April 3rd, 2012 UPDATE
On Saturday March 31st, 2012 a bomb exploded in the centre of Hat Yai, killing several people, and injuring over 300, including many tourists. What I wrote below about safety seems now out of date. Further information.
The Thai border is only about two hours drive away, and the whole trip from Penang to Songkhla takes about four hours, excluding stops. When we decided to retire to Penang, we intended to make frequent trips to Thailand, which was another country we had considered retiring to. This way we could get the advantages of both countries.
Of course, one knows about the separatist movement in Southern Thailand, and how there is often violence, with innocent people, including tourists, being killed and injured. But that is on the eastern side of southern Thailand, in the far southern provinces (Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat). It seems perfectly safe crossing the border on the western side of Thailand, and continuing north to Songkhla.
This blog aims to explain the process, not our trip particularly, but, for ease of writing, I will sometimes use the first person. Malaysian immigration seems to change their procedure all the time, and I don’t know if Thailand does the same, so the procedure could vary somewhat.
Of course, once you have crossed the border you can head off to Krabi, Phuket, or Bangkok, or wherever you want to go.
We stayed in in the BP Samila Beach Hotel – look on Trip Advisor for reviews or to find where to make a booking before going.
Consider making the outward and inward trips on a weekday, avoiding Malaysian and Thai public holidays and school holidays. Unless you enjoy long queues and bigger chaos at the border.
You will need the car ownership documents for when you cross the border.
If you have a comprehensive car insurance policy, it’s advisable to arrange for cover in Thailand through your car insurance company. The employee you will talk to will probably say they don’t do it – you have to persist, because the major companies do, but it’s rare to do so, so the employees are unaware. In our case the minimum period of cover was one week, and the cost was about the same as the pro-rata cost of our Malaysian policy for a week – so about RM40.
And, um, don’t forget you passports.
We left about 7AM, and headed for the ferry terminal for the trip across to Butterworth. Of course, you can use the bridge too, but the ferry drops you a bit further north, and is more relaxing.
As you approach the border, pull over to buy the compulsory Thai third party insurance.
A little further on there is a big duty free shop. You can stop and buy your allowance. You may wish to bear in mind that you need to be out of Malaysia for three nights to be eligible to bring in duty free.
Then a little further on again is Malaysian immigration – you can stay in car and just hand over your passports. Whether you need to fill in a form or not depends on what the rule is that week.
Then proceed to Thailand and park in big car park you’ll find, and walk back to Immigration to get your Thai tourist visas.
Then, at a nearby counter show the Malaysian car document, the Thai insurance document, and your passport to get a document from the Thai government. Return to car and drive down a narrow lane, show the Thai govt document, and then drive off into Thailand. The road is diverted to the right, so take that, and then head straight towards Hat Yai.
There is a Tesco on the left as you enter Hat Yai, and this Tesco is better than any in Malaysia. There are ATM’s here where you can get some Thai money.
There are malls in Hat Yai if you wish to explore.
When you are ready, drive on through to Songkhla, following your GPS, map, or the signs.
If you didn’t dilly dally too much, you will be arriving early afternoon, and can relax on the beach or by the pool if you wish.
Enjoy Songkhla, if that was your destination!
On the return trip, there are many gardening centres on the left on the road from Songkhla to Hat Yai – you are not allowed to import plants into Malaysia, but pots, statues etc. are very good value. And after Hat Yai, on the way to the border, there is a big hardware store and later a furniture / sanitary goods store, again on the left side of the road.
In these stores there is a much bigger range than you can get in Malaysia. The prices are similar to Malaysia, so if it is available in Malaysia, you may as well get it in Malaysia.
There is no duty free shop on the Thai side before you enter Malaysia.
As you approach the border you need to go through the strange road diversion again. Then at the Thai side of the border it is chaos. There is nowhere to park, but you need to park. Alight from your car, and get your passports and the car document checked, and then drive through to Malaysian immigration, where you can stay in your car. Next you will be stopped by Customs. And a few kilometres down the road there is another spot where Customs stops some vehicles.
After this it is a couple of hours down the road to Penang.