Where Have all The Long Boats Gone?

By: Jill Powell

After an absence of 17 years I visited Bangkok and was excited to be staying at the Chatrium Riverside Bangkok. From my 1 Bedroom suite on the 31st floor I enjoyed a 180 degree view of the city of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River – a view, I believe, hard to beat.

From time long ago, I remembered the large cargo barges, lumbering up and down the river behind tiny tugs, but now the convoy seemed to have grown larger. Each group consisted of 3 to 5 barges. The tugs were around the same size.

I remembered the long boats plying their way between the barges and the ferries, up and down and back and forth, across the river – such an unforgettable sight. The noise of their engine is like no other – unmistaken above the tugs and ferries.

But where are all those long boats now? I believe that I counted 5 in a 5 night stay above the Chao Praya River – who knows if I counted the same one twice. The long boats were a major part of my Bangkok memories. The other belongs to the tuk tuks and the tuk-tuk traffic jams. “Nothing remains the same – never expect to recreate a memory”.

Fortunately, I found the long boats, both in Phi Phi Island and Krabi. I know that they are in other island locations but here in particular, they are a major part of the scenery and culture.

chapternews_clip_image002_0000On my first full day in Krabi, I hired a long boat by myself complete with handsome captain. Two hours cost 1700 Baht – no negotiation accepted. I waited out a passing storm which was not hard to do as they do not last long. As no decision was forthcoming from the 4 Spanish honeymoon couples ahead of me at the Long boat Reservation Booth, I decided to move on to the next long boat station along Ao Nang Beach – good choice.

There were no longboats ready to depart due to the morning storm, so as the storm eased up and the sun broke through the clouds, I was driven by tuk-tuk to the marina where my captain, maneuvered manually, my longboat to the shore. It did take some wading through thigh high water and then climbing a ladder to get into the boat.

The long boats come here for the night, they come for their repairs and unfortunately, they also come to die. I was so glad to have seen this marina – a twist of fortunate fate. The marina was home to hundreds of them, all with differently adorned bows and ribbons, scarfs and fabrics.

My captain dropped me at Phranang Cave Beach, with me again climbing up over the side and down the ladder into the thigh-deep water, to reach the shore.

When my long boat Captain told me to meet him on West Rai Leh Beach at a certain time, a short spasm of fear overtook me. Checking my map, I thought “What if there are so many long boats that I won’t be able to find him?” So I took a mental note and a Smartphone photograph of the long boat number and the cover of the awning. Fortunately my captain was also dressed in a one piece khaki jumpsuit – very different to all the other captains and mooring hands.

chapternews_clip_image002_0002After exploring Phranang Cave, watching the rock climbers ascend to precipitous heights, and just marvel at the “karsts” reaching upward in craggy formations, I followed the path to East Rai Leh Beach. Up the beach past the mangrove forests I went, finding around every turn another picturesque long boat attached to its tether. Different colors and styles of cloth draped from each boat. Some were carrying groups of 8 and some only 2. Some were empty with their customers ashore exploring, lazing on the beaches or sipping coffee in the quaint cafes.

Eventually, locating the path from East Rai Leh to West Rai Leh I followed it through mud and slush, forests and around cliffs (even spotting a sugar monkey holding a tiny baby with a crop of jet black hair sitting atop a post and making all the passersby exclaim with glee.)

On West Rai Leh I found my captain sitting on a stone wall amongst a dozen or so other captains and mooring hands. He stood out from the others in his one-piece jumpsuit. “Ready to go?” he called. I smiled, nodded and waved to all the others. It was a wonderful 2 hours. I had found my longboats, more than I expected, I had visited the longboat marina which many folks do not get to do, chartered my own with a handsome captain, and seen the caves and “karsts” of Krabi.

5:10pm The mist is moving in now from the horizon and it is slowly engulfing Poda Island, Yawasam and Chicken Islands. Still, the long boats are returning – hurry home before you too are swallowed up in the mist. The islands turn rather eerie as they gradually disappear into the grey of the late afternoon sky.

chapternews_clip_image002_0001The mist has turned to a light sprinkling of rain. My Asian bench mates have gone on. The green of the Andaman Sea is now a milky green. And there goes Poda Island, swallowed up by what is now rain in the distance and closing in. An island outline, and then nothing, gone!  As the light fades to night over Ao Nang Beach, the last long boat returns to the marina. Lightning has struck and the ensuing thunder is rolling. A lone swimmer returns to the unusually shaded pink sands – very finely chopped coral – similar to Mykonos in Greece, but thousands of miles away.

The rain has set in and I must go. Poda Island has gone and the “karst” is now being swallowed up at The Last Café between Ao Nang and Rai Leh. The Holiday Inn Deluxe Room with plunge pool is awaiting me across the road. A lovely meal, a glass of wine, and then packing for the long journey home tomorrow.