For this latest Visa run, Carey and I decided to get a 60-day Tourist Visa, as opposed to the 30 day visa exempts + extensions that we’d been using thus far. Unfortunately, we left planning to the last minute, and when it came time to look at flights, all of the options were pretty damn pricey. I keep hearing that the best places to get a Thai visa are Penang and Vientiane, but flights from Chiang Mai to both these cities were at least $200 US. We looked at bus and train options, but neither of us loved the idea of spending 12 hours in a minivan to get to Vientiane, and a 2-day train ride down to Penang seemed equally unappealing. Instead, we decided to fly to Hat Yai, a Southern Thai city near the Malaysian border, as Air Asia was offering affordable $49 tickets for a one-way flight. I did some research and found that we could either take a minivan, train, or bus to make the 3-4 hour trip from Hat Yai to Penang, so we decided to take the plunge and do a second trip to Malaysia. Here’s how this visa run went down.
Flying to Hat Yai
Flights from Chiang Mai to Hat Yai leave at 6:45am or 7:45pm. We opted for the early morning flight, as we didn’t want to spend the night in Hat Yai. We arrived in Hat Yai at 8:30am, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. At the airport, there is a tourist agency that sells trips to Penang by mini van, but they charge 750B a head, which includes a taxi ride into Hat Yai city center and then transfer to your mini van. I knew we could get a better deal once we left the airport (Spoiler: we did!), so we purchased a taxi chit from the taxi stand outside of the arrivals gate for 320B (the fixed rate to getting to Hat Yai city center). We asked Information where we should get dropped off to buy minivan tickets, and they suggested the train station, as there were lots of tour agents scattered around. The cab ride was 20 minutes, and we were dropped off outside of Robinson’s department store, right across from Hat Yai train station.
Minivan to Penang
Right away we saw tourism offices, so we made our way from place to place until we found the best deal, which was 400B per ticket. Honestly, we were so tired from having not slept before our early morning flight that we didn’t feel like walking anymore, so we took the 400B tickets. I’ve read accounts of people paying 300B, so I’m sure it’s possible to find cheaper tickets with a little leg work. The train is an even cheaper option, but it won’t take you all the way to Penang. Instead, it goes as far down as Padang Besar, where you then have to transfer to a second train on to Butterworth, or take a bus. I’m usually keen to save money, but the thought of making multiple transfers after a 4am wake-up call wasn’t worth the 200 or so baht that we’d be saving.
The minivans to Penang depart at 9:30, 12:30 and 3:00pm, so we killed some time before our 12:00 bus by having lunch at a restaurant in the train station (which had a really good burger), and then went back to our tour agent. We were the first passengers to get picked up, which meant we got to choose our seats. You do not want to be the last people to be picked up, because it means you’re stuck with the shitty seats no one wants. If you’re unlucky, your mini van has been oversold and you’ll get to spend the ride wedged in between the driver and several other unlucky passengers, or worse yet, squished in beside the pile of luggage. Our van was pretty decent, with room for around 10-12 people, AC, and new upholstery.
Crossing the Border
After driving around Hat Yai picking up the rest of our van crew, we were off. About an hour and a half later, we made it to the Thai border, where we got off and were processed through immigration. This was really quick; we were ushered into a building where the staff checked our passports and stamped us out of Thailand. There’s a bathroom here, but it’s awkward to get through once you’ve already been processed, so better to go before you enter Thai immigration.
Then, we drove for another 5-10 minutes to the Malaysian checkpoint. This was also quick – fingerprint scan, stamp, and you’re done. The best reason to do a visa run to Malaysia is that there is no visa required for tourists – most country nationals get a free visa on arrival, so you don’t have to pay anything to get into the country. Outside of this checkpoint there are bathrooms available, but be warned: they are pretty gross and you have to bring your own toilet paper. We got back in the van and drove for another 3 hours until we crossed the Butterworth bridge into Penang. I have heard the horror stories regarding minivan accidents, and I’m extremely paranoid about road safety in general, but I have to say that the ride was totally fine. I thought this would be a shorter drive, but at almost 5 hours, it wasn’t too bad. I slept most of the way, and while leg room was limited, it wasn’t unbearable.
