Want to travel from Thailand to Malaysia? There are four ways to get from Thailand to Malaysia:
We wanted to go by rail as we had heard the journey was really good and worth doing, but in the end we opted for the 4th option – by road. In this comprehensive blog I’ll go through how to do each option.
A thing to note: Thailand Visa Exemption
We knew we wanted to head to Malaysia after traveling around Thailand and we had to figure out how to do this before arriving in Thailand. In Thailand you are supposed to show evidence of onward travel to qualify for a visa exemption.
The free visa exemption allows nationals from 55 countries to visit Thailand for 30 days without having to apply for a visa. The requirements are:
- Be a national from one of these countries
- Visiting Thailand for tourism only
- Be able to show evidence of onward travel (flight, overland or sea departure) within 30 days of your arrival
- Be able to show evidence of adequate finances for the duration of your stay (THB 20,000 per person or THB 40,000 per family – about £480 and £960 respectively). This is apparently in cash or travelers cheques but we were unwilling to carry this much on us so made sure we could show our bank balances online if asked
Find out more about all things Thailand visa related.
Limited number of visa exemptions
If travelling overland into Thailand you are only allowed two visa exemption entries per calendar year, or an unlimited amount if flying in (although we had read this has or will be limited to 6 per year). This is to limit foreigners doing visa runs. You can extend your visa exemption by 30 days at Thai immigration offices for THB 1,900 (about £46).
The UK Thai embassy website and a lot of websites out there say that overland visa exemption entries were only limited to 15 days. It’s actually not the case anymore – you get 30 days like everyone else.
If you want to stay longer or for reasons other than tourism, or do not qualify for a visa exemption you will need to apply for a visa. Read more on the various Thai visa types.
Faking an onward journey
We had hoped to sort out our onward travel to Malaysia once we were in Thailand because we knew we wanted to go to an island in the south, but we didn’t know which one or when we would be there from. We considered some of the “alternative” ways at demonstrating onward travel:
- Using websites to create fake flight ticket bookings. It’s unreliable, it doesn’t create an actual seat booking so won’t hold up to checking, and is probably illegal.
- You can also pay agents a small fee to book flights for you so it shows up on any flight manifesto checks, then cancel it once you are in Thailand.
We didn’t want to risk or pay for these kind of services. One legit way is to book a flight the day before you arrive, using Expedia.com (the USA website only!), which allows for free cancellations on some flights within 24 hours (if you so happened to change your mind on taking that flight). We decided in the end just to figure out a way to get to Malaysia and try and book it before we arrived in Thailand.
Typically in the end we didn’t need to show evidence of our onward travel or finances when we flew into Thailand from Vietnam, but it is worth having this just in case.
1. Getting from Thailand to Malaysia by air
When we were looking at flying (late Jan, early Feb), it was high season and flights were quite expensive and out of our budget for such a short journey. But if you are going in low season you can pick up flights from as low as £50 each – check out Skyscanner.
We wanted to go from somewhere in the south of Thailand to Penang in Malaysia so these flights are less frequent than Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur and therefore a bit more expensive.
2. Getting from Thailand to Malaysia by sea
If we had known in advance what island we were going to visit in Thailand then we could have booked a ferry ticket to Langkawi in Malaysia. We didn’t visit Langkawi but have heard good things (picturesque beaches, mountain rainforests and cool outdoor activities) and would consider going there when we go back to Malaysia.
We ended up staying on Koh Lanta, an island served by a ferry service to Langkawi so totally could have done this. Read this blog for more info on how to get from Koh Lanta to Langkawi (they also describe the return journey from Langkawi to Thailand as well).
3. Getting from Thailand to Malaysia by train
This was what we wanted to do, after a recommendation from a friend who had done the journey. You used to be able to get a train from Bangkok all the way through to Malaysia. However this is no longer possible and you need to change trains at the border. You can only book tickets online as far as Padang Besar on the Thai border, which is probably enough to meet the onward travel requirements of the visa exemption.
