Coming from: Padang Besar, Hat Yai Province, Thailand
Going to: Padang Besar, Perlis State, Malaysia
Documents required: Passport.
Waiting time: 45 min queuing at Padang Besar (Malaysia) railway station for both immigration and customs checks, which then only took about 5 minutes.
Distance from Bern: 26.608 km
In Europe, crossing from one country to the next is easy: There is no long waiting time, and the border guards do the checks (if there are any) inside your compartment – probably the most comfortable way to cross a border. I wondered how that worked in Southeast Asia. But there are not many such borders: Most countries have insular railway networks with no links to their neighbours. The only railway border crossings in the area are from Vietnam into China and from Thailand to Laos or Malaysia.
On my way to Singapore, I took the chance to use the latter. It sounded perfect: There was a sleeper train from Bangkok all the way down to the first town in Malaysia, Padang Besar, taking 21 hours for almost 1.000 km. As in Europe, it sounded like the most comfortable way to get far and cross a border.
I had travelled in a bus the night before boarding the train and was in desperate need of some more sleep. Having booked a 2nd class sleeper – the best available class on that train – I was looking forward to lying down and some comfort, while watching Southern Thailand pass by the window. But the train was disappointing. The Royal Thai Railways seemed to have done its utmost to use the space as inefficiently as possible.
First of all, the sleeper coaches had no compartments. Instead, the berths were located alongside the windows on both sides of the aisle, leaving the passenger exposed to anyone passing by. And there was indeed a constant flow of persons walking up and down the aisle: Fruit sellers, snack vendors, train staff, new passengers… Most of them shouting out something in Thai language that ended in a very long vowel (does this generally apply to that language?). After a few hours on the train, I started to hate that sound.
Travelling through Southern Thailand by train…
And I couldn’t even think of lying down and sleep for a while: During the day, the lower berth was converted into two benches, and the upper berth was folded away. So just after 7 pm I finally found some rest. Only for two hours, however – after that, the air conditioning made sure that the coach felt like a fridge, and I was freezing even in my jacket and sleeping bag. Just to wake up one or two hours later again, because now the AC was off now and I was soaked in sweat. That extreme change of temperatures went on for the whole night. The morning came with the calls of the train staff which offered to change Thai Baht into Ringgit, the currency of Malaysia.
Padang Besar, the final stop of the train, is a typical border town with a Thai and a Malaysian half, divided by a fence. There was a short stop on the Thai side, but the immigration and customs controls of both countries took place in the much larger Padang Besar (Malaysia) train station.
That control was as inefficient as the use of space inside the train. We reached the station at 10 am (Malaysian time), and there was an onward train to Butterworth in Malaysia at 10:25. The whole border procedure took about five minutes, so it would have been very easy to make it to that train. Unfortunately, the passengers of our train first had to wait until all persons leaving Malaysia towards Thailand on another train had been checked – the control points serve in both directions. It took them about 45 minutes, and by then the onward train was gone. That train was a so-called “shuttle”, leaving hourly for Butterworth – obviously except for 11:25 am.
Padang Besar (Malaysia) train station: Thai border control on the right, Malaysian border control on the left.
So I waited until 12:25 am, and there was a cafeteria upstairs in the railway station. I felt pretty destroyed after two horrible nights on bus and train and bought myself an isotonic drink and some crackers to regenerate a bit. Just as I sat down in the heat and humidity of the cafeteria, a deafening noise started: A singer with a horribly shrill voice, magnified by an amplifier, sang for the dumbfounded passengers. It was her final preparation for a concert on the next day, which happened to be Merdeka – Malaysia’s national holiday.
But Merdeka was the only nuisance in Malaysia. Once I finally sat in the moderately air-conditioned “shuttle” train to Butterworth, I realized that this border had been of those which separate two worlds. Coming from Thailand with its constantly improvised look and slow trains, arriving to Malaysia was like getting back to Western Europe. At least in the border area (and with the experience of the last nights in my bones), it looked clean, efficient and modern. I finally started to regenerate.
Transport: Southbound, one daily overnight train from Bangkok (departure 2 pm) arrives around 10 am (Malaysia time). There are two local trains from Hat Yai to Padang Besar, departing at 7.30 am and 3 pm and taking approximately 2 hours. Onward transportation to Alor Setar and Butterworth leaves at 09:25 (not realistic), 11:25 and then hourly. For northbound connections, check the “Man in Seat 61” page.
Accommodation: There are modest hotels in both sides of the border town Padang Besar. I slept in the overnight train from Bangkok, which I do not recommend. There are no compartments, hence no privacy and a lot of noise. The berths are located along the windows, while in the aisle between snack sellers and other touts go back and forth. Plus the air conditioning is terrible.
Food: All kinds of snacks and meals are available on the train. There is also a restaurant coach. At Padang Besar (Malaysia) railway station, there is a cafeteria on the 1st floor, serving snacks, drinks and some meals.
Money exchange: The train staff of Thai Railways offers informal money exchange (Baht into Ringgit) once the train has left Hat Yai. Interestingly, their rate is much better than the one offered in the cafeteria of Padang Besar (Malaysia)’s railway station – the only place to change money there. Note that the ticket counter accepts both currencies. I didn’t see any ATMs at the railway station.