Setting down a brush and a pot of thick epoxy glue, Bundit Kunpoh stops to adjust his red bandana. Despite the dappled shade provided by fronds of coconut and fan palm overhead, the heat is stifling. Seated astride the gunwale of his latest creation, the young boatbuilder wipes sweat from his eyes and lights a handmade cigarette. As the smoke curls into the still air, mosquitoes dance above a carpet of wood chips on the ground below.

Ban Pak Rha, the coastal village Bundit calls home, sits 30km southeast of Krabi Town, on southern Thailand's Andaman coast. This is long-tail boatbuilding country. Here, and in a cluster of villages nearby, small armies of men (and a few women) hammer, saw, drill, chisel, plane and brush as they build and rebuild an ever-changing flotilla of vessels.

Rua hang yao (literally "long-tailed boats") are Thailand's most distinctive form of waterborne transport. Somewhat grandiosely known as "the gondolas of the south" by many Thais, they come in various shapes and sizes, but are united by one common feature - a propeller attached to the end of a long pole, powered by an enormous engine (typically one that has been removed from a tractor or car). This "tail", which is raised and lowered at will by the boatman, propels the boat and acts as the steering mechanism.

As head of the Ban Pak Rha Community Centre for Boatbuilding, the business of long-tails takes up most of Bundit's life. Not that the 34-year-old is complaining.

"I started learning to make boats from my father when I was 10 years old," explains Bundit, who has a reputation for producing some of the finest long-tails in the Krabi region. "I took a bachelor's degree in community development in Phuket but decided I wanted to use the skills he gave me to keep the traditional boatbuilding industry alive. Seeing my finished work on the water makes me proud.

"Proud to be my father's son and proud to be Thai."

Long-tail boats can be found on many of the nation's waterways, from the floating markets and canals of Bangkok to the estuaries and deltas of the Gulf of Thailand. Yet the majority work in and around the resorts of Krabi and Phuket, where they play a major role ferrying tourists and supplies, as well as carrying fishermen to their daily fishing grounds.

"In and around Krabi, tourism and fishing are two industries which often intersect," says Chulabhong Srisawasdi, a Krabi-based maritime expert. "Using their long-tails, fishermen will often carry tourists out on fishing trips or between the mainland and various islands if they aren't catching much. And when they do have a good catch, the fish often end up on the table of the tourist. As a tool, the long-tail supports many local livelihoods."

With their narrow profile and negligible draft, long-tail boats are ideal for navigating the shallow bays, creeks, caves and passageways of Krabi's offshore environment, which is dominated by soaring peaks of karst limestone. Riding the waves at a top speed of about 15 knots, spewing a high rooster tail of water in their wake, they can carry up to 20 passengers. Never a luxurious mode of transport, they are nonetheless solid and seaworthy, and give a surprisingly smooth ride, even in rough weather.

For many tourists, their Andaman adventure starts aboard a long-tail. The main transit point for more than 130 nearby islands, Krabi Town's harbour invariably boasts a bustling collection of boats jostling for space as they arrive, unload, load and depart. Steadily giving way to faster boats for some longer journeys, long-tails remain the vehicle of choice for the tourist hot spots of Railay, Koh Hong and Koh Poda.

"Long-tails are cheap and cheerful," says Patty Pranee Suebsuk, a Krabi-based tour operator. "For most tourists, especially those not in a huge hurry and on lower budgets, they're the ideal way to get around. They are the lifeblood of the local transport network. Without these boats there wouldn't be much of a tourism industry in places like Railay, which can only be accessed by the sea."

THE DESIGN OF THE long-tail is firmly rooted in the past. Across Southeast Asia, traditional boatbuilding and sail technology can be traced back to the days when Arabian and Indian merchants would ply the region's coastal waters, calling in at islands and towns to restock, refit and seek out pearls and other valuable commodities to trade. These sturdy wooden craft were powered by lateen (triangular) sails, which took advantage of seasonal trade winds and aided manoeuvrability in shallow waters.

"Although long-tail boats are often referred to as 'Thai long-tails', variations on the basic design can still be found throughout Southeast Asia," says Chulabhong. "What they are, however, is typically Thai. Like floating markets and tuk-tuks, they are one of those iconic things which first spring to mind when you think of Thailand. A beach in Railay or Phuket just isn't the same without a long-tail on it, especially when silhouetted at sunset."

