Penang Visa Run from Hat Yai
C e n t r a l- -F e s t i v a l
When Central Festival - the largest shopping mall in southern Thailand - opened in Hat Yai at the end of 2013 it completely transformed the face of shopping, eating and entertainment in the town. Many visitors to Hat Yai now come specifically to visit Central Festival.
Check out my comprehensive floor-by-floor guide to Central Festival in Hat Yai to find out exactly what's there.
What Is A Visa Run?
Visitors who plan to stay in Thailand for 30 days or less don't normally need to worry about visas. Nationals from many countries will be given a 30 day stamp at the border on arrival by Thai Immigration and that's it.
However, if you intend staying for longer - for whatever reason - you will need some kind of a tourist or non-immigrant visa. These are only issued outside of Thailand so it is necessary to visit a Thai Embassy or Consulate in another country.
Chulia Street, Georgetown, Penang
For foreigners in the north of Thailand it is more convenient to go to somewhere like Vientiane in Laos or Phnom Penh in Cambodia, but for those in the south an easier trip is probably to the island of Penang in Malaysia where there is a Thai Consulate.
Hat Yai is the main transport hub in the deep south of Thailand and as a result many expats in southern Thailand come to Hat Yai in order to travel to Penang for a new visa.
I have made several trips down to Penang from Hat Yai and this page will tell you a little about the experience.
Transportation from Hat Yai to Penang
There are basically four options:
- Minivan - this is the most common method and any travel agent in Hat Yai will be able to arrange a minivan for you. The fare is Bt200 and the journey time is about four-and-a-half hours. Typical departure times are 9am, noon and 3pm.
The fare is cheap so the vans need to be completely full to make it worth their while. More often than not they will drive round for half an hour picking up passengers to fill every seat. The seats are quite cramped and if you can't stretch out your legs it can get very uncomfortable.
Depending on the route they take, you will either go over the causeway or board the car ferry to get to Penang from the mainland. You will be dropped off somewhere in Georgetown, Penang's small capital.
- Train - two trains leave Hat Yai for Butterworth every day. See my Hat Yai Transport Page 2 for more details. Butterworth is the closest place on the mainland to Penang. The journey time is longer than by minivan and you will have to make your own way to Penang. I haven't taken the train myself but would expect it to be more relaxed and comfortable than the minivans.
- Share taxi - these are typically big, old Mercedes with Nissan engines. My experience of share taxis is quite limited. I have only taken one once from Satun to Hat Yai. Despite the cars being old they are fairly comfortable and journey times are quick.
They work out more expensive than minivans and the price you pay depends on how many passengers. I believe that a share taxi to Penang with four passengers is between Bt400 and Bt500 per person.
- Drive yourself. One account I found online was of a guy who had taken his motorbike down to Penang. It sounded like a fairly big bike and I expect it was quite comfortable. On my last visa run I saw a farang heading back to Thailand on a Honda Dream in the rain. This didn't strike me as being such a good idea.
On all of my visa runs to Penang I have stayed one night after travelling and then submitted my visa the following morning.
Immigration and Customs
When leaving Thailand by road everyone stops at Thai Immigration for an exit stamp and then drives across the border to Malaysian Immigration and Customs. It is necessary to take all of your luggage with you to go through Malaysian Customs.
It used to be a requirement that an immigration card needed to be filled out. On my last trip to Penang in September 2014 I was delighted to discover that they have done away with this requirement. It saves a lot of time and messing about not having to do it.
Because I haven't travelled across the border by train I'm not sure what the procedure is but presumably it is similar to travelling by road.
Arriving in Penang
As stated previously, the minivans (and probably the share taxis too) drop you off somewhere in Georgetown. The drivers are normally quite helpful taking you where you want to go - if you know where you want to go.
Georgetown is small so even if you aren't where you need to be you can walk or get a taxi which won't cost much.
Mosque in Georgetown, Penang
There are lots of ATMs around that accept cards with the Cirrus or Maestro sign. Alternatively, all around the backpacker area there are many money changers who will give you Ringgits for whatever currency you are carrying.
Minivan drivers always seem to take passengers to the same place in Chulia Street to change money so I guess they have a financial incentive to do so. This is also the same place where taxi drivers take people if they want a minivan back to Thailand.
There is a vast range of accommodation in Georgetown. At the bottom end are backpacker guest houses around Chulia Street and Love Lane offering rooms for RM15 or dormitory beds for RM7.
Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Georgetown, Penang
One such place is '75 Travellers Lodge' located at 75 Lebuh Muntri in Georgetown. Tel. 604-262 3378 and Fax 604-263 3378.
At the top end is the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, a magnificent colonial style hotel which has three bedroom suites with sea views for RM5,000 a night. The room rates start at RM320 which might seem expensive but it's all relative.
The Eastern and Oriental is probably one of the top hotels in Southeast Asia and it is cheaper to stay at than a very ordinary hotel in the UK.
On my first trip to Singapore in 1990 I really wanted to visit Raffles Hotel. It's an enormous tourist cliche, but I wanted to go to Raffles and order a Singapore Gin Sling. I was desperately disappointed to discover that the hotel was closed for two years for a huge renovation and I couldn't have my Gin Sling.
Several years later I did visit Raffles and, once again, I was desperately disappointed. The hotel was open, but the Singapore Gin Slings were premixed and enormously expensive (as is everything else in Singapore). It was just a big tourist trap.
When I discovered the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Georgetown it was what I had hoped Raffles would have been, but wasn't. It's a great place.
Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Georgetown, Penang
In between the two extremes there are plenty of hotel and guest house options at all prices. It's a personal choice. Many backpackers and budget travellers want to spend as little as possible. I have tried to save money on accommodation in Malaysia before and have been uncomfortable almost to the point of making myself physically ill.
Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Georgetown, Penang
It's a personal choice that also depends on your budget but I like to stay somewhere that at least comes close to the levels of comfort and hygiene I am used to. I have stayed at the Cititel a couple of times and also at the Gurney Resort Hotel & Residence.
Cathay hotel in Georgetown, Penang
Some of Penang's magnificent old mansions have been turned into cheap hotels and guesthouses. They are interesting buildings with large, high-ceilinged rooms. Some are not the cleanest places you will find but they are OK if a little basic.
Some even have 'Health Clubs' but you'll be disappointed if you were expecting exercise machines and free weights. There aren't any. 'Health Club' is the local euphemism for a brothel.
Minivan drivers will often try to get you to stay at a certain place because it is either their own business, or it is owned by a friend, or because they get a commission for finding guests.
Cititel hotel in Georgetown, Penang
I normally just walk into hotels and get the walk-in rate but on my June 2005 trip I used a travel agent to book me into the Cititel. The main reason for this was that the minivan had dropped me off at the shopping area and not in the vicinity of the Cititel.
She span me some yarn about the hotel adding various taxes if I booked directly but if I booked through her agency those taxes wouldn't be applied. When I got to the hotel I discovered that the walk-in rate was RM35 cheaper. However, that rate didn't include breakfast which was included in my rate.
I use Agoda to book my hotels in Southeast Asia. They have a huge list of hotels on their inventory, their prices are competitive, and I can trust them.
Lying and Cheating
I have met some very kind and helpful people in Penang but everyone involved in the Thai visa industry seems to be out to cheat people. We are not talking large amounts of money but they are all looking to make a few more Ringgits than the going rate.
Because of the way they operate they will lie about things. On one trip the van driver told me there were no ATMs in the area and convinced me the only way I could get money was from a money changer (who he probably had a business connection with). This wasn't true and I guess he probably got some commission from the money changer. The same guy lied about accommodation options in Penang in order to try to get me into his guesthouse which was a real flea pit.
Thailand has a big reputation for tourist scams, but many other countries are just as bad, if not worse.
Probably the worst place I have ever visited for getting hassled is Egypt but after that it is Georgetown, Penang. There are beggars everywhere and they aren't passive like the people begging in Thailand. The trishaw riders, when they aren't sleeping, hassle everyone to take them on rides around the city.
It's non-stop. As you ignore one trishaw rider and walk past, the next guy does exactly the same thing. They are relentless. I try to ignore them but after a while I normally find myself getting quite angry.
Another annoyance are the guys on visa runs who have been in Thailand for 40 years and 'know everything', except they know nothing. But enough said.
It appears that the inhabitants of Penang are a little different to those in the rest of Malaysia. Maybe it's because Penang is an island separated from the mainland?
The taxi drivers are defiant (similar to Thais) and the last time I was there they were all on strike. All I wanted to do was go to collect my passport from the Thai Embassy but I couldn't get a taxi.
Street scene in Georgetown, Penang
The Malaysian government had introduced a law making it mandatory for taxi drivers to use meters. (I wish the Thai government would do this for the whole country and not just Bangkok). However, the taxi drivers didn't like this idea and staged a revolt.
