Somdech’s Longtail

Yes, you must be wondering what’s all this about ‘Somdech’s Longtail’ so pardon the pun, but a ‘longtail’ is a boat, but we’ll come back to that later.

IMPORTANT: PLEASE READ THIS FULL POST – otherwise scroll down to disaster strikes!

Longtail boats on Phi Phi Island


Somdech making a fishing basket

Some of you will recognise our friend Somdech, he’s lived here on Phi Phi Island all of his life, and at 70 years of age he could run rings around most people in their early 20’s! he’s an extremely fit strong man, he works very long hours, from 4 in the morning till very late at night, 7 days a week fishing for his family on his longtail boat. Somdech is the grandfather of a very large family, in fact theres 25 family members in total. Can you see the large scar to the right of Somdech’s abdomen, this was from the terrible 2004 Tsunami where he was thrown upside down by one of the giant waves whilst he was still in his boat.



We first met Somdech 4 weeks after we arrived on the Island back in March, just as we began our 4 month Covid lockdown. Back then we were living from our tent on the beach next to the Sea Gypsies. Early one morning, Somdech was heading back to the Island on his longtail boat after fishing all night, he shouted over to our tent as he wanted to give us some fish.
Ever since that day, we have become very good friends with Somdech and his family, and help one another.

Language is a problem, as no one here speaks English, but we manage to get by with simple had hand gestures and sketches in the sand.

Somdech giving us the Barracuda when we first met

Somdech’s family is one of the many families we have been helping here on the Island, with food, medical and clothing parcels, and at times we are also able to give them money from some of the kind donations we receive, you can see our most recent aid, by watching the 2 short films below.

Short film showing us delivering food parcels around one of the small villages on Phi Phi Island
A short film showing our most recent gift day, where the local families were given meals and money
Fishing with Somdech

No matter what life throws at the people here on Phi Phi Island, for example, surviving the 2004 Tsunami where 4,000 people were killed, then fast forward to the current situation of the Covid-19 pandemic, where its left people with no work, and are therefore struggling terribly on a daily basis just for the simple necessities in life such as food, but don’t worry, because as tough as life is here, these people are masters of survival, and no matter what their situation is, they will survive, whats also incredible, is that they always have a smile on their faces and want to be your friend, or as they call it “Sharing Happiness”

One of the many Tsunami escape route signs on Phi Phi Island

Longtail Boats are an Icon of Thai Culture, they can be seen everywhere in Thailand, especially here in the south, the people decorate the fronts of their boats with colourful garlands made from flowers and ribbons, and although these decorations may look pretty, they are actually there to provide good luck and protection, as the belief in spirits is a serious business in Thailand, and the garlands or scarves at the front of the boat are in honour of the spirits of the water and Mae Yanang the spiritual goddess of journeys.

It is believed that every tree has a guardian spirit, who when the tree is cut down and built into a longtail, stays and lives in the body of the boat to protect it. This Guardian spiritual goddess of boats is called โ€œMae Ya Nangโ€, or the โ€˜Grandmother of Boatsโ€™, by many thai fishermen. The decorative sashes and flowers are gifts, intended to pay respect to, and honour the water spirits and Mae Ya Nang who then grants her protection, ensures safe passage, a propitious career, and a bountiful catch of fish.

This same area is also considered by many longtail owners to be the Buddhaโ€™s head and is blessed by Buddhist monks at the time of launch, so its important to be respectful of this belief system and aware that this area of the boat is considered sacred and is not to be touched by anyone.

Disaster Strikes!

It’s now the monsoon season in Thailand, and here on the Island we experience storms on a daily basis, which brings heavy rain and winds followed by thunder and lightning.

A few nights ago during one of the worst storms we’ve ever experienced here on the Island, Somdech’s longtail boat was struck by lightening, luckily he was not in the boat at the time, but its sadly destroyed half of his boat, as you can see from some of the photos below, half of the boat has been burnt to cinders.

Somdech’s longtail boat is his livelihood, and without it he cannot go fishing for his family and the people in the village, this is horrific.

We were supposed to be leaving Phi Phi Island in a few days as our time here in Thailand is sadly coming to an end, as the countries emergency Visa amnesty finishes in a few weeks, but due to this happening to Somdech’s boat, we have decided that we will somehow stay and help him rebuild his boat, and also help the families here on the Island, we really hope we are able to do this.

This will not be any easy task, as to rebuild the boat we need permission by the local police to go into the jungle and cut down some trees, so that we can produce timber planks to rebuild the boat.

Durning the fire, the boats engine and longtail was also destroyed.

So our work schedule is:
1. Remove all damaged timber from the boat and strip varnish from existing timber and sand.
2. Cut trees down in the jungle.
3. Split felled logs in jungle into planks of various widths.
4. Shape planks and main structure ribs.
5. Replace all the burnt wood on the boat, and prepare for finishing.
6. The boat will then need to be finished with many coats of marine grade varnish.
7. Install new engine.

