nemos, or is it the other way around) who fled into the anemones. Giant cabbage coral and trumpet fish dominated the area and the ridges and valleys made the sea floor seem other-worldly. Unfortunately for us (some might say 'fortunately'
), in the hour plus that we spent circling the islet, we did not encounter the shark. We were sorely disappointed. But not for long though.
That night, on the walk over from Sunset to Pattaya Beach, we saw it. Yes! There it was. The now-former resident Black-Tip Shark. Sitting not-so-pretty atop a stack of ice and under the watchful eyes of a few lip-smacking tourists. 😊
😊 Alex and Chiara, it was fun.
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