Relatively few technical innovations or advancements have been made to the long-tail over the centuries. Originally, all wooden parts were pinned together by dowels, forced into place and secured with glue. These were replaced by steel nails in the 1960s, making construction quicker and easier. Engines have replaced sails and tall oars as the main means of propulsion.

"The long-tail boats of today embody the Thai genius for improvisation," says Chulabhong. "With unlimited money you could obviously come up with something better, greener, more comfortable. But by using affordable materials on hand to constantly improve the design we have come up with a boat that meets everyone's needs."

Some enterprising long-tail fishermen recently took improvisation to a new level, creating seagoing cafe-cum-shops out of their boats and beaching them in tourist areas to serve up banana shakes, cold beer and Nutella pancakes.

"The idea behind these so-called sail 'n' shop boats was a good one," says Chulabhong, with a laugh. "Unfortunately the people who ran the marine national parks around Krabi were not amused and banned them. The '7-Eleven' fishermen have now gone back to fishing."

At the Ban Pak Rha centre, work begins on the yard's latest project - a long-tail that stretches nine metres from ornate bow to stern. Under the palm canopy a haphazard assortment of other boats lies at varying stages of repair, disrepair and completion, interspersed with piles of unused timber. In one corner sits a weatherworn long-tail with its bow completely shorn off - the result of a nocturnal collision with a fishing trawler.

Power tools have simplified the process, but all long-tails are still constructed from wood, by hand. Techniques continue to be handed down from father to son and each builder has his own distinctive style.

"I helped to build more than 100 long-tails over three years after the tsunami in 2004," says Scott Carter, a sailing enthusiast based in Maryland, in the United States. "Every single one came straight out of the head of a Thai builder. Not so much as a scrap of paper. It was pretty amazing to see."

Construction generally begins with the keel, followed by the bow, the stern and then the outer planking. The initial hull and framework of planking is held together by a temporary string and wire tourniquet, and wooden parts are gradually fixed in place with nails, nuts and bolts, and epoxy glue.

"This method of construction means the hull is quite round in shape," explains Carter. "While different builders use different techniques, it's common to add the 'ribs' of the boat last, which may seem counterintuitive, but obviously it works."

Long-tail boats are measured by length, which in turn is determined by the number of ribs, or kongs. A medium-sized boat of 20 kongs is about nine metres long and 2.5 metres wide, a larger boat of 25 kongs is three metres longer and half a metre wider. A boat such as this will take up to two months to build if worked on by three or four people.

Standard long-tails weigh in at just over two tonnes, depending on the wood used and the various structural components. Typically, boats have no decks other than a small foredeck below the bow.

"These boats are very overbuilt," says Carter. "In terms of structural soundness, they're like battleships."

The last step in construction is caulking, which makes the seams between the planks watertight.

"This is usually done by soaking cotton string in the resin of the breadfruit tree and then driving it into the seams," says Chulabhong. "The boat is then varnished or painted and it's ready to take to the water."

AS THE SUN SETS over the huge limestone cliffs of East Railay beach, igniting the sky in hues of red and gold, a succession of long-tail boats rocks in the surf. Seen from the side, their curved bows form an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of colour, as sashes and garlands of flowers swing in the gentle breeze.

In Thailand, especially in more remote fishing communities, a belief in the supernatural permeates almost every aspect of life. Most of the long-tails in Krabi have their prows adorned with coloured sashes and lotus flowers, with many boat owners changing the flowers and burning a few incense sticks every morning. While the combination of colours on each boat is the choice of the owner, the decoration is intended to pay respect to Mae Ya Nang, a female spirit said to live in the body of the boat.

"Thai fishermen call Mae Ya Nang the 'Grandmother of Boats'," says Chulabhong. "The flowers and sashes are intended to honour her. If respected, she will protect and bestow good luck on the boat, ensuring safe journeys and bountiful catches."

Many long-tail owners consider the prow of their vessel to be the Buddha's head. Blessed by Buddhist monks at the time of launch, this area is off-limits to everyone, including tourists stumbling in the surf. Should accidents or poor business persist, a more elaborate ceremony with another monk may be deemed necessary.

One of the main reasons for the popularity of long-tail boats in Thailand is that they are mainly powered by stripped down, second-hand agricultural and car engines.

