Most pictures of idyllic Thai beaches have a Longtail boat in them. I thought this was because they made a picturesque foreground. Turns out it’s because there are so many of them it’s impossible to get a shot without at least one in frame.
Longtails aren’t just for tourists, they are a real workhorse, ferrying tourists, cargo and locals wherever is needed. We got a number of long tail boats during our time in Thailand. On Phi Phi island longtails take you from the main pier to most of the hotels and guest houses. It is certainly nicer than most hotel shuttles, although with most shuttles you don’t have to wade through knee deep water to make it to reception. We also got a longtail out to the island from The Beach which you can read about here.
The boats are long and narrow, seating at most 4 across if they really try to squeeze you in (which is likely).
The distinguishing feature of the Longtail is the propeller mounted on a long shaft connected directly to an on board engine, which usually looks like it has been salvaged from a 1984 Toyota Corolla. The pilot has a rudder or often a steering wheel (presumably salvaged from the same 1984 Toyota Corolla), but the main steering comes from manovering the entire engine/propeller assembly. This makes the boats surprisingly manouverable. The moveable propeller also allows the captains to go over rocks or shallow sand bars, just by lifting the propeller out of the water, so they can get in and out of tight and shallow spaces.
When in heavy boat traffic all these propellers tilting around and dipping in and out of the water can be a but disconcerting, but everyone seems to know what they are doing. However, we did see one captain with some nasty scarring on his bicep we can only assume came from a wayward propeller.