In Georgetown, Penang
Our driver dropped us off in Georgetown, outside of Prangin Shopping Center.I assumed that we would be dropped off at our hotel (based on accounts I read online), but apparently the driver wanted us to use one of his taxi driver friends to take us to our hotels. I tried to argue with him but he basically just scowled at me and drove away.His taxi friend was eager to get our fare, but I was annoyed by the situation (really, this kind of shit is common throughout SE Asia, but it’s the principle that bothers me), so Carey and I decided to walk to our hotel. After visiting the ATM to exchange some CAD and Baht into Malaysian Ringgits (there are a few ATM’s in the mall), we set off. We had no clue where we were heading, but asking around and showing the Google map screenshot of our hotel eventually got us there (the locals spoke very good English – better than most Thai people). It was actually only a 15 minute walk, and I’ll just point out that the taxi driver tried to charge us 30 Ringgits for what would have been a 4 minute ride). For 3 nights we stayed on one of the jettys in the SouthEast part of Georgetown. Our hotel was a heritage house on stilts that overlooked the sea. Because we arrived late on a Friday, we’d have to wait until Monday to make our visa arrangements, which meant we had the weekend to explore Georgetown and relax.
Georgetown is relatively quiet and peaceful, and pretty easy to navigate. There are a ton of restaurants here catering to every palate, and all of the other amenities you may need. Penang is a pretty big island and Georgetown is just one small area- if you have time, definitely hire a car or rent a motorbike to explore the beaches and national park on the northern and eastern parts of the island.
The Visa Application Process
Bright and early on Monday morning we took off to find Jim’s place so that we could submit our passports and visa applications. The wonderful thing about visa applications in Penang, is that you can use an agent to submit them on your behalf. For a small fee, the agent will help you fill out the paperwork, take the application to the Thai consulate to be processed, pick up your visa when it’s ready, and maybe even drop it off at your hotel. Not only is it super convenient, it may even be cheaper to use an agent, as depending on where you’re staying, the taxi one-way to the consulate can be more expensive than the agent fee. Also, I’ve heard that the immigration officers at the consulate prefer to deal with agents rather than directly with applicants, so there’s little chance that your application will be rejected (unless you’ve pulled some insane immigration fraud).
Most of the guesthouses and hostels on Chulia street (“Backpacker Street”) have visa agents that they can hook you up with, but we chose Jim’s because it came recommended on the Thaivisa forums (http://thaivisa.com/), and a quick Google search turned up a lot of positive reviews.
Jim’s is a small guesthouse on Chulia Street, but the colourful sign out front makes it easy to spot. We arrived at Jim’s at around 9am, and there was someone to greet us and start our paperwork for us. 10 minutes in, Jim himself showed up and took over. Now, back home if a stranger started asking you questions like, “where are you going later today?” or “how are you getting home?” you may find it a bit alarming and rude, but it’s all par for the course in SE Asia. As we sat filling out our paperwork, Jim fired off question after question, but it wasn’t just to be nosy – he wanted to make sure we had transport out of Penang and that we knew how to get around. Since we hadn’t booked our flight or bus ride yet, Jim told us that he could arrange a mini van back to Hat Yai for us for 300B, which was a pretty good deal. He also let us know what times the buses ran, how much a taxi would cost to our new hotel, and whether the islands off the coast of Penange were worth visiting (they were not).
What You Need
The application for a 60-day Tourist Visa is very standard. They ask you for personal details, address in Thailand, and that’s about it. We did not have to show proof of onward flight either in or out of Thailand, nor did we have to show bank statements or letters from a Thai guarantor. You need to have passport photos to submit along with the application, but if you don’t get them done ahead of time, you can easily have them taken in Georgetown. Obviously a valid passport is also required, and that’s really all it is to it! We paid 330R for our visas, which included Jim’s commission fee (each visa costs 150RM). Jim will also accept Thai baht as payment, as I’m sure some of the other agents do, but be warned that if you go to the consulate to apply in person, you will need to pay the fee in Ringgits. Your visa will be ready the following day, and you can pick it up any time after 2pm.
NOTE: They submit your passport with the application, as that’s where the Visa will be inserted. That means you will be without your passport for at least 1 day. If you are planning on checking into a hotel, renting a scooter, or need your passport as a form of I.D, get it photocopied before you give it to your agent.
We decided that we couldn’t take the lack of privacy in the jetty hotel for another night, so we booked our last two nights at a hotel in Tanjong Takong, right on the beach. As our passport was with the consulate, we were able to check in using photocopies that I ALWAYS travel with. As pleasant as Georgetown was, I much preferred staying on the beach, as the hotel was great, the views were awesome, and the landscape was more diverse further north.