We also found out that you can pick up a train from Hat Yai in the south to Padang Besar, so thought of doing that and heading there after visiting an island. However you cannot book tickets online from Hat Yai, so this wasn’t really an option as we wouldn’t be able to show any onward travel evidence.
Step 1: Bangkok to Padang Besar
You can book tickets from Bangkok to Padang Besar:
But we didn’t fancy trekking all the way back up to Bangkok just to go back south into Malaysia.
If you are heading from Bangkok you will need to take a sleeper train from Hua Lamphong Station to Padang Besar. There is only one a day and it leaves at 15.10 and arrives the next morning at 08.53. It’ll cost THB 1,210 (about £29) on 12go.asia – you can get cheaper tickets at Hua Lamphong, with prices depending on whether you take a lower or upper bunk. But this isn’t helpful if you to show proof of onward travel before entering Thailand…
There is a buffet carriage and hawkers get on at most stops but you may want to still bring your own snacks and water. There are also fairly basic washroom facilities on each carriage.
Once at Pedang Besar you have to go through immigration, stamping out on the Thai side and in on the Malaysian side.
Step 2: Getting from Pedang Besar to Penang
From here you can get a KTM Kommuter train to Butterworth for Penang (you’ll have to wait for the 10.25am train) costing MYR 11.40 (about £2). If heading to Penang, you need to get off at Butterworth and then walk about 5 minutes, following the signs through the Penang Sentral Travel Hub to the pier for the ferry to Georgetown, Penang. The ferry costs MYR 1.20 (about 20p). They run from 05.20am to 00.10am and go every 20-30 minutes until 22.00 when they run hourly. They take 15-20 minutes to arrive at Georgetown (the Penang Jetty). You can catch the Rapid Penang buses from the jetty bus terminal to all over the island for very low fares. Check out the Butterworth to Georgetown ferry schedule.
Step 3: Getting from the Penang jetty to other parts of Penang
In Penang, we stayed in Teluk Bahang near the amazing National Park, the Escape water and adventure park and the Spice Garden. To get here, you take bus 101 to the end of the line from Terminal B at the jetty bus terminal for MYR 3.40 (about 65p), you need the EXACT change. You can also take this bus if you are staying in or around Batu Ferringhi for the beaches. Also from Terminal B you can get the Free Cat bus to the old part of Georgetown and the Komtar main bus terminal. See the bus routes and fares for Penang.
Getting to Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur or further South
Or you can head from Butterworth to Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur Sentral or further south on the ETS train. You’ll have to wait for the 11.15am train, which arrives at Ipoh at 14.14 and KL Sentral at 16.55 for MYR 50 and MYR 76 respectively (or about £9 and £14). You can book tickets on the Malaysian railway website.
4. Getting from Thailand to Malaysia by road
In the end the most feasible and affordable route to book in advance (so we could prove onward travel) was to get a minivan over the border. As we weren’t really sure where to go from we decided to go from the main transport hub in the south – Hat Yai. We booked a minivan with New Asian Travel departing from Hat Yai Nominatee Tour to the Komtar main bus terminal in Penang.
We booked through 12GoAsia:
It cost MYR 58.45 (about £11) per person including the 12go.asia fee. We didn’t need to book an extra seat for luggage as there was plenty of room.
We travelled from Koh Lanta in Thailand, and stayed one night in Hat Yai. Read about how we got from Koh Lanta to Hat Yai here.
Our advice: Get the earlier bus!
We would recommend going for the early departure at 9am, as we met people who had later departures that ended up being really late in arriving in Penang due to traffic and other issues. Also you arrive at 2pm, giving you plenty of time to get to your hotel if it is somewhere else on the island. This route goes over the bridge so you don’t need to wait for a ferry.
Hat Yai isn’t too bad
Hat Yai is usually just a ‘passing through’ destination, as it was for us, after we arrived the previous evening. There’s actually a few things to do here though (like the stainless steel temple of Phra Maha Chedi Tripob Trimongkol) and the night market is pretty decent too!
