One of the iconic images of a beach holiday in Thailand is the longtail boat. Known in Thai as reua hang yao, the longtail boat can be seen throughout south-east Asia. In Thailand, longtail boats can be found plying the waterways of Bangkok or cutting through the Andaman Sea. Different styles of longtail boat are used depending on whether it is operating as a fishing vessel or a water-borne taxi service.
The longtail gets its name from the trailing drive shaft and propeller at the back of the boat. Traditionally, these boats were made from wood or bamboo but they are now also made from materials such as fibre-glass. The engines at the back of the boats are sometimes custom-made, but more often than not they are simply a converted car or truck diesel engine which makes them relatively cheap and easy to maintain. The boatman sits or stands at the back of the boat whilst the passengers sit in front of him on small wooden planks. An overhead canopy provides shade and shelter and some boats also have pull-down plastic canopies that cover the sides to protect passengers from spray or rain.
Depending on where you are in Thailand, the front of the boat will usually be decorated in some way. There may be some coloured scarves tied to the bow of the boat (often in red, white and blue; the colour of the Thai flag). You may also see garlands or flowers tied to the bow of the boat. These decorations may look pretty, but they are actually there to provide good luck and protection. The belief in spirits is a serious business in Thailand and the garlands or scarves at the front of the boat are in honour of the spirits of the water and Mae Yanang the spiritual goddess of journeys.
In some coastal resorts, the longtail is the easiest and quickest way to get around. They can be a lot of fun on a pleasant day with calm seas, but in choppy waters the ride can be a bit rough. If you are using any boat in Thailand it’s important to remember that Thai attitudes to safety might not match what you are used to in your home country. Try to make sure that your boat has sufficient life-jackets for the number of passengers on board. The cost of your journey will vary depending on where you are. Some routes will have set fares whilst others will be open to negotiation. In most cases it is possible to hire a longtail boat (with boatman) for a private half-day or full day tour.