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Lipe Island in the Andaman Sea

Lipe Island in the Andaman Sea

Rebecca Lomax, Ph.D.

Their share of the catch for dinner.

A team of local educators and civic club members recently traveled from Chiang Mai to Koh Lipe to assess ways in which English language skills could help the children of the almost 1,000 Urak Lawoi who live there, popularly known as the “Sea Gypsies”.

The group traveled from Chiang Mai to Hat Yai by air, and then crossed land by van to Satun Province and the port town of Pak Bara. Satun is a multicultural province, with almost 70 percent of its population Muslim and nearly 30 percent Buddhist.

Koh Lipe (Lipe Island) is part of Satun Province, and is located 80 kilometers from Pak Bara in the Adang Archipelago of the Andaman Sea, an exquisite chain of small islands that have yet to be fully developed for tourism. The Archipelago became part of the Tarutao National Marine Park in 1974, and is a rapidly growing destination for divers who come to enjoy the 288 fish and 137 coral species there.

Ben Fenton interviews students.

From Pak Bara, the group went by speedboat to Lipe Island, a rough journey given the cross currents between the islands and the depth of the swells in the sea. The prevailing belief that it is not good for the boat to adjust the speed downward produced a hard ride that was disruptive to the fishermen en route and the tranquility of the beach on arrival. The ferry at Pak Bara takes about four hours, but offers more comfortable passage. Book at Pak Bara so that you can see the vessel you will be traveling on. The monsoon season lasts from May through October. The seas are rough during this time, and most public transportation does not operate to the smaller islands. Most of the small resorts also close during the monsoon season.

Happy faces.

Lipe Island is quite small, only about five square kilometers. There are no paved roads on the island and there is no motorized transportation for tourists. But the island is also relatively flat, and it’s easy to walk to any destination. There is no bank or ATM on the island. Internet connection is available at several of the resorts and at the school, but it is expensive compared to the mainland. Only DTAC mobile telephones work.

Accommodation on Lipe Island is basic, and generally consists of small cabins grouped together near a restaurant and called a “resort”. Most are sparsely furnished. Bathrooms are equally Spartan. There is no hot water, and electricity is generally turned off from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. The weather is warm but pleasant, and island breezes blow almost continuously.

Tony Burke, team member, interviews mothers.

There are four main beaches on Lipe Island and a few small, secluded ones. Pattaya Beach is the main one, and most of the bungalows and restaurants are located there. It’s located in a bay, and beautifully picturesque. The sand is white and powdery on the beach, and the beaches are not crowded even during the high season. Nobody rents beach chairs or umbrellas on the beach yet, but that type of entrepreneurship is just around the corner. Don’t miss Sunset Beach at – well – sunset. And don’t forget your camera. Sunlight Beach is on the eastern side of the island near the Sea Gypsy village. Two tiny islands are just off this beach, and snorkelers can often be seen swimming from one to the other. Karma Beach is also quite lovely.

Animist crosses protect the fishermen.

The Urak Lawoi village, school, people and fishing boats should not be missed. Although the Moken, Moklen and Urak Lawoi are all referred to as “Sea Gypsies”, in reality they are not the same peoples. They have different origins, cultures and languages. The language of the Urak Lawoi is not written down. Many of them also speak Thai. Historically the Urak Lawoi were semi-nomadic sea people who kept permanent houses on land but were nomadic in their food foraging practices. They are animist in their beliefs, and the crosses we saw along the beach are believed to keep the fishermen safe.

Life is rapidly changing for the Sea Gypsies with increasing contacts with tourists and other outsiders, integration into larger fishing economies, and modernization. The school is surprisingly well equipped for its 200 students, with several computers that offer internet access as well as a satellite teaching program. There is a solar power system. The children are lively and appear healthy, and spoke easily with our Thai speakers. As you would expect, they are all good swimmers. We watched with delight as they swam out to meet the fishing boats in the evening, and then walked back to our resort for some of the most delicious fresh grilled squid I’ve ever eaten.

The only speedboat on the beach.

Fishermen coming home with their catches.

Pattaya Beach on Lipe Island.