A private longtail boat for hire between islands is 1200 baht.
It’s the most direct way to get where you’re going for the least amount of hassle.
You can take a speedboat or a ferry, but these things get a bit more complicated. The islands, which don’t even have streets or roads or motor vehicles, let alone a robust aquatic transportation system, rely heavily on weather; a storm can render the islands inaccessible – and un-leavable – for up to a week. In a land where 3-foot swells can seriously impact transport, you’re always at nature’s mercy.
You’re always at nature’s mercy anyway, but here there are fewer trappings to help you forget it.
I booked the speedboat. I’d seen them pull right up onto the sand in Koh Ngai (Koh Hai, or Nngg-Hai, if you get really good at it), and opted for that method of leaving for Koh Krahdan. Koh Ngai is the bigger of the two islands – fully two kilometers of lovely beach and water, resorts, longtails, relaxation, beach bars, and the friendliest people you’ll meet.
I thought I’d want to sleep in. This was also a mistake. The seas pick up the further in the day you go, and thirty minutes can make a huge difference.
Also, I was staying at a cheaper hotel, and this hotel didn’t have its own longtail; it had a tiny yellow-and-white power boat. The power boat would take me to the meeting point for the other boats. There, a longtail would take us to Koh Ma, a snorkeling island, because the surf was too high for the speedboat to come to Koh Ngai. I didn’t know this when I boarded the tiny yellow boat to go the 1.5 kilometers to the spot on the beach where the other long tails would meet. I know the swells were already significant enough that between me, the captain, and my suitcase, I wasn’t allowed to sit in the first two tiny rows closest to the prow because he was having difficulty navigating. Still, I got to the beach meeting point and thought nothing of it.
I hauled my suitcase and bag to the beach and waited with the other passengers. Still, when one of the employees frantically counted us, over, and over, and over again, I thought nothing of it. I had my ticket. I knew I had a spot reserved on the speedboat. And so I didn’t think much of it when someone grabbed my suitcase and put it in the prow of a longtail. I even didn’t think too much of it when I help my backpack high over my head, went into shoulder-high water, handed it to another passenger, and climbed the ladder to the boat in the bucking surf.
I did, however, think twice when I saw how low the boat was sitting in the water. And again when the guy who’d counted the people and hauled my suitcase told us, while still anchored, to put on our life vests. And I couldn’t help but notice that, every time anyone moved, or shifted, water flooded into the back of the boat. In fact, the back of the boat was by this point flush with the swelling sea. While I was not the only person at the back of the boat, I was the only person who seemed to notice this.
“Guys! Guys!” yelled the captain.
I’ve learned, since having been charged by elephants, that any time a Thai person shepherding tourists says “GUYS!” that shit is about to get real, since these are the only two times I’ve heard it.
“Guys, everyone put on your lifejackets!”
In a daze, I dutifully took a lifejacket from the side of the longtail and pulled it on. I paused. Every time the captain shifted his weight, more water flooded into the back of the boat, beginning to push above the secondary layer of slats covering the floor of the longtail. We crammed, sweaty and covered in saltwater, our luggage piled into the prow, in rows onto the thin wooden boards. Children were screaming, men gripped the board seats and tried to look calm. Women looked at men to determine whether they should worry. I made a decision.
Removing my lifejacket, I stood, more water pouring in, I turned to the mate and said “I’m getting off.” The ladder had already been removed, so I jumped over the side of the boat into the roiling surf and held on, tiptoes grazing the ocean floor, cheap waterproof lanyard case ripping at the connector and dropping my phone and passport back into the boat. I grabbed the case, and a kind Italian man handed me my backpack and flippers. I ran these items back to shore, part swimming, part kicking, until the water was shallow enough for me to get my legs under me. I dropped them on the beach and walked/swam back to the boat.
People on the boat had begun to eye me with interest. I yelled to the captain for my suitcase.
“Are you canceling your trip?”
“Yes! Yes. I want my suitcase. Yes. I’m canceling.”
A few moments, some shuffling, some yelling in Thai, the captain got out of the boat and went to another boat.
“One moment, one moment.”
More shuffling. Then he turns to the people on the boat.
“Ok, guys, we’re taking a different boat. You [pointing] – come.”
It’s very rude to point at someone in Thailand. It’s rare that a Thai person will do it. Apparently our captain, upon seeing my willingness to jump out of the boat and lose a whopping 350 baht, decided to commission a second longtail and split us up.
Still standing in the water at the first boat, I noticed a family; a mother, father, and two children, about two and three years old, the children in hysterics, the parents navigating how to get their children off the boat. European of a language I don’t speak, I looked at the mother, made eye contact, nodded, and help up my arms for her young son. She handed him to me and I lifted him high above my head, so his feet wouldn’t touch the water, bouncing him to shore. He cried, and screamed, and I turned him so he could see my face, smiling and saying “it’s a fun game! It’s a fun game.” Once we were in ankle-deep water, his father took the boy from me, too shaky to say anything.
I brought my backpack and flippers to the second boat, tossed them over the side and climbed in after them. Without prompting, I took a lifejacket from the side of the longtail and snapped it on, firmly. I was joined by an Italian family, four adults, and the family whose boy I had brought to shore. Our luggage was still on the first boat.
Once we were safely underway, the mother held her son, her body racked with sobs. She reached for my hand and gripped it, said “thank you”, holding her son, crying, holding onto my hand. Her son looked at me, panicked. I smiled and repeated that he was fine. I didn’t want him to see his mother upset.
Both boats met at Koh Ma, a snorkeling site, to rendezvous with the speedboat we had booked; the speedboat can’t approach the shore of Koh Ngai in high swells, which is what led us to the longtail debacle in the first place. When both boats made it to the rendezvous with the speed boat, the boat we’d left was sitting 2 feet lower in the water than the one to which we had transferred.
When it was time to transfer off the longtails to our respective boats, the Italians and I agreed that the family would go first.
“I bambini primi.”
Without ceremony, we were split up; my things were transferred to the speedboat and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the Italians or the family.
The speedboat brought us safely and swiftly to Koh Kradan, where I didn’t care that my cheap flippers didn’t make it, and I stepped to dry land with gratitude.
I may not have saved us from drowning… but I certainly believe I saved us from sinking. All because that boat captain didn’t want to spend 1200 baht on a second boat.
I didn’t notice until I was on dry land that I’d lost my Thunderdome hoodie.
Four days later, I had returned to Koh Ngai (insisting on a large ferry), and returned from my hike through the jungle across the top of the island. I passed a row of longtail boats, looking briefly into each, not even walking up to them, hoping against hope. A man saw me and made a gesture like he was pulling on a shirt, said “you?” and I said “yes!” He pointed me to the office, where they handed me my 2012 Thunderdome hoodie. It smelled like 5 days of seawater but felt like home. Though he was there, I did not make eye contact with the boat captain from The Incident.