Why it took us two days to travel from Thailand to Malaysia

If you have even a basic knowledge of Geography, you’ll know that Thailand and Malaysia are bordering countries. There is very little distance to travel between the two. In fact, it only takes one hour to fly between the two capital cities of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. So when I say that it took us two whole days to do that trip, given the fact that we did get on a plane, it must sound kind of bizarre.

The truth is, the reason that it took us two whole days to do this trip is because we are broke ass backpackers.

Sompet Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

We had been living in Chiang Mai, Thailand for nearly two months, meaning that the 60 day Thai visas that we had obtained in Laos were about to expire. We had to leave the country. The normal thing to do here is to take a trip to the nearby Laos or Burmese borders for a quick border run, however at the time Thailand only issued 15 day entries at land border crossings. We needed 30 days, and we also needed to be out of the country for a few more days to make that 30 day entry last until the date of our flight home from Bangkok.

I had several options worked out in my notebook which included trips back to Laos, Cambodia and even Burma, however our cheapest option turned out to be Malaysia. We would also get to visit a new country while making our visa run, so it worked out perfectly.

Now the smartest way to get to Malaysia from Chiang Mai would be to fly direct to Kuala Lumpur, or to Penang via Bangkok, both of which only take a couple of hours. The train line between Chiang Mai and Bangkok was closed for maintenance at the time, so this wasn’t an option.

Searching for a cheap flight, I hopped on the AirAsia site and something instantly caught my attention. They were having a special on flights from Chiang Mai to a city called Hat Yai in Thailand, and being a cheap ass backpacker who is always looking to save money, I decided to check it out.

It turned out that Hat Yai is a city in the very south of Thailand, right near the Malaysian border. I made the plan to fly to Hat Yai and stay the night, before taking a bus or train into Malaysia the following day.

And so our journey began.

Cafe in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Waiting to go to the airport in a cafe in Chiang Mai

After several hours of waiting for our flight to leave, we sadly said goodbye to our beloved Chiang Mai, our plane lifting off into the night. The flight to Hat Yai took about two hours, and by the time we went through the usual airport scenario, we stood outside the airport at about 9:30pm. It felt like the airport was basically shut for the night, and our search for a way to our hotel ended up with us sharing what seemed to be the one and only taxi in the city with who seemed to be the only other foreigner travelling to Hat Yai.

We stayed in the center of town, close to the train station so that we wouldn’t have far to go the next morning. The only impression that we could get from Hat Yai is that it is completely dead at night, and there are more giant rats roaming the streets than people. It was pretty eerie as we walked to the nearest 7 Eleven to get some snacks.

We got to bed by around 11:30pm and were up at 5:30 the next morning to get to the train station on time to catch the one and only train that goes to Malaysia. Luckily, the city was a bit more lively at this time of the day, and the walk to the train station was a lot more pleasant than the night before.

We were the only foreigners at the train station, but purchasing tickets wasn’t a problem. We even managed to get some curry and rice and a cup of coffee for breakfast from a very lovely lady at the train station’s cafeteria.

Waiting for the train in Hat Yai, Thailand

Waiting for the train at Hat Yai Train Station

Before long, the train, which had travelled all the way from Bangkok the night before, finally arrived at the station, and we were finally on our way to Malaysia.

The trip was a pleasant 6 hour journey through the countryside of Southern Thailand and Northern Malaysia, with one very easy immigration stop at the border. We didn’t even have to change trains.

Eventually, we arrived in the Malaysian city of Butterworth – the end of the line for trains from Thailand, and where we would be making the journey to Penang.

The only foreign exchange place that I could find in Butterworth was closed, so I had to instead go hunting for a bank with an ATM that I could use to get some Malaysian Ringit. When I finally had some money in my wallet, we walked on over to where the ferry leaves for the island of Penang, located across a small channel of ocean from Butterworth.

It didn’t take long to arrive in George Town at the northern end of the Island, and with tired legs and sore eyes, we travelled by local bus and by foot to arrive in Chinatown in the afternoon.

We had finally made it to Penang, after two full days of travel. Our journey was long and tiring, but it was also really interesting. We got to see a lot more than we would if we had just flown straight to Penang, and we had saved ourselves a lot of money in the process. I had received that dose of life that can only be had through slow travel. To a lot of people, that journey would have been hell. To me, it was exactly what I love to do.

Trishaw on Jalan Muntri in Chinatown, Penang

Our street in Chinatown, George Town, Penang

That night, we wandered the streets of Chinatown with that exciting feeling of being in a new place, in a new country. We had new food to try, new sights to see and a new culture to experience and learn about. No wonder I love travel so much. In that moment, I felt completely alive.

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8 comments… add one
  • I LOVE Georgetown in Malaysia! While we were there we rented a scooter and took a long drive around the island, which is really beautiful. And yes, the border crossing between Thailand and Malaysia is really stress free. Enjoy Malaysia!

    • Dean Wickham May 17, 2014

      Hi Allison. That is something I will have to do next time I visit. We stuck just to George Town on this visit as we only had a few days. Would love to see the rest of Penang. I love it there!

  • Rachel A Davis May 10, 2014

    This brought back memories, the eerily quiet Hat Yai sounds like the night we spent in Surat Thani to take the train south to Butterworth a few years ago. This April we took the train direct from Bangkok, it is a great way to travel to Malaysia and I’d much rather travel by this than fly. The ferry is such an easy transition to marvellous Penang too.

    I’ve been on so many trains in South East Asia and this one is excellent and the border crossing is by far and away the easiest of all land based border crossings. Certainly beats the interesting but lengthy and (dare I say it) farcical border crossing by train from Mongolia to China!

    • Dean Wickham May 17, 2014

      Hi Rachel. I’ve taken many trains in Southeast Asia as well, and the Thai trains are fantastic in my opinion. I agree, it is a great way to travel in the area. I’m glad the article brought back some memories for you 🙂

  • MACH May 11, 2014

    Fascinating story and great blow by blow account. Really enjoyed reading this.

  • Crazy 4 Rewards Sep 20, 2014

    I went to Thailand on August and I didn’t know that it was so close to Malaysia; in that trip I learned that the flights are a lot cheaper when you buy them through their websites. I met a guy that paid only $80 in Air Asia. Nice pictures!

    • Dean Wickham Oct 18, 2014

      That is one good thing about Asia. Once you are there it is so cheap to get around, even to other countries 🙂

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