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In January 2017, I had to get from Bangkok to Penang to renew my Visa for Thailand. As I was on a budget, I tried to take a train, but the tracks were flooded and my Visa was expiring in a couple days. Here’s how I managed to get a flight to Hat Yai in the south of Thailand for the same price as the train, and then traveled from the airport all the way to George Town in Penang for only 206 baht ($7).
Traveling Around Thailand
It’s hard to conceive how large Thailand is, even for an American. It’s over 1500 miles to drive from the top to bottom, which is more than the drive from Los Angeles to Seattle or New York to Tampa. There are several transportation companies around Thailand, but the range of quality is staggering. Options exist from slow-moving, windowless trains to short flights within the country.
While I say I write an adventure blog (travel is getting to a place and the adventure is what you do when you’re there) sometimes the most important information is in the transportation side of things. As a budget traveler, I seek out deals while still trying to stay comfortable. I don’t always succeed. I do learn my lessons…even if I don’t follow them. The least I can do is pass those lessons on to you in the hopes that you’ll be smarter than I.
A Plane, Two Trains and a Ferry
Flights from Bangkok to Penang would have cost me over $200 round trip at the last minute, which was far out of my price range. Instead, I was able to fly from Bangkok to Hat Yai, the southernmost airport in Thailand for a mere 2500 baht ($90) round trip using Thai Lion Air and Skyscanner.
From there, the real adventure began.
As I left the airport, I was ushered to the waiting queue of taxis to bring me into town for 250-300 baht. I had done some research earlier and knew to look for the songthaew stand at the end of the parking lot. To be sure, I asked the information desk where it was, and they pointed to the waiting taxis. So I walked out into the parking lot. A policeman stopped me to ask where I was going. I told him songthaew. He said “minivan” (a bad translation) and pointed to the taxis. I smiled and kept walking. At the end of the parking lot (to the left of the entrance/exit of the airport) on the main road, there is a small shelter with a dozen broken, plastic chairs to wait at. After 30 minutes, a tuk-tuk arrived to pick up a handful of locals and me, the only foreigner.
The songthaew takes about 30 minutes to get into town and costs 30 baht. I don’t there’s any way to find out from the driver when to get off. I used my GPS, and the easiest way to describe it is to get off at the first stop after the bridge that goes over the train tracks. If you miss the stop, the tuk-tuk turns left and goes away from the train station.
From the stop, I walked south down the street the songthaew was turning on. After less than half a mile, I saw the train station down one of the side streets to your right. Just before the train station, there was a Tops Market. It was a good, cheap place to grab a meal since there wasn’t any food on the train or the flight.
At the train station, I was harassed by dozens of locals trying to sell me a minibus ticket to Penang for 300-500 baht. I ignored them. I put my earbuds in and didn’t even look in their direction. I learned that at the train station if you make the mistake of telling them you need a ticket to Penang, you will have every person, including the ticket seller, tell you there is no train to get there. Instead, I asked for the ticket to Padang Besar. The cost is 50 baht, and the ride is about 40 minutes long.
Once I got to Padang Besar, I got stamped out of Thailand before walking into the next room on my left to get stamped into Malaysia. I went upstairs to purchase my ticket to Penang for 11.40 Malaysian ringgits (114 baht or about $3.25). I knew to give them 150 baht so they would give me change in ringgits (MYR) which I used to pay for the ferry. The Malaysian train is a lot nicer (i.e. air conditioned) and it took about half an hour to reach Butterworth. From there, I followed the signs to the ferry (one very long walkway).
Finally, I got your ferry ticket for 1.20 MYR (12 baht). The trip lasts about 45 minutes. If you’ve booked your hostel in Georgetown, chances are you’ll be able to walk there from the ferry in less than half an hour.
Once I reached the airport in Hat Yai, my expenses were: songthaew for 30 baht, train for 50, second train for 114 and ferry for 12. That’s a total of 206 baht ($7)!
If you’re not counting pennies, by all means, take the taxi from the airport to the Hat Yai bus station, and then a minivan to Georgetown. They’ll probably drop you off right at your hostel, and it’ll only cost you about $30. The choice is yours. Or you could also just fly direct for the $200.
If you’re traveling from Bangkok to Penang to get your Visa, many hostels and hotels in Georgetown will do the whole service for about $12. When you’re ready to return to Bangkok, simply reverse directions on the ferry, trains and songthaew (get the songthaew in Hat Yai across the street from where it dropped you off – pictured below) to get back to the airport. As a note on that songthaew, I’m pretty convinced that no local in town knows about it. Just ignore all their advice and ask each songthaew that passes by until you get the one going to the airport for 30 baht. Good luck.
Steps for Getting from Bangkok to Penang
- Fly from Bangkok to Hat Yai, the southernmost airport in Thailand.
- Look for the songthaew stand at the end of the parking lot. The songthaew takes about 30 minutes to get into town and costs 30 baht. Get off at the first stop after the bridge that goes over the train tracks.
- Walk south down the street the songthaew was turning on. After less than half a mile, you’ll see the train station down one of the side streets to your right.
- Ask for the ticket to Padang Besar. The cost is 50 baht, and the ride is about 40 minutes long.
- Purchase your ticket to Penang for 11.40 ringgits (114 baht or about $3.25).
Key Points on the Map
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Are you traveling to Thailand but not sure how to get around? Here are some other articles which will help your travel plans.
- Thailand Transportation: Riding the Bus from Krabi to Bangkok
- How to Visit Cambodia from Bangkok
- 10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Rent a Motorcycle in Thailand
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.