Dazzling images of the sleek wooden frame, draped in vibrant ribbons, dance in my travel dream mind. The Thailand long tail boat captures exotic imaginations posing on the shores of white sand beaches.

Thailand Long Tail Boat

The Thai boat, ‘ruea hang yao’, has long been a mode of water transportation in Southeast Asia. The narrow canoe-like hull, with its plank board seats, is utilized extensively today as a passenger carrier.

As far back as I can recall, the fantasy of drifting from one white sand beach of Thailand to the next, on a ‘gondola of the south’, has flitted about my mind.

Fantasy Meets Reality on a Thailand Long Tail Boat

Along with the boats in Thailand, rock climbing on the cliffs Railay Beach sits staunchly on my bucket list. With its overhanging limestone-pocketed cliff faces, this area of the Thai province of Krabi, serves as brochure material for Thailand tourism time and again. In my daydreams. the vision includes several long tail boats, with their ribbons blowing in the ocean breeze.

ribbons thailand longboat

Call me naive, as certainly I must be, I have never given much thought to how a Krabi island longboat moves in the water. Perhaps in my happy delusions I expect a gondolier will wave a magic paddle and cruise through the turquoise waters of the ocean on fairy dust.

The term long tail is a familiar one to me. For some backwards reason, I assume the tail refers to the wooden extension of the front of the boat. You know where all the pretty ribbons are tied to.

Like a puppy distracted by the movement of a squirrel, all I see in my happy Krabi boat dreams, are the graceful tassels waving in the wind.

boats in Thailand

Pardon me sir what is that thing on the back of your boat?

After years of yearning and planning, the day finally arrives. Although we have come to cycle in Southeast Asia, the longtail boat rides are first on my list. With glassy, you-finally-made-it-here eyes, I gaze upon the beautiful watercraft lined as if in conversation with each other.

The spell of a dream finally realized screeches to a halt, like monitor lizard claws on concrete.

Cramming into the the tailboat, with another dozen tourists, the driver pulls desperately at a cord attached to what looks like a motor. With a growling disposition he definitely won’t be singing any gondolier songs.

tourists in Thail boat

As the fumes of gasoline and clouds of exhaust envelope the wooden boat, I turn to my husband with confused eyes and scream over the roar.

“WHAT IS THAT?” 

“What is what?” He looks utterly confused.

“THAT THING!” I point at the belching engine, as if it a stowaway in my dream-come-true boat ride.

“It’s a motor.” He looks at me to see if I have been chugging Chang beer or developed delirium from sun stroke.

long tail motor Thailand

As it turns out, a second hand tractor or car engine, mounted on a pole of several meters, is the defining characteristic of a longtail boat. My engineer husband goes on to explain how the pole can swivel 180 degrees allowing for thrust vectoring.

“You see the motor is positioned directly on the driveshaft. The engine can swivel up and down so the boat driver can put it in neutral just by bringing the propeller out of the water.”

Well isn’t that fascinating, or disappointing, depending on your frame of mind.

And can I just ask why no photographs on websites ever show the back of a long tail boat with exhaust billowing across the pristine water?

Click on our time lapse video from Ao Nang beach, a Krabi tourism hot spot to see the long boats in action. 

Is it the end of long tail motor boat in Thailand?

As the rainbows of sashes and flower garlands wiggle in the tropical breeze, Thai long boat owners wonder at the future of their traditional mode of transportation. As the decorations pay respect to Mae Ya Nang, a female spirit said to live inside the boat, perhaps she will be of some help to the generations ahead.

Decorations on longtail boat

In decades past, local wood has been used to craft long-tails. In 1989, the Thai government banned logging of forests after serious flooding. With timber needing to be imported from Myanmar or Malaysia, the price of  the iconic Thailand long tail boat is out of reach from most.

On our trip to Thailand I take many photos of the boats that have filled my travel dreams for more than twenty years. I decide I like seeing them far more than riding in them.

So it goes with travel. The reality does not always fit the vision.

The iconic Thailand long boats have provided transportation for centuries. The boats of Thailand with long tail motor are beautiful to see. Click to learn what riding in a longboat is truly like. #Thailand #SoutheastAsia #Thailandbeaches #beach #longboats #travel #Thaiboat

Have you ever been surprised or disappointed in your travels?