"You can pay 500,000 baht [HK$120,000] for a brand new outboard engine these days," says Chulabhong. "A diesel engine used on a long-tail can cost 50,000 or less, while replacement parts are two a penny."

Positioned at the stern, engines are mounted on brackets that allow both vertical and horizontal movement. This means the boat can be steered port and starboard. It also means the engine can be raised and lowered so that the propeller can be lifted to avoid rocks, coral, nets, ropes and floating debris. Larger boats may have more than one engine and "tail", with operators piloting in tandem.

The advantage to locating the engine high and inside the boat is that it stays relatively dry while improvised configurations of pipes and hoses provide a constant supply of cooling seawater.

"Long-tail propulsion sounds and looks rudimentary," says Chulabhong. "However, it's not quite as basic as it seems. The positioning and design of the engine demands care and attention.

"Recent research has also shown that surface-piercing propellers such as those used on long-tails are actually more efficient than propellers that are completely submerged in water. They might look primitive but there is actually far more method than madness to these rigs."

One thing that nobody disputes is the physical strength and stamina it takes to operate a long-tail.

"Take one of these boats out on the water and you'll soon be exhausted," says Bundit, with a laugh. "Especially if you're manoeuvring a lot. You hardly ever see an overweight long-tail boat owner."

In the past, most long-tails were constructed using local timber. In 1989, following serious flooding in southern Thailand, however, the government banned the logging of natural forests. An increasing shortage of necessary hardwoods has forced the import of more expensive timber, which has led to a drastic decline in the number of new boats being made.

"Five years ago, a large long-tail from the yard would cost you about 200,000 baht," says Bundit. "Now the price is 400,000 baht. Most of this increase is down to the cost of the timber, which has to be imported from Malaysia or Myanmar. What this means is that more fishermen are looking to repair their boats or buy second-hand ones, rather than build from scratch."

"The lack of timber is the biggest problem facing Krabi's boatbuilding yards," adds Chulabhong. "In the old days, a boatbuilder would just go to the wood behind his house and chop down a tree. Now the wood has to come from the timber yard, or it comes illegally from a national park. There is still demand for boats - there just isn't enough wood."

The hardwoods of choice are merawan and meranti, which are known in Thai as ta-khian and payom. Both very dense and durable woods, they are incredibly resistant to marine corrosion. If cared for, long-tail boats made from merawan can last for 30 years or more, outlasting their engine three times over.

"In the past, merawan was exclusively reserved for boatbuilding," says Chulabhong. "Nobody was allowed to build a house from merawan. It was said that to chop down a merawan tree and make your house from it would enrage a female guardian spirit called Nang Ta-khian and this would bring bad luck or death. In reality, this story was spread so that the wood could be kept for making boats."

Many long-tail boat owners apply a mixture of bound broken shells and coral substrate to the hulls to protect against knocks and scratches. Well-maintained boats are recaulked every year, with coats of oil and varnish applied, and barnacles removed.

"In some of the older long-tail boats you see every wooden part has been replaced," says Chulabhong. "Piece by piece the boat has been renewed until, effectively, it is a new vessel. Of course, the owners still believe the spirit of the boat is the same as when it first came out of the yard."

SITTING IN A BAMBOO HUT at the Ban Pak Rha centre, Bundit gives a lesson in woodcraft to his younger sister and three cousins, all of whom are training to be builders.

"There is still interest in long-tail boatbuilding among young people here," says Bundit. "Apprenticeships last three to four years, but once you've mastered the skills you can be your own boss. A reliable and affordable supply of timber is all we need."

A growing number of people are starting to view long-tail boats and boatbuilding as an invaluable part of Thai culture. Representatives of the local government have been to visit Bundit's yard while there's talk of bringing paying tourists to Ban Pak Rha to see the village's master craftsmen at work.

"I really hope something can be done to help the boatbuilders of Krabi," says Chulabhong. "They're a tough and innovative breed, so if they can survive, I'm sure they will.

"The Andaman coast here wouldn't be the same without long-tails," continues the amiable septuagenarian. "These are Thailand's answer to the red double-decker buses of London or the yellow cabs of New York. They're noisy and a bit primitive, but they're also a colourful part of the landscape that people would really miss if they weren't there."

 

By the same author: The rewilding of Europe