crossing the Thai border

From Bangkok to Penang by train (and minibus) – Part 2 – the experience

I wrote a blog a while ago about planning the trip from Bangkok to Penang by train. For more information, as mentioned in the blog, see The man in Seat 61.

Now it was time to do it. But with no planning. I flew in to Bangkok with no advanced planning and no bookings, and caught local public transport from the airport to the railway station. See a recent blog about this.

There were quite a few English-speaking staff around to help you – at first I imagined when I was accosted they’d try to sell me something, but they were just helping you with any information you might need.

I have been told you have to book a few days in advance for the train to Butterworth (the train terminus for Penang). Indeed, when I arrived at the train station they told me the train was fully booked.

ticket windows

It was 12:00, the train to Butterworth departs at 14:45. I then asked for a ticket for the next train to Hat Yai, from where I thought I might be able to board the aforementioned train if it was running late, or otherwise get a minibus to Penang. Train 35 to Butterworth is scheduled to leave at 14:45 and arrive in Hat Yai at 06:35, on the way to Butterworth; and Train 171 leaves at 13:00 and arrives in Hat Yai at 06:45, but then goes on to the south-east of Thailand.

I got a lower bunk in the air conditioned sleeper for about 845 baht. They didn’t accept cards so I had to pay cash.

my ticket

Bangkok Station is old and run down.

shopping area


I looked around a little and then decided I may as well just get on the train as it was sitting in the station.  I didn’t bother to buy any food or drink in advance, although it was available at the station.  I just wanted to take things as they came, and probably pay a bit more buying on the train, instead.

Finding the train, carriage and then the seat number was easy as everything was labelled.

my train

easy to understand

At 13:00, with no whistles or fanfare the train pulled out of the station.  Amazed it was punctual, I sat and watched the view – for 100m until it stopped and sat for a while. Then moved another 500m and stopped for a while. you got a nice view of urban blight alongside the line.

inside the carriage

The train continued along with occasional stops for an hour and a half, and one notices some modern new stations being built along the route.


Otherwise mostly urban blight.

And then finally we seem to be getting out of the city.


Sitting in the train seats is reasonably comfortable, but many people had their beds made up by the attendant quite early, and then either relaxed on the bed, or slept.

bed making

The lower bunk was then much better as you had a view.

easy to relax and look at the view

People walk through the train selling snacks, drinks – water (15 baht), beer (50 baht), or meals – egg, and beef (?) on rice. At some stations people also are selling things.  The first time I bought beer I was charged 75, and then the guy assumed he could keep the change and just walked away.  It also turned out he overcharged me, as I now know.

snack seller



As is predictable, the toilet is pretty disgusting. There are wash basins at the end of the carriage, which are OK.

wash basins

The train stops at some stations, and you never know for how long, or when the train is about to leave, so it is unwise to get off at all.

one of the stops

I didn’t see any mosquitoes, but I did get one bite.

nice view sometimes

We reached Hua Hin at 6:15. The attendant comes around and tells you just before you reach your stop. Otherwise, you have no idea where you are, or if the train is on time or running late. There are no announcements. When it gets dark you cannot read the signs at all at most stations.

At some stage I walked through the train.  It is kind of dangerous walking between the carriages, and sometimes the doors are open, so you want to keep a firm hold.  The second class air-conditioned sleeper carriage I was in was the last carriage.

non air-con sleeper

Next were second class non air-conditioned sleeper carriages, then a carriage of just seats,


and then the dining car.  I don’t know if there were any carriages further in front, as the dining car was my destination.  I thought it would be perhaps better to wait until the train stopped to move through to the dining car.

dining car

Following are some photos of the menu, but they are blurred as the train is not very stable or smooth.




I ordered chicken and cashews, and it was nice. The dining car was quite a pleasant place.

chicken and cashew nuts

By Surat Thani we were running one and 1 /4 hours late. On the platform I saw many foreigners sitting and waiting, although I have no idea why.

The train continued on through the night, and the attendant slept, and when it became light I was wondering how we were progressing.

early morning view

We arrived in Hat Yai around 8 am, one and 1 /4 hours late.

Hat Yai at last

Hat Yai


map of railways in southern Thailand

Hat Yai Station

outside station

I got off, but worked out I couldn’t continue on the Butterworth train, so decided to get a minibus.  A company across the road quoted me 550 baht to Penang, so as the normal fare is 300 baht I rang up another company and asked to catch their 9am service, and said I was at the station, and asked to be picked up – which they did at 9am.


We went back to the office to pay, and they wanted to see my passport.  Then we drove and picked up some others, and then headed south. Only the driver and front passenger had seat belts, so it wasn’t so safe. And the driver drove very fast.  At 10:40 we were at the Thai border, which wasn’t so crowded, and so were through in 15 minutes – leaving the luggage in the minibus, and just showing our passports and departure card.

Thai border

At the Malaysian border a few minutes later a lot of people were waiting, but we were processed fairly quickly. We had to also take our luggage and put it though one of those airport type scanners. By 11:30 we were on our way again.

approaching the Malaysian border

We were dropped at Komtar about 2:30 pm, for a total trip time from Hat Yai of 5 1/2 hours. We should have also had the option of alighting at Chulia Street, but the driver didn’t want to.

Overall, then, if I had the chance , I would book in advance for a lower berth in the train for the whole Bangkok – Butterworth trip.  It is safer, more comfortable, and easier.  Just don’t expect any alcohol to be served on the Malaysian side of the border.


Road trip to southern Thailand – driving one’s car from Penang to Songkhla – and parts north

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.

the route


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.

Leaving George Town by ferry

As you approach the border, pull over to buy the compulsory Thai third party insurance.

You can buy compulsory Thai car insurance here

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.

best selection of 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.

welcome to Thailand

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.

the road to 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.

next, Songkhla

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!


view from hotel window

mermaid at Songkhla

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.

hardware store

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.

ferry back to George Town