Meters are normally a better deal for passengers but not such a good deal for taxi drivers. I haven't been back since that trip so don't know who eventually won the battle. If it was the drivers, then you will still need to negotiate taxi fares before making your journey.
Georgetown is a fascinating little place. I imagine that many years ago Singapore probably looked a little like Georgetown does today before the old buildings were demolished and new ones built to replace them as Singapore made its way into the First World. I really enjoy seeing old buildings and the old way of life.
Remnants of Penang's colonial past
My father did his national service in Malaya in the late 50's during the Malayan Emergency and Penang was an R&R location for the British servicemen. I am quite sure that much of the city hasn't changed much since then and there are probably still a few old Chinese cobblers still repairing shoes who repaired shoes for British soldiers during that period.
Georgetown has loads of character and there is a very interesting mix of cultures. As it was a British colony there are still strong British influences. Many street names are British, English is spoken quite widely (albeit not very well), and there is a bit more respect for traffic laws etc. than you will find in Thailand.
Classic British King Edward VII Pillar Box
The city is very Chinese but there is a large Indian presence. The Indian area is very colourful and there are some great Indian restaurants. With no good Indian food in Hat Yai, one of the things I like best about trips to Penang is being able to get a good curry.
The downside about Georgetown is that in certain places it is disgusting. On one trip I took my Thai girlfriend and she was quite surprised how filthy it was. She is used to seeing Malaysians in Thailand every weekend who throw their money around because Malaysia is a 'rich' country supposedly, so why was the country so dirty? It puzzled her.
Old buildings in Georgetown in serious need of repair
There are areas that can only be described as a pigsty or a toilet. I wasn't sure which until on my one trip I saw something I had never seen before; only heard about.
I have never been to India, but I have spoken to people who have been and they describe how Indians will drop their trousers in the street to defecate and think nothing of it.
On one occasion, as I was walking around Georgetown, I looked down a side road and saw an Indian guy squatting down with his trousers around his thighs taking a dump in a storm drain. I was completely lost for words and quickly abandoned my plans to have a Lamb Rogan Josh for lunch.
There seems to be a lack of toilet etiquette in Georgetown
Some of the old buildings in Georgetown are very interesting and it's good that they haven't been demolished. When Lee Kuan Yew started the process of modernising Singapore a lot of the old buildings were simply bulldozed.
Had this continued, Singapore would have been left without any architectural heritage, but the demolition stopped in time for many of the old shophouses to be saved and restored.
This needs to happen in Georgetown, but it needs to be done soon because many are literally crumbling apart.
I have to admit to not having seen a great deal of Penang apart from Georgetown. Being an island in a tropical area it has beaches but they aren't the best you will find in Southeast Asia. Some parts of the island are very industrial and there is a lot of industry and commerce.
Fishing on the Penang coast
I have taken three excursions to Penang Hill. It's quite high with pleasant cool breezes and there is an impressive funicular railway to get people to the top. The wildlife includes lots of monkeys and a fair few reptiles.
The view from atop Penang Hill on the funicular railway
At the top of the hill is a restaurant and if you sit outside you will notice vines above your head. If you look very closely at the vines you will see several green vipers coiled in the vines. They are quite difficult to spot and people probably sit there drinking coffee with no idea that there are snakes three feet above their heads.
Things To Do
There is a lot to do in Penang if you are only there for a few days. Around Georgetown there are lots of old buildings to look at. You can walk around randomly or follow the heritage trail. The trail is signposted around the streets, and maps are available at travel agencies and in hotels.
Captain Francis Light
Fort Cornwallis is a pleasant setting but there isn't a great deal to see and when I tried to speak to the guide about post-WWII events in Malaysia he wasn't very knowledgeable. The entrance fee is RM3. It was built by early British colonialists under the guidance of Francis Light.
There is a good museum in a building that used to be a school. It shows the life of people from different cultures who have lived on Penang over the years and I think it is worth a look. One item I found of particular interest was the last will and testament of Francis Light. He had many slaves in his possession and it explains clearly in his will what should happen to them after his death.
Rickshaws outside the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Georgetown is definitely worth a visit. It is located in Leith Street in front of the Cathay Hotel and behind the Malaysia Hotel. Cheong Fatt Tze was a very successful and wealthy Penang resident from China. He owned several houses in various Asian countries and had seven wives.
