The fascinating history of Koh Lipe is awash with tales of survival. It's hard to imagine today, but many moons ago this small island was home to throngs of sea gypsies and political prisoners.
Koh Lipe's history is closely related to that of its neighbours along the Adang-Rawi Archipelago (Phuket, Phi Phi, Jum, Lanta, Bulon and Adang), and continues to maintain strong links with the region.
The Arrival of the Chao Ley (Sea Gypsies)
The island was first settled over one hundred years ago by a distinct band of rogue sea gypsies
(chao ley) known as Urak Lawoi. Led by the legendary ‚Äî and some believe, magical ‚Äî Indonesian man, ToKiri, they quickly established a series of small settlements, from which the Urak Lawoi's skin divers and line fisherman could hunt for sea turtles, lobster and clams. Meanwhile, land-based gatherers amassed a plethora of fruits including papaya, banana, coconuts and mango. Evidence of rice cultivation has recently been found on the higher land, suggesting the local chao ley enjoyed a balanced diet.
Local Traders of Koh Lipe
This semi-nomadic way of life (known as baghad) was central to the Urak Lawoi's survival, and it was entirely possible that they could live self-sufficiently. However, good trade was vital to good relations, and as a result the Urak Lawoi commonly traded their catch for spices and clothing. The culture of Urak Lawoi wasn't purely about survival, they also maintained mild spiritual beliefs; not least, the belief that the surrounding nature was controlled by an all-powerful spirit. Each full moon local chao ley would return to their villages to fill the night air with a percussion of Rong Ngang dancing and Ramana drumming.
Shift of Cultures
The advent of commercial fishing, and subsequent competition for local resources has had an effect on the local Urak Lawoi community's way of life. Many indigenous chao ley have left their baghad lifestyle for jobs in the burgeoning tourist industry. The majority of Urak Lawoi in Koh Lipe now live inland, compared to their traditional coastal residence. The history of Koh Lipe is borne of visiting tribes, turned hunters and gatherers. A tight-knit community of traders, harvesting the local land and sea to improve their quality of life. It's a history that should be respected, and one that will indubitably enhance your time on the island.
You will meet many of the friendly chao ley people throughout your time on Koh Lipe, and we recommend a visit to the main chao ley village near Sunset Beach for a further insight into their culture and way of life.