The work has started

CLICK HERE to see the photos in the Jungle

All the above work is done by hand, and comes at a cost!

So one again we will soon be asking for peoples help, by means of another fundraising campaign.

We are going to film the whole process of the boat rebuild, from cutting trees in the jungle to watching the locals hand cut the logs and produce planks, and then you’ll see the skills that these local Island people have as they cut and shape the planks by hand as they rebuild the boat.
Maybe in return for such rare and interesting footage you would like to make a donation?

The complete film will only be made available to those who help by donating, we will write again soon with further details.

For now we are using the following link for people to donate DONATE HERE: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/helpingphipphi

So if you can please help by making a donation, please provide some details so that we can send you the film once complete.

We anticipate that the cost to rebuild the longtail boat will be approximately 40,000 baht (ยฃ1000 GBP) so here is the cheeky bit, we kindly ask that people donate at least 800 baht (ยฃ20 GBP) if possible in order to receive the film once its complete, its the only way we can try and achieve our target, but obviously we also appreciate any amount you can spare no matter how small, every penny counts, we hope you understand, and thank you.

DONATE HERE: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/helpingphipphi

In the meantime here’s a little bit more interesting information about the longtail boat.

History of the Long Tail Boat

The first use of the long-tail boat was documented when Southeast Asia was first visited by merchants from India and Arabia.

Somdech’s Longtail boat – Bamboo and Mosquito Island in the distance

Since these boats were much smaller than the regular ships brought by the traveling merchants, they were a more preferred mode of transportation along the regionโ€™s coastal waters and through the narrow waterways within the islands. In shallow waters, long-tails were known for their manoeuvrability and sturdiness, as they still are today.

Adopted and built by locals from around 1937 these traditional and distinctive boats are made entirely by hand, with techniques handed down in person from father to son, or apprentice.

Somdech’s Longtail on the beach where we were camped in March

What is a Thailand Long Tail Boat?

Long-tail boats have long been ingrained in Thailandโ€™s culture and history. Locally, theyโ€™re known as Rua Hang Yao, which is literally translated โ€œlong tail boatโ€. They can be seen in all waterways throughout Thailand, such as the waterways of Bangkok. However, theyโ€™re more common around the Southern islands of Phuket and Krabi.

Although these long tail boats vary in many ways, they can be recognized by one simple characteristic: their long tails! This is where the propeller is attached to the boat. The material used for the tail usually differs boat to boat, but many Thais use natural bamboo and recycled motors making the design eco-friendly and affordable. Boatmen use this long tail to steer the boat, allowing them to navigate the waters of Thailand safely and efficiently.

Longtail in shallow waters

The longtail boat captains are incredibly strong-armed men, they propel and steer the boat via a propeller fixed at the end of a distinctive 2 meter long pole, shaft or โ€œtailโ€ for which the boatsโ€™ name is derived. The diesel or gasoline engines at the back of the boats are converted car or truck engines making them relatively cheap and easy to maintain. The engine block and propeller shaft can be spun around 360 degrees to enable steering, making the boats incredibly manoeuvrable, with the bracket mount also allowing up and down movement.

Size of a Thailand Longtail Boat

Each boat varies slightly in shape and size, and since many boats are crafted personally by a builder, it means that thereโ€™s never a set size for these iconic Thai boats.

Usually though, they are grouped into three main sizes according to length. Small long-tails measure less than 9 meters (29 feet) in length. Medium-sized long-tails are about 9 meters long and 2.5 meters (7.5 feet) wide. Large ones are at least 12 meters (39 feet) long and 3 meters (9.8 feet) wide. Itโ€™s possible to have a long-tail boat that doesnโ€™t fit these parameters though, as these are just general measurements.

Plenty of room on the longtail
Returning home after a days fishing

Why Are Longtail Boats Popular in Thailand?


There are many reasons why long-tail boats are popular in Thailand, but one of the main reasons is the cost of building one. You donโ€™t need a lot of money to construct a long-tail boat, making it a preferable choice for many. Most of the materials used to build the boat are sourced from natural materials or are recycled from discarded ones.
The second reason is how easy they are to use. Thailand is well-known for its numerous canals and narrow bodies of water. Long-tail boats are easy to maneuver since the long tails themselves can be moved around than 180 degrees. Plus, in the case there is floating debris in the water, the long tail can be easily lifted out, saving the propeller from possible damage.
To say it simply, long-tail boats are long, sturdy, and cheap. This makes them a good way to traverse Thailandโ€™s waterways safely and quickly.

Old abandoned longtail on Phi Phi Island

Thanks for reading, we will update you more as things progress, in the meantime heres how you can donate: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/helpingphipphi

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