All About Long Tail Boats: Riding the Andaman Sea

They’re quintessentially Thai, a symbol of the Land of Smiles. If you’re visiting anywhere on the coast of Thailand or the islands you’ll quickly come across them. What are they, how are they designed and how can you use them? Get everything you could possibly want to learn about long tail boats with your quick guide.

The classic Thai long tail boat is the most traditional of Thai water transport. Similar to the land dwelling Tuk-Tuk, the long tail is the image of Thailand for the sea. Unlike the gondolas of Venice, Thai long tails are still used regularly by the local population as cargo, fishing and transport vessels, as well as the classic tourist trips.

Long Tail Boats in All Shapes and Sizes

Whilst they all look like much of a muchness to the untrained eye, they can vary slightly in shape and size. Usually they are simply wider or longer. Each boat has a regular set up though. They are wide but shallow, with flat hulls designed to be able to beach onto the shoreline. Their wideness and high front section enable the vessels to cope with rough seas, especially during an atypical Thai monsoon season.

The name “long tail” comes from its distinctive propeller system. The long shaft protrudes from the rear of the boat like a tail! The entire engine block is mounted on a special steering system that allows the shaft to spin 360 degrees, as well as up and down for extra speed control.

all about long tail boats backpacker guide

How about long tail boat designs?

As time has marched on, changes in the long tail design have been few and far between. The system of joining the long, tailored planks has moved on from wooden doweling to metal nails, engines are used instead of oars, and that’s about it. As for the wood itself, taxes and restrictions on logging have meant builders have had to settle for more expensive, imported wood which has increased the longtails’ overall price.

The actual design for a long tail boat is unavailable in paper form. In fact, every design is passed on from generation to generation through hands on experience. The plans? Kept in their heads ready to pass on. The major variations lie in the decoration. Each captain has a different preference. They choose bright colors that are intended as respectful to water spirits as well as beautifully decorative. The very front of the bow is usually festooned with colorful fabrics and lotus flowers. This Buddhist ritual brings good fortune and pays respect to the gods.

Taking to the Seas

Jumping into a long tail boat will usually start on the beach and involve you getting slightly wet. They don’t typically get right up on dry land for boarding, so you’ll likely have to wade through water a little. Fingers crossed the waters are calm and the waves don’t take you up off your feet. Have your flip flops in hand and a sarong to dry off. Keep those electronics and valuables up high, preferably in a dry bag!

Climbing over the side is the usual way to get into the boat as it sits lowest at this point. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a ladder to help you in, otherwise grab hold and pull yourself in! The boat will rock heavily side to side, thankfully other passengers can balance out the boat by sitting on the other side.

Don’t expect there to be a lengthy safety announcement! The attitude is pretty laissez-faire when it comes to health and safety so you might get a life jacket, you might not. Depending on if you’re comfortable with that depends on if you’ll be happy to get on board!

history of Thai long tail boats

Tips for Your First Long Tail Boat Ride

Be wary of the sun. These boats don’t have a huge amount of shelter. Make sure you’ve got plenty of sun cream, a hat and sunglasses. This isn’t unusual advice… if you’re in Thailand you’ll have all of these things. Just don’t forget them!