x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Travel Secrets: Travelling to Asia in “off” season

The rather subjective matter of good holiday weather has led to seasonal rates - low, high, higher still. We do the maths.

Koh Lipe in Thailand is often rainy in peak season. Photo by Rosemary Behan
Koh Lipe in Thailand is often rainy in peak season. Photo by Rosemary Behan

Travelling “on season” is sometimes crucial. Unless you’ve got a very strong stomach or are pointlessly gung-ho, you wouldn’t really want to spend a fortune on a diving holiday to the Great Barrier Reef or Papua New Guinea in cyclone season, that is from November to the end of March, or go on a dream honeymoon to the Caribbean to one of the islands frequently caught in the summer hurricane season. You wouldn’t want to go to the UK in January and you simply couldn’t sail to Antarctica in our summer. The tourist season there is only about four months long, starting in November.

Yet, Asia is different, especially when you’re travelling from the Middle East, where rain and clouds aren’t the huge disaster they generally are for those on holiday from northern Europe. These people want guaranteed blue skies and sun, and they are prepared to pay a premium to get it. Why should we, who get enough sun here in the UAE in a few years to last a lifetime, pay more to be on holiday at the same time as all of the rest?

This is a point that was rammed home to me late last year, as I agreed to travel from Malaysia to Thailand to meet some friends for Christmas. The first red flag was the small size of the island Koh Lipe. Prices were already not only two or three times what you’d pay on the mainland (further note: food is always more expensive on islands), but also more expensive than other, larger Thai islands with more competition from their neighbours. Koh Lipe is flung out like a tiny boomerang in the Andaman Sea, in the middle of a National Marine Park. While they make for attractive locations, those tempting islands nearby can’t be stayed on, meaning poor little Koh Lipe is packed to the gills.

While I wanted to believe the articles that described Koh Lipe as “lesser-visited”, I was heartbroken to see Lonely Planet’s description: “Koh Lipe is this decade’s poster child for untamed development in the Thai islands. Blessed with two wide, white-sand beaches separated by jungled hills, and within spitting distance of protected coral reefs, a few years ago the island was only spoken about in secretive whispers. But then the whispers became small talk, which quickly turned into a roar – you know, the kind generally associated with bulldozers. The biggest losers have been the 700-strong community of chow lair villagers who sold to a Thai developer.”

The second red flag came the moment I went to book a room a month before departure and saw the prices. Let’s do the maths. At the undoubtedly lovely Castaway Beach Resort, recommended to me by a friend who lives in Japan and is up on all things Zen, my heart sank as I saw the appropriately colour-coded seasonal rates.

If I were travelling in “low season”, from May 1 until October 31 – yellow on the colour scale – a huge, private wooden bungalow right on the beach would have cost a mere 1,500 Thai baht (Dh170) per night. At these prices, you could happily live there forever. In “mid-season”, that is November 1 to December 20, and January 15 to 31 (that is, just when it starts to get horribly cold in Europe, and after New Year when most people have had their holidays so won’t pay peak rates) the cost rises to 3,300 baht (Dh372) per night. In “high season”, January 6 to 14 and the entire month of February (when the weather is deemed perfect and people in Europe realise that it’s even colder than before), rates creep up to 4,300 baht (Dh485) per night.

And finally, as if “high” were not high enough, there is “peak season”, or dark red on the colour scale. Peak season is from December 21 until January 5, when most of the world seems to want to travel for Christmas and New Year. And for this privilege (we know it is a privilege because it is so hard to get a room during this time that we feel almost thankful to secure anything), the rates have risen to a staggering 4,800 baht (Dh541). That’s more than three times as much as we would have paid if we’d travelled in March.

Which is where the story gets even more painful. Koh Lipe, you see, has its own monsoon season. The eastern side of the island, locals tell me, is windy in “peak” season. At other times, the other side of the island, Pattaya Beach, gets the wind. And guess which side was windy when we were there?

While I don’t mind a bit of a breeze and we didn’t have any rain, it was a little difficult to hear Fernando, the Spanish yoga teacher, as he led a class out on the windswept deck with long-tail boats churning their whisk-like engines to get traction against the waves.

There was nowhere to take cover to read a newspaper or book (note: Kindles are excellent in the wind), so for shelter we retreated to the other side of the island or to Papaya Mom, a great north-eastern Thai restaurant on the hideously named Walking Street, which does a great sop no mai (bamboo root salad).

Almost as a postscript, I met a Canadian family staying at Castaway, who travel to Koh Lipe twice a year with their two children. On December 23, both they and I had to move out of our bungalows to the appropriately named Gypsy Resort next door, as we hadn’t booked far enough ahead to secure a room even at inflated rates.

“We came in March,” she informed me. “It was empty, and the weather was great.”