Getting out of Penang
On our last day in Penang, we showed up to Jim’s at around 8:45am to pick up our new Thai visas and book transport back to Hat Yai.We thought we’d have plenty of time to catch the 9am minivan, but turns out I confused the times, and the van we wanted had already come and gone at 8:00am. Shit. Because we wanted to catch the 4:45pm flight from Hat Yai to Chiang Mai, we had to get to Hat Yai before 3pm. The next minivan would leave at noon, which would be too late for us. Instead, Jim advised us on an alternate route that would get us to the airport on time.
We took a cab from Jim’s place to the ferry docks (20 Ringgits, but I was too frazzled to haggle this down). We caught the ferry just as it was leaving, and it was free to board. Carey even scored a free coffee at the docks! The ferry ride took less than 20 minutes and gave us a nice view of Penang.
Once we docked on the other side, we asked one of the security guards where the train station was, and he pointed to the path that took us from the dock to the station. It was a 5 minute walk down a marked path that was easy to navigate. We were just in time to catch the 10:30am train from Butterworth to Padang Besar, which was the furthest north we could go on the Malaysian railway line. We paid 20 Ringgits for two tickets on an air-conditioned train that looked more like a subway. It was a comfortable 2-hour journey, and the scenery was pretty, particularly the big limestone cliffs closer to the border.
Padang Besar to Hat Yai
We got to Padang Besar at around 12:30pm, and were disappointed to learn that there were no trains or buses to Hat Yai until 3pm. We couldn’t wait that long, so we were forced to grab a cab. There are several milling around outside of the train station, so there’s no need to leave the area. At first, our driver told us he’d charge 1200B to drive us to Hat Yai, but this was way too much for us.
After chatting for a while, he finally understood that we were on a budget and could not afford to pay that much. He suggested driving us through the Thai border and dropping us off at the city marketplace, where we could hop on a mini van to Hat Yai for 50B. We agreed to pay 250B for this trip after a lot of back and forth negotiation. We made it through immigration without a hitch – we just had to get out and have our passports stamped when we got to the Thai border, and then drove for another 10 minutes to town (unfortunately, I have no idea what this place was called, but I suspect it was still a part of Padang Besar, but on the Thai side). We gave the driver 300B because we had no change, and he decided to take 50B as tip, because he drove away without trying to give us our change back. That’s all right, I kind of counted on that happening.
He dropped us off at what looked like a bus terminal where there were a bunch of minivans waiting. There was a lady sitting out front selling tickets, so we confirmed that the price was 50B each before we set off to find an ATM to take out more baht. As we were walking back, one of the minivans pulled up beside us and the driver told us to get in. It was full and on route to Hat Yai, so we didn’t think much of it and just got on. It was an extremely bumpy ride to Hat Yai, as we took a lot of unfinished back roads instead of a main highway. We stopped to pick up some other travelers at some point in the middle of nowhere – there was just one little shanty outside of what appeared to be dense jungle. Whatever. We got to Hat Yai at around 2:00pm, and were dropped off at the main bus station. The driver tried to charge us 100B each, but we told him the lady selling tickets told us 50B each, and he apologized and laughed it off, obviously caught in his scam. No hard feelings – just part of traveling in Thailand.
We negotiated 250B for the cab ride back to the airport, which was cheaper than the 320B we had paid from the airport to town. As soon as we got to the airport, we found an Air Asia counter and had no trouble buying our tickets back to Chiang Mai.
It was an exhausting day of travel, and we cut it a bit close at the end, but we ended up saving some money by not taking a minivan directly back to Hat Yai. I actually preferred the return journey, as we got to see a lot more of Northern Malaysia by taking the train, and I enjoyed passing through the small little towns and villages en route to Hat Yai.
Breakdown of Costs
Here’s a breakdown of our costs (excluding hotel and spending). It was pricier than I hoped it would be, but the convenience of flying down to the border was worth the price of airfare.
This was a smooth, hassle-free visa run in terms of getting the actual visa done. Using an agent was, in my opinion, well worth the small fee that we had to pay. Georgetown is a nice place to kick around for a couple of days while you wait for your visa to be processed, and there’s certainly enough to keep busy with. The downside is that accommodation is on the pricey side. Budget travelers can find cheap lodging on Chulia Street, but they are mostly dormitory-style or just really, really shitty single rooms. For flashpackers, which is what Carey and I fall into, there aren’t many mid-range options, as the cheapest hotels I could find hovered around the $40-$50 USD mark (which is more than we are used to paying for 2-3 star hotels). Of course, those with a larger budget will find many nice hotels, especially along the beaches.
I would do this route again (flying into Hat Yai), but I think next time I would prefer to take the train from Hat Yai to Padang Basar, and then switch lines to continue on the train up to Butterworth (from there it’s just a ferry ride to the island).