The house in Penang was his favourite apparently. A gathering of Feng Shui masters met there and concluded that the design was Feng Shui perfect. This is the real Feng Shui and not simply putting a jar of crystals in the corner of the room.
Each day there are two guided tours. I'm not sure how many guides there are but my guide, Joanne, was a very charming and knowledgeable lady. She has studied Feng Shui herself and pointed out a lot of interesting details in the house.
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
The house design incorporates floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent and cast iron work from Glasgow. It mixes Chinese design with Art Nouveau, and Feng Shui rules are observed throughout. The end result is a pleasing amalgam of pleasing aesthetics and a calm, relaxing living space.
In 1990 the run-down mansion was acquired by private developers and renovated. Great pains have been taken to renovate it properly. Paint and plaster were analysed and recreated to maintain the original materials, and original workmanship methods were used.
Specialist craftsmen from all over the world were involved and some were very old as the skills they have are gradually dying out. The renovation approach was only to renovate what needed renovating and to not to touch anything that was OK. Bad housekeeping over the years had actually helped. Layers of dirt and grime had protected paint and gold leaf.
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
The renovation took a long time as a result of this attention to detail but the final result is impressive, and it earned the mansion a UNESCO winner's award for conservation and a national architecture award for conservation. Tours cost RM10 starting at 11am and 3pm and last about an hour. Photography is not allowed inside the house without prior permission.
It is possible to stay in the house, in which case guests can take photographs. There are 16 very comfortable rooms and rates start at RM250. The address is 14 Leith Street, 10200 Penang, Malaysia. Tel. 04 262 0006. Fax. 04 262 5289. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and the web site is Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
Here lies a certain irony. Many Malaysians, including lots from Penang, flock to Hat Yai every week to do many things, one of which is to shop. Malaysians like shopping in Hat Yai apparently but I think it is pretty awful.
Clothes market in Georgetown, Penang
Hat Yai has little that I want to buy and most things I'm interested in acquiring need to be ordered from Bangkok. Penang, on the other hand, does have things I am interested in buying. On my June 2005 trip I bought a flash unit for my camera which I had been told was unavailable in Thailand. It was a fair price and came with an international warranty.
Experience has taught me that buying cheap rubbish is a false economy. I therefore try to buy the best I can afford. For camera and computer equipment Penang is far better than provincial Thailand although it is probably not as good as Bangkok.
Fruit and vegetables for sale in Georgetown, Penang
I came across something I haven't experienced before in Penang which was very welcome but took me a little by surprise. When I offered my credit card to pay for the flash unit it was necessary to key in my credit card PIN number.
I have twice been a victim of credit card fraud and on both occasions it happened just after purchasing flights on Thai Airways in Thailand. Sorting out the problems afterwards was a lot of hassle so any measure to help prevent fraud in the future can only be a good thing.
Fortunately I knew my credit card PIN number as previously I needed to withdraw cash on it after my ATM card expired. However, had it not been for that I wouldn't have known what it was. If you go to Penang and plan to use a credit card make sure you know the PIN.
The Thai Consulate
The Consulate is located in a very plush area surrounded by beautiful homes about a 15 minute drive from central Georgetown. The taxi fare is RM10. Visas can be applied for between 9am and noon and collected the next day between 2pm and 4pm. That's the official version.
There are ways to speed up the process if you are in a hurry but you first need to locate the right people. You basically need to find someone who has an appropriate contact within the Consulate and for a fee you can circumvent the published times.
If for example you arrive late but still want to submit your application or if you want to get your visa on the same day it may be possible with a little luck and a surplus of Ringgits. Bear in mind that this is not official.
It's a busy place and the Consulate must receive a fortune in visa fees. I suspect that I and many other farangs living in Thailand pay far more to the Thai government in visa and work permit fees than most Thais pay in taxes. Never mind, we are generally a lot better off financially than most Thais and we enjoy living in their country so it's a privilege we should pay for.
I believe that Thai public holidays are observed at the Thai Consulate so it's probably a good thing to check first otherwise you will need to stay an extra day in Penang. At certain times of the year, April and May particularly, there are an awful lot of Thai public holidays.
In Penang there are a lot of individuals billing themselves as visa agents. They hang around Chulia Street where the cheap guest houses are located. Often, cheap guest houses and travel agents offer an in-house visa agent service. The idea is that people on a visa run arrive from Thailand with all the necessary paperwork, photos and money and hand everything to the visa agent. Most visa agents have been providing this service for years and know the ropes.
