Matt Smith

Long-tailed Boating

Life on Thailand's waterways

One of my most enjoyable purchases here in Thailand has been my long-tailed boat - ‘ruhr-harng-yao' in Thai, which means ‘vessel long-tail', and which by interpreting the term in relation to our own organisation of adjectives and nouns gives us exactly what it is. Mine is a typical fishing boat - it is manufactured from wood, it is about five metres long, and rather than having a car or bus motor affixed to the back, like the larger models, it has a 10 horsepower general-purpose motor to which the long-tail shaft and propeller has been bolted. There are, in my experience several advantages to purchasing such a boat (although I am ashamed to say that before I could use it properly I used to malign it, it being one of those things that there is somewhat of a trick to operating, and Western male culture being such an elephant on one's back) - once you do get used to it, it is in fact a very functional design (despite that it is really nothing more than a dug-out canoe onto which an engine has been affixed to save paddling, rather than something that has been specifically designed as a form of powered transport). It's pretty cool to enjoy something that is someone else's tradition, I like trying new stuff. People are less inclined to ‘borrow' it while I am not around, because it is just the same as their boats. It never breaks down, and is extraordinarily easy to repair, because as Myth-Busters never got around to showing, but I am sure they were always thinking of showing, single cylinder general-purpose agricultural motors are extraordinarily robust. And finally, but of course not least in this list of positive attributes, it is extraordinarily cheap - a brand new boat only costs 15 grand at most, and a motor and long-tail apparatus can be bought brand new, with a one year warranty, for just 7-8000 baht. On the down-side, you need to keep it where you use it, because it is way too heavy to cart about, and you can't let them dry out - there's only one place I want to use mine anyway, on the enormous lake near my home, and so for me this isn't by any means a worry.

Although I have, of course, in very utilitarian fashion, skipped over here what the real pleasure has been for me in buying my boat - said lake is a wonderful place to go. I live near Sirikit Dam, which I believe must be one of the larger lakes in Thailand, if not right up there in the global scheme of things - if you've only ever been there as a tourist, believe me you've not seen anything yet (because that's how I went there at first myself), eating lunch on a floating restaurant or being towed out to sing karaoke on a floating raft, while fun (once, sort of), are not by any means the greatest attractions. My wife and I, when we headed beyond the beaten track on our first voyage (fishing is like this, you have to get away to get them, I bought the boat because a motorbike expedition around the lake's circumference had shown the possibilities), were immediately taken - just around the corner, when you get beyond the beer bottles on the bottom and tangles of lines and forked sticks on the bank, there was on one side (I should be saying ‘to starboard', to keep with the theme of things) a much larger expanse of water than we had expected (a veritable inland sea, the opposite shores of which were only very distantly visible). On the other, there was an absolutely fascinating archipelago of islets. The water, beyond where human habitation has disturbed it, if the wind doesn't blow is crystal clear in Sirikit, quite clear enough to go snorkelling - when the wind does die off, and this is a very usual state of affairs, the water becomes oily smoothe, and as you head away from land one really does get the sensation that one is casting off for other climes. A veritable carpet of small fish and shrimps arises from the depths in the evenings, the former to gorge themselves on a kind of nocturnal insect, and here and there one can see truly massive leviathans either themselves taking advantage of the platter (small fish have big fish behind their backs to bite them, and so on), or simply wallowing about on the surface - beyond the village where I stash my boat, there are very few signs of human life to be observed, it really is quite a special experience.

