The long tail boat is the aquatic equivalent of attaching a rocket to the back of a bicycle. It’s a hacked-together masterpiece of engineering, a pile of discarded materials and wood made seaworthy.
The seats are boards painted bright primary colors — blue, yellow, green, red — seemingly at random. The seats boards fit into slots, making them easily removable should the boat need to carry cargo, such as fish or drinking water.
At the front of the boat is a tall red prow that divides the horizon into port and starboard. It’s wrapped in brightly-colored strips of fabric that dance in the wind. The fabric honors the female spirit of the boat and the many spirits of the sea, bringing luck and warding against the engine dying far out at sea.
The boat is powered by a recycled engine that was torn from an old Chevrolet or Volkswagen. The engine is mounted naked and raw on the stern of the boat, sitting on a gimbal that allows it to rotate and tilt. Emerging forward is a lever with the throttle, and thrusting out from the backside is a 20-foot long driveshaft ending in a propeller. There are bottles containing fuel and motor oil hanging off the side of the engine, sustaining IV drips for an elderly patient.
By tilting and pivoting the engine, the driver can navigate the boat through waterways both deep and shallow. Strategically placed rebar diverts rope and other marine debris away from the prop, and the boat is essentially being pushed along by a Chevy V6 immersion blender. The engine roars and the propeller shoots up a rooster tail of frothy seawater. We rocket across Phang Nga Bay.
The Bay is a starkly beautiful area of limestone islands rising hundreds of feet vertically from the sea. Greenery clings to the sides of the cliffs and the tops of the mountains, creating a landscape that evokes asian watercolor paintings.
Our first stop is “James Bond Island” (more properly called “Ko Tapu” or “Spike Island”), which got its name after it was featured in the 1974 film “The Man With The Golden Gun“. The island is a popular tourist stop. While we’re there, Dan got a phone call and was able to say “Me? I’m hanging out at Francisco Scaramanga’s place. What about you?”
An hour later and we’re motoring up to Ko Panyi, where an Indonesian muslim community that has grown as a village built on stilts over the water. The village was originally settled in the late 18th century by two families, and now consists of 360 families of 1,685 people. The primary industry is fishing, though the village does get some money from tourism during the non-rainy season.
The primary path through the village is a concrete walkway, but all of the side streets are built of boards and small tree trunks roped together. As you walk along, the sea sloshes beneath you. Vendors sell food and jewelry along the main path, and day-to-day life occurs along the side paths, with people sleeping and mending nets in the mid-day heat.
At one end of town is a school where children play soccer on an elevated concrete ‘field’. The sides of the field are guarded by nets. I watch as one boy kicks the ball high enough to clear the net and into the sea below. He laughs, strips down to his underwear and then dives 30′ into the bay. He retrieves the ball and climbs a long ladder back to the schoolyard. After tossing the ball back to his classmates, he carefully dries off with a towel tied to the top of the ladder and then puts his school uniform back on.
There is a new soccer pitch that has been built by the village in the previous year. It floats on the surface of the bay, and has no protective sides. When there is a game here, three boys are always in the water, waiting to return stray balls to the players.
Our long tail boat takes us back to the mainland and I recline in the seat, nearly asleep from the heat and the rocking of the waves. The boat makes its own breeze, and I look forward at the prow as we motor through this rich landscape. I think about my life back in the States, about my day-to-day stresses, about my complete lack of mid-day naps, and I think about the boys bobbing in the sea, treading water, waiting for a bad kick. And then I stop thinking, and simply watch the water, and the mountains, until my eyes close.
Absolutely don’t miss…
Easy Day Thailand
Offers both group and private tours of Phang Nga Bay, as well as many other tours in Thailand. Their web site is worth browsing just for ideas.
Offers private car service and tours around Phuket Island. Petch, the head of the company, is charming.
Restaurant Royale Nam Tok
A very under-the-radar restaurant run by a gay couple who left their Michelin-star restaurant in Belgium to move to Thailand. They now run a 6-seat restaurant in their home featuring Thai-French fusion food and a wonderful, whimsical atmosphere. Not recommended for those who don’t have a sense of humor, but everyone else will enjoy a wonderful evening here. About $100 per person at the time of this writing with drinks.