Set your sights on Southeast Asia for your next getaway, and you’ll find yourself aboard some of the region’s coolest water-bound vehicles. These are the stories behind some of Asia’s most interesting traditional boats.
The visceral magic Asia comes down to one thing: juxtaposition. Travel in Asia a study of contrasts – old and new, fast and slow, chaotic and peaceful. One of the coolest ways to witness these cultural elements in action is with transportation in the region. While roads are now overtaken with cars and motorbikes rather than bicycles, Asia’s waterways are a different story.
Though land transportation in the region has changed with the times, boat travel remains mostly faithful to tradition. Superstition in maritime culture and the undeniable utility of traditional boat designs has had a profound effect on how people in Asia get around on water. The boats floating along rivers and waterways in Asia today are almost identical to those that did decades or even centuries ago.
From utilitarian to downright strange, traditional boats in Asia run the gamut. Keep your eyes peeled while traveling in Asia, and you’re likely to spot, or travel on, some of these iconic boats along the way.
Longtail Boat – Thailand
“Rua Hang Yao,” literally translated as “longtail boats”, are a ubiquitous component of Thailand’s waterways – and by many, considered to be a national symbol. From the floating markets and canals of Bangkok to the estuaries and deltas of southern Thailand, you’d be hard-pressed to find any significant waterway in the country that doesn’t host a collection of longtail boats. With their narrow profiles, they’re the ideal vessel for navigating Thailand’s winding waterways –and they don’t look too shabby, either!
Their exact form and function varies widely depending on where in Thailand you find them in. But what all of these boats have in common is a large exposed engine, a curiously long pole or “tail” tipped with a propeller and a tall, protruding prow adorned with flags and flowers. These are meant to ensure safe passage.
Unfortunately, rising timber costs mean longtail boats are gradually being replaced by faster and more spacious speed boats, so the next time you’re in Thailand be sure to take a ride on one of these iconic vessels before they disappear!
Jukung – Indonesia
While a myriad of boat designs can be found throughout the Indonesian Archipelago, “Jukungs” or “Outrigger Canoes” are easily the most pervasive. They also have the longest history of use in the country – it’s thought that the first permanent settlers to the archipelago arrived on these boats more than 5,000 years ago, and they’ve been in use ever since!
The success of this style of boat hinges on the four-pronged double outrigger, which stabilises the boat in rough seas without affecting draft and drag. The result is a highly stable vessel which requires minimal effort to propel – and it’s equally capable in both shallow reefs and open sea.
The style of boat is so practical for island life that variations of the design can be found throughout much of the Pacific – including Philippines, Polynesia, and the Hawaiian Islands. The archetypal Jakung found throughout Indonesia, however, is said to have originated in Bali, where you, as a traveller, might be able to see fishermen using them.
Basket Boats – Vietnam
When it comes to indigenous boats in Asia, the “oddball award” most definitely belongs to the basket boats – AKA thuyen thung – of central and southern Vietnam. Basically floating cups or bowls, these boats have no stern or bow and are famously tricky to propel. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re more likely to spin in circles rather than move in your intended direction. While they may look a bit unwieldy, there are inherent advantages of basket boats which keep them around.
First, they’re extremely cheap to make. Made almost entirely out of woven bamboo reeds, basket boats require almost no timber to construct, which also makes them extremely light and easy to move about. Plus, their design and flexibility makes them nearly impervious to sinking. They also have famously high load-bearing abilities and are extremely maneuverable – if you know how to operate them. For your own hands-on experience on how to do it, check out our basket boat crash course in Hoi An!
Royal Barge – Myanmar
All of the other boats on this list are staple forms of transportation. While the Royal Barge of Inle Lake isn’t exactly a staple form of transportation in itself, it is the ultimate embodiment of transportation in Inle Lake, Myanmar –which happens to have one of the most unique ways of getting around in the world.
Because of the tall reeds which surround it, navigating Inle Lake is difficult to do while seated. People in the area have adopted a rather unique style of boat rowing, which involves rowing with one leg while standing – a fascinating early-morning sight. This has the added advantage of freeing the hands, which makes other tasks, such as setting fishing nets, much easier. Nowadays, virtually all of the locals around Inle Lake get around this way -and it’s said to be the only place in the world where people do so!
If you want to see this unique style of rowing in spectacular form, time your visit to coincide with Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, between September and October on the Western calendar. During this time, a massive and ornately gilded barge manned by hundreds of leg-rowers parades around the lake with Buddhist relics for as long as 20 days!
Lepa Lepa – Malaysia
The waters between Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) and Philippines are home to one of the world’s most fascinating groups of people. The Bajau Laut, colloquially known as “sea gypsies,” are a nationless ethnic minority whose entire lives are spent at sea, only stepping on dry land to barter goods on occasion and to bury their dead.
Over generations, the Bajau adapted to their maritime environment in fascinating ways – like the shape of their eyes allowing them to see clearly underwater, and incredible diving abilities to 30 meters or more while fishing and hunting.
The cornerstone of the Bajau’s way of life is the lepa lepa, or “sea boat.” The lepa lepa is a narrow, high-prowed vessels, highly prized among the region’s coastal populations for its durability and sea-worthiness. Little more than 3 meters long and 2 meters wide, these boats are designed to endure months at sea and all of the unpredictability that one would expect from such an environment. Many Bajau continue to live almost exclusively on their lepa lepas, building small fires in sterns that are especially designed for this mode of inhabitation.
It can be tough for tourists to catch a glimpse of the lepa lepa in use, but once a year in April, there is a festival known as the Regatta Lepa in Semporna, Sabah. Here, the Bajau congregate en-masse to pay homage to their lepa vessels by decorating them and parading them through the area whilst dressed in traditional attire.
Angkor Gondolas – Cambodia
Though there is much more to see in Cambodia than Angkor, its usually first on the list of Cambodia’s tourists. Unsurprisingly, the most conspicuous vessels in Cambodia are the gondolas of Angkor.
Surrounding Angkor Wat is a massive moat measuring some 193 meters wide, forming a rectangle around the complex. Lining the moat are eager boatmen willing to paddle you around the temple complex in ornately decorated vessels that are modeled after boats depicted in carvings found around the ancient city.
There is a “Swan Boat” modeled after a boat depicted on the Angkor Wat temple wall, a “Commander Boat” modeled after one depicted on the Banteay Chhamar Temple wall, and a “Battle Boat” modeled after the one found on the Bayon Temple wall. Though not exactly a testament to modern Khmer culture, they are a fascinating look at how ancient Khmer locals might have gotten around on the water.
Bumboat – Singapore
Nobody should visit Singapore without taking a bumboat ride along the Singapore River – if for no other reason than to explore the futuristic metropolis of the country’s downtown area by water. The bumboats of Singapore pre-date the country’s existence as an independent state. They date back to the 18th Century, when they were used primarily as barges to transport parts to and from the vast boatyard of Boat Quay.
They have since been elegantly restored as passenger ferries and provide a surprisingly pleasant and efficient means of getting around the city. While a journey around the city by way of bumboat is great during the day, they’re best at night. When all of the city’s lights are lit, it is a simply magical experience.
If there’s one incredible way to experience Asia from a new perspective, it’s from the water. Our team can help you create an overland cruise journey!