Jan 12 2012
Peace and relaxation await you on any of Southeast Asia’s islands, but the boat ride to get there is often an unexpected dose of adventure. While many of the more popular islands rely mainly on large passenger speedboats and ferries for transport, many islands — such as Ko Libong, Ko Sukorn, Ko Adang, and Ko Bulon Lae — are still reached almost exclusively by longtail. In rough seas it can feel like a rollercoaster ride, and in calm conditions it’s a pleasure cruise. In any case, a long tail ride is always a thrill.
Known as reua hang yao in Thai, these wooden, banana-shaped boats have been used in Thailand for hundreds of years, with today’s versions usually featuring a diesel engine connected to a thin, lengthy rudder that resembles a long tail. These boats have proven to be agile and seaworthy vessels, perfect for shorter trips and shallow water. Before you get on board, however, it’s worth considering what you should not do while skipping the waves.
First off, do not wear shoes. Many of the islands lack proper piers, and longtails are built to slide up close enough to the beach that passengers can hop on and off, which usually entails wading through a bit of water. Wearing flip flops or sandals that can be readily taken off or submerged in water is a good idea.
If there’s some surf while getting on or off you could start out in ankle deep water, only to find a wave come in and soak you up to the thighs. Shorts rather than long pants are advisable, and you may even consider a bathing suit. Be prepared to hold your bags above the water while approaching a longtail, and when getting on and off at a pier take your time and make sure to have solid footing before stepping to and from the boat. You don’t want to end up as an addition to a longtail driver’s collection of rousing stories about tourists taking an unwanted dip.
So you’ve successfully waded through the surf or hopped from the pier; now that you’re on board it’s high and dry, right? Wrong; do not expect to stay dry on a longtail boat. If you get stuck in a bad seat during a ride in rough seas be prepared to get wet to the point of sitting in a decent downpour for a while, and even in calm seas the wake from a passing speed boat can slap you with a spray that can be an unwelcome wake up call.
For the driest seats look for a spot towards the back, away from the sides of the boat. If you get stuck at a seat towards the sides, especially on one of the front benches, be prepared for a shower. Although it may seem hard to believe, the platform at the very front is one of the driest places since this part of the boat cuts the ocean waves, sending the spray towards the boat’s middle section. Even if the seas are perfectly calm make sure to protect any non-waterproof electronics with some kind of rain cover. Aside from the wetness factor, longtail rides can be bumpy, so hold a camera at your own risk.
If chartering a private longtail for just one or two people, do not think it’s okay to stand up and move around the boat. This is particularly true in rougher seas. Longtails are not very big, and their weight is unequally oriented towards the back of the boat due to the heavy engine and driver. Often longtail drivers work in teams of two, with one handling the engine and steering in the back and the other lying at the very front of the boat to keep weight balanced. However, if you find yourself with a lone driver in rough seas it’s best to sit at the very front. This is not only good for the boat’s weight distribution but can also feel like a thrill ride as you bob up and down in the surf.
Finally, longtail drivers are often tried and true veterans of the sea, and they often feel that no storm is too treacherous for them. If you happen to approach the boat and see two-metre breaks out at sea with black storm clouds in the direction you’re heading, do not wait for someone else to tell you it might not be the safest trip. Wait a few hours — or a few days if necessary — to ensure that your longtail ride will be a safe one.
There’s nothing quite like a longtail boat ride, so follow these pointers, hop on, and enjoy the ride.
editor’s note Speaking from personal experience, getting on an overloaded longtail, in storm conditions, where the boatman is quite obviously stoned off his rocker, is not wise. If you do as I did, be prepared to swim home.
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