Arriving at the office to catch the bus
We arrived at the Nominatee Tour office 30 minutes before departure as instructed and needed to show our passports. It’s worth noting there aren’t any real food places nearby so make sure you pick up any food and drinks you need before arriving there. The minivan actually left early and then picked up a family from their hotel. I think you could arrange this hotel pickup and drop-off if you book directly, but this isn’t possible online.
An extra fee
There was something on the ticket about having to pay MYR 5 (about £1) each for “insurance” to cross the border. I had read this was a bit of a scam and addressed it up front, before the van company said anything about it, when we showed our passports. I said that we already had very comprehensive travel insurance and that we wouldn’t be needing their cover. The woman mumbled something about us not needing to pay it on this occasion. I’d recommend being confident and adamant that you don’t need it if they or the driver press you more on it (our driver never mentioned it at all). If you do get stuck with having to pay, it’s only £1 at the end of the day.
The journey across the border
It was a smooth drive and there was virtually no traffic on the way to the border. We actually got to the border quite fast, in about 1 hour 15 so there were no toilet or food breaks.
The van drops you and your luggage off outside the Thai immigration office and goes through its own immigration check. We picked up our stuff, finished off the last of our food (there are bins and signs advising you not to bring food across the border, as you would expect), found the toilets (to the left of the office before you enter) and then headed into the swish, modern building. There was only our van and a couple or bikers in the queue and so we got stamped out of Thailand within about 5 minutes.
You then head out the back of the office, where there are some food vendors (fruit, nuts and small bites as well as drinks) – pick up a quick snack if hungry, but remember you aren’t meant to take food through to Malaysia.
You then head into the Malaysian immigration office, right next door and go through the stamping in process. Again it was very quick and straightforward! As British nationals we are eligible for a visa exemption for stays of up to 90 days. Find out if you need a visa to enter Malaysia. Also, we were not asked to show evidence of onward travel, although we did have a flight booked to Sri Lanka so would have been fine.
After passing through immigration you take your bags over to the scanner, where they are scanned checked (kinda) by customs officials and then you walk out the back door and have officially arrived in Malaysia!
The whole process was one of the smoothest border crossings we have ever done and only took 15 minutes max.
We then all loaded our bags back on the van, got in and drove off. The driver was very good and we arrived on the outskirts of Georgetown, Penang in good time. We hit a bit of traffic but as it was early afternoon it wasn’t too bad.
Arriving in Georgetown, Penang
We arrived early at just after 1pm and were actually dropped off at the Komtar Mall, on the road that goes through the mall.
This is quite convenient as on the mall on the right hand side is a cash point and foreign exchange bureau that offered very good rates. All ATMs are free to use in Malaysia. In the mall on the left hand side (where the bakery is) are a lot of phone stalls where you can get a local sim card. There’s also some food places in the mall where you can pick up lunch – we went for Subway! Yes our first meal in Malaysia (which is renowned for amazing food) was Subway…
Getting a bus to other parts of Penang
Penang is an island and Georgetown is the main city there, but there are lots of other towns around Penang. In Penang, we stayed in Teluk Bahang near the National Park, the Escape water and adventure park and the Spice Garden
From where the phone stands are in the mall you can walk through the shopping mall, out the back entrance past the McDonald’s café and cross diagonally to get to the Komtar main bus terminal. We got the 101 bus from here (1st lane), which comes every 15-20 minutes, with the first one leaving just after 5.30am and the last one at just after midnight. The 101 bus can take you to the ferry terminal, the old town, Batu Ferringhi for the beaches and Teluk Bahang for the national park. For the airport you’ll need the 102 bus. You need the exact change or you end up paying a bit more than you need to.
Find out more details on the buses in Penang
Onwards from Penang to the rest of Malaysia
From Penang we then travelled on to the Cameron Highlands (Tanah Rata). We used 12GoAsia to book a minivan for this trip too.
Alternatively you could catch a bus to Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, even Singapore from Penang.