Longtail Boats of Southern Thailand

‘Longtail’ boats, or reua hang yao as they are called in Thai, operate through the Southern Thai islands. The design concept dates back hundreds of years and is closely related to the design style of the boats of the Moken (‘Sea Gypsy’) people who originated further south in what is now Malaysia. There has, though, been one big change to the design in the 20th Century, the introduction of a propeller: before that these crafts were driven by sail or oar.

It takes a lot of practice to master driving a longtail boat. They sit low in the water and can become easily unbalanced. If you take a small longtail boat for a journey the boat operator will normally have to ask you to sit in the front to avoid unbalancing the boat. If the weather is bad then there might also be a need to start bailing out water as the waves splash over the side of the boat. In addition to this, the distinctive propulsion system, a propeller attached by a long metal rod to motorbike or car engine directly without gearing, increases the difficulty in controlling the boat. To steer a longtail, the whole engine has to be turned making controlling the boat a physically demanding activity.

There are, however, benefits to the design. They are extremely manoeuvrable, and because of their shallow profile and semi-submerged propeller (more efficient than a fully submerged engine) they are much more fuel efficient than most other types of boat. They can go very quickly as well if the water is calm. They are also relatively cheap to maintain as they use a motorbike or car engine and avoid the notoriously costly maintenance expenses associated with maintaining purpose built marine engines.

The actual wooden hull of the boat though is relatively expensive to buy. The majority of these boats are made by hand by a dwindling number of master craftsmen who work without drawing and plans. Most of the hand-built boats are made with natural materials as well. The gaps between the planks for instance are typically treated with cotton thread soaked in the resin of the breadfruit tree. However, the high initial outlay of cash on making the boat is offset against the very low ongoing repair costs. There is nothing on these boats that, with basic tools and material, the boat owner can’t repair themselves which is handy if you live in a remote area and you have a small irregular income.

Longtail boats operate off most beaches in Koh Phangan. Because of the better road network on Koh Phangan there are few places on the island where you need to take a longtail boat because you can’t drive and it is too far to walk. Nonetheless, no visit to the islands is complete with taking a longtail trip. It is an exciting ride and an experience of Southern Thailand’s maritime culture and traditional craftsmanship.

Popular longtail trips around Koh Phangan include:

• Thong Nai Pan to Koh Ma
• Haad Rin to Haad Thien and Haad Yuan
• Bottle Beach to Than Sadet

Longtail drivers on Koh Phangan are mostly independent operators and something of a law unto themselves when it comes to pricing. You need to negotiate. As a guide you should never pay more than 1,500 THB for a trip except on the Full Moon Party Night or a journey across to Koh Samui.

The way to find a longtail is simply to go down to the beach and ask. On many beaches, including Thong Nai Pan Noi and Yai, there are one or more booths where drivers sit waiting for custom. At Haad Rin you are likely to be approached by a longtail driver offering you a trip to Haad Yuan. In Bottle Beach or Than Sadet you should ask at your resort.

One last word of advice: you will get wet getting on and off the boats and whilst you are going to your destination. Wear shorts and flip-flops. From October through to mid-December, and in stormy weather, you are ill advised to use longtail boats – on occasion they sink in rough seas.