They vet the application to see if it is OK. As they do this every day, they should be completely up to date with current Thai visa requirements which change continuously. They then submit the application and collect the passports the following day.
The visa agents charge a small fee but this is offset by the fact that people don't need to pay for taxi fares to the Thai Consulate. And because the agents deal with the Thai Consulate every day, they have a relationship with the staff which can help to 'oil the wheels' of the visa application process.
On the negative side, you are expected to just hand over your passport - which is a very valuable document - to a perfect stranger.
The visa agents themselves can be a bit tedious. What has happened to me on two occasions is that I have been approached casually by visa agents. They ask what I am doing in Penang and I tell them I am there to get a new Thai visa. They then explain that they can do it for me and I tell them I would rather do it myself.
They then explain how I can save 10 or 20 Ringgits on taxi fares by letting them take my passport but I really don't care about saving 10 or 20 Ringgits. After telling them no they go into a big sulk and look all hurt, accusing me of not trusting them. They then start going on about how sometimes in life you have to trust people.
After this exact same thing happened the second time it start to sound quite boring. I guess that if they can get a pile of visa applications it must be quite a lucrative business as they still only have to make two trips to the Consulate.
If you go to the Consulate yourself to collect your visa there will be a group of local Chinese Malaysians who will ignore the queue and go straight to the window. These are the visa agents. Because they are locals, foreigners waiting in line don't say anything but all they are doing is queue jumping. Because they do the same thing every day they forego common courtesies such as standing in line.
My dealings with so-called visa agents have never been very pleasant but some people swear by them. To their credit I have never heard of anything bad happening. People who use their services always seem to get just what they expect, and their passport comes back the next day with a new visa.
Perhaps they are right, perhaps I should put more trust in people? It just happens that I feel more comfortable doing this kind of thing myself.
There is a book shop in Chulia Street running a visa agent service that many people use. The e-mail address is email@example.com
Returning to Thailand
On visa collection day there are two things on my mind. The first is to get to the Thai Consulate just before 2pm when it opens to get my passport. The next is to get back to Thailand as soon as possible. If you tell your taxi driver at the Consulate to take you to a minivan service going back to Thailand they inevitably go to the same place on Chulia Street, which is the same place they take you if you need to change money. I can't recall the name of the place but the owners must obviously be paying the drivers.
On the way back there is a rest stop and at this place is a facility whereby you give them your passport and they print out a Thai immigration form with all your details. It costs a Ringgit but saves a bit of time and hassle. The service seems to be free for Malaysians.
There is a stop at the Malaysian border for exit stamps which is quite fast and then the van goes into Thailand. Thai immigration is generally slower and they study passports and visas quite carefully. On one trip the guy wasn't at all happy with an Ecuadorian national living in Malaysia trying to get into Thailand. He was led into the office to have an interview with the big boss.
On early trips my van driver used either the first road bridge or the ferry to get from the mainland to Penang. On a trip in October 2014 I went across the second road bridge, which had only been opened earlier that year.
At 15 miles in length - 10.5 of those miles being over water - it is an impressive piece of engineering.
Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge, Penang
You cross the Thailand/Malaysia border at Dannok and then take the road through Sadao to Hat Yai. It's weird after being in Malaysia for a few days. There are motorbikes everywhere with three, four or five people on board and very few crash helmets.
As you drive along there are motorbikes passing in the opposite direction on both sides of the road. The Thais just use the hard shoulder if they want to drive along a road the wrong way. It's lunacy, but it's Thailand.
As you look out of the minivan windown at the antics of the Thais, big smiles are returned if they catch you looking. It's a great feeling to see four girls on a motorbike and to see them all smile simultaneously as they see you peering out from inside the van.
It's always good to be back in Thailand. There isn't another country on earth quite like it. Utterly crazy but totally addictive.
Get The Best Deal On Your Penang Hotel Room
Listed opposite are some suggestions for hotels in Penang based on budget. Each link will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels. Every time I research hotel prices the Agoda price is always the lowest and I have received good customer service so I am happy to recommend the company to other people.
If you don't wish to pay for your hotel at the time of booking, Booking.com normally allows you to pay when you check in at the hotel. Some people prefer this method, but I have always found Booking.com to be more expensive than Agoda.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined. However, you will normally find that Agoda is the cheapest and therefore you can save yourself time and money by just booking through Agoda in the first place.
Images of Thailand