Koh Samui to Penang ED visa run
For those studying Thai, English, or another language at the Koh Samui Language and Vocational School, you will inevitably have to leave Thailand to obtain the education visa. This usually entails heading to the border with Malaysia to Khota Bharu or Penang where the two closest Thai consulates are located. While this may sound an arduous process, it really isn’t! Typically you will head to Malaysia the day before you wish to hand your visa application in, hand in the application in the morning on the next day, return to the consulate the next day in the afternoon, and from there head back to Koh Samui. This post is about my experience heading to the consulate in Penang, what to expect at the Thai consulate, what to do in Penang, and my return to Koh Samui.
Getting to Penang
The main routes to Penang are via flights from Surat Thani (stopping in Kuala Lumpur as there currently are no direct flights), taking a long bus from the bus station in Surat, taking a potentially dangerous van from the same bus station, or a late night train from Surat. I ended up deciding on taking the train because I thought it would be a more pleasant experience than being stuffed into a small space for hours on end hoping you make it there alive.
As I knew I wouldn’t be staying long in Malaysia, ideally only 3 nights, I packed a light backpack. You should only really need to bring a few changes of clothes, your passport, education visa documents, a tablet, water, some snacks, and a good book. Aside from that, I thoroughly recommend you taking the time to go the bank before leaving and converting at least a couple thousand baht into Malaysian ringgits (RM) as this will save you a hassle once in Malaysia.
Ferry from Nathon to Donsak
From my home in Maenam I had arranged for a van to pick me up and take me to the Nathon ferry pier, this should have only cost 50 baht. Instead, being Thailand, the van never showed up and when I called the van company number I was barraged by a torrent of rapid Thai and being hung up on. All the more reason to learn Thai! With no van coming I hailed a cab and paid 400 baht from Maenam to Nathon pier.
At the pier I paid 220 baht which included the ferry to Donsak and a bus transfer to the center of Surat Thani. With one and a half hours on the ferry to kill, I found a quiet spot to relax and cracked open my book. On board the ferry, in case you didn’t bring snacks or a drink, there should be a small, overpriced, shop.
Transfer from Donsak to Surat Thani train station
Once off the ferry I followed the deluge of passengers to the parking lot where people filtered into various buses. After asking around I found my bus and specifically asked if they went to the train station to which they replied ‘yeah, sure, sure’. So, on I got. The bus to the center of Surat Thani from Donsak takes about an hour so I just closed my eyes in a vain attempt to get some rest. 45 minutes into the bus ride I was awoken and told to get off to take a songthaew to the train station for 200 baht. I knew that the bus was going to the bus station and that it was possible to get to the train station (which is actually located just outside of Surat Thani) via another bus, taxi, songthaew, or moto taxi, but I just wanted to get to the train station as quick as possible and was unsure as to how much more I might pay from the bus station.
At Surat Thani train station
I had done my research for the train and found that from Surat Thani the train terminated at Pedang Besar which is on the border with Malaysia. This train runs only once a day and leaves Surat Thani at 1:50am and arrives in Pedang Besar at 8:50am. From Pedang Besar you transfer to a second train to Butterworth, just outside of Penang. Tickets cost 632 baht for an upper berth and 732 baht for the lower berth which makes the train not only more comfortable but inexpensive also, even 1st class tickets were only around 1,200 baht or so. The second train ticket you buy at Pedang Besar and is very cheap. If you choose to take the train, I recommend train36.com which was invaluable in helping me find the cost, train times, and other useful information.
At the train station I bought my ticket without any problems and ventured out to find someplace to eat; it was only 8pm and I had hours and hours to wait until the train. It is important to tell the ticket seller that you want to go to the Malaysian Pedang Besar it seems there are two stations under the same name. Outside the front of the train station are a few small roadside restaurants which sell Thai food catering to the tastes of tourists; expect pad Thai, curries, and other Thai dishes for reasonable prices. Having eaten and still hours to wait, I looked for a bar to have a few drinks at before the train but didn’t feel like walking too far away so I just ended up having a few beers near at the place I ate dinner.
On the train
When it was closer to the time to leave I headed back towards the train station and waited inside. 1:50am was the official departure time but naturally the train came an hour later and I was just happy to get on and go to sleep. On the ticket is the car number and seat number so I had no difficulty finding where to go. By that time, just about every berth had the curtains drawn and lights out. In no time