Don't think either that seafaring, snorkelling and angling are the only pleasures to be had - in winter, or beginning about now, as the water drops in the lake (it is used to generate hydro-electricity, I did a teaching job at the plant once, that was very interesting), the lower slopes of the aforementioned islets are exposed, revealing a magnificent place to camp. That dreadful thorny bush that is the bane of fishermen in Thailand, or that springs up in no time on any exposed land near water, and that is so absolutely impenetrable and itchy (not to mention something that seems to have been specifically designed to catch your lure), is well put paid to by several months of submersion - the grass, furthermore, seems to be in a mid-way state of evolution between water-weed and grass proper, or after just a week or so, when the water does go down, far from being drowned comes back just as green and lush as ever. The islands look like coral atolls, crowned with a perfectly defined (at maximum water level) ‘top-knot' of larger trees and thicket - below this, there is what looks like nothing less than a beautifully manicured lawn of soft grass, which even for my wife makes camping the obvious choice of activities. Most of the islands are completely deserted, apart from the odd boat you won't see another soul - they are insect free, too, or at least annoying insect-free, which is another bonus in terms of getting my wife to accompany me - the ants don't venture below the ‘high tide' mark, or make their way down to the campsite, and so many fish and tiny bats live between the islands and the mainland that even the mosquitoes are loathe to venture out over the water (I have only been bitten by one in all the time I have spent out there camping, which is miraculous). It's definitely one of my favourite places in the world, when it is a beautiful Thai winter's day, with not a cloud in the sky and not a soul in sight (and when I am happily engaged in catching these giant jungle perch and snakeheads, and my wife is happily engaged in reading her book or knitting), it truly is a wonderful feeling.

Navigating a long-tailed boat, however, is not without its trials and tribulations, especially the first time you set forth - my first experience was a near disaster. I charged out onto the lake, somewhat tentatively I must admit, in this kind of cul-de-sac which is surrounded by floating restaurants, local residents' homes, and the entire fishing fleet - I turned on the motor, kicked it over, and lowered the long-tail into the water. Instead of going straight, like I expected (I didn't know then you have to get some speed happening before the bottom of the boat works like a keel), the boat immediately curved around towards the most crowded part of the port, and we started accelerating into a combination of boats, fish farms, homes and some very crowded restaurants - the more I pushed the motor the way you would expect it needed to be pushed, the more contrary the boat became in the direction it was taking. Never mind, I though, I'll just switch the motor off, we'll avert disaster with an oar, and I'll paddle out a bit further before I try again - to my great shock, when I touched the kill switch, it leapt plain off the motor and fell into the water. I didn't have time to extricate it via the wires it left behind before having a serious collision, my only recourse at that stage was to lift the propeller out of the water - we kept up our forward momentum, of course, and ploughed into some boats and a restaurant just at the same time as the now wildly accelerating motor (it sped up and became a heck of a lot more noisy when I lifted the propeller clear of the water) made sure that every head was turned towards me. I was trying to be really careful not to compound the damage by wrecking anyone's things with the propeller, which by now was dangling precariously in the air - in my eagerness to avoid this further liability, I nearly accidentally beheaded my wife, it drew a gasp, like you hear when a man puts his head in a crocodile's mouth, from all the restaurant onlookers. Fortunately, we finally came to rest, furthermore without having caused much real damage (a few scrapes of paint were exchanged between mine and other people's boats) - the Thai guys helped me get the kill switch out and turn the motor off, and once again everything returned to normal. To their great credit, they didn't shake their heads at me, or use my obvious inexperience as a chance to make out I was a fool (and thus, by association, that they were wise old champions, as the fishermen are inclined to do back home) - instead, they laughed and told me their own embarrassing stories of what happened the first time they took the helm of a long-tailed boat, Thai people really are often so very nice.

I'm a master seaman now, anyway, I definitely have the hang of it, I even just traded in my first boat for a brand spanker, ready for this winter - the days have cooled off here, the weather has become very clear, and best of all the fish are biting. I would say that I will see you out on the lake, this being the sort of jovial thing that these kinds of articles usually culminate with in fishing literature - except I won't, of course, or at least I don't expect to, people are scarce out on the parts of the lake I frequent in general, let alone in terms of the kind of people who might read this article. If things get too bad around here, in fact, I might have to go and hide out on the lake - while they seem a world away in my rural environment, it looks like things in Thailand are becoming very serious. Let's hope that things have a progressive outcome.


that the interpretation of the term in relation to our own organization of adjectives and nouns that gives us exactly what it is. Mine is a typical fishing boat.

By stephanielarry, California (24th September 2010)

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