If you want a symbol of the effect COVID-19 travel restrictions have had on Thailand’s tourism industry and the businesses that rely on it, look no further than Home Bar on Koh Lipe. During our recent visit I Googled ‘best bar on koh lipe’ and pretty much everyone seemed to be in agreement that Home Bar, a reggae bar situated on a narrow jungle road between Sunrise and Sunset Beaches, was it. “This place is incredible! Last of a dying breed of laid-back island bars“…”I plan to go back every night and savour the experience for years to come“…”Great place, cool owner“. And so on and so on.
Even better, the bar was just a short walk from our resort so off we went, looking forward to an evening of cold beers and reggae tunes with good company, only to get there and find the lights off and the bar looking in a bit of a sorry state. We were about to leave when a couple of dogs bounded up to greet us, followed by a smiling older man in vest and shorts who beckoned us to sit down. This turned out to be Khun Phanor, the bar’s legendary owner – known to all as Papa Nor – who happily sat us down and told us his story.
A former hotel chef who had worked overseas in the UK, Japan and Singapore, he returned to Thailand in the 90s after a stint in Canada convinced him he wasn’t made for cold weather. After becoming a Rastafarian and running reggae bars in various Thai beach destinations, he settled on Koh Lipe seven years ago and established Home Bar as a favourite with locals and tourists alike. “I called it Home Bar because when people are a long way from home, they need somewhere they can call home” he told me. He also had a row of tents set up for people who couldn’t find – or afford – a room on the island.
All was going well until COVID came along and totally killed the island’s tourism industry. Home Bar closed in March 2020 and so disillusioned was Phanor that he hadn’t cleaned or maintained it since, as he was worried that his efforts to do so might be wasted if tourists didn’t return. He’d simply been living in the bar for the last year with his dogs Daeng and Tarzan, and his ancient cat Thong Kaew.
Thankfully our visit, and the sight of an increasing number of tourists turning up looking for a drink, seemed to remotivate him and when I returned the following day to take pictures, he’d already started cleaning up. “I see more tourists, and now I have power!” he said with a toothy grin, as he wielded his broom and began sweeping up a year’s worth of debris.
Let’s hope that Phanor gets his bar up and running again soon, and that the tourists he relies on for a living start to return. As destinations like Lipe become more developed and homogenised, places like this are increasingly rare and a lifeline for those of us who prefer to drink somewhere a little different from the norm. Good luck Khun Phanor, and hope to have a drink with you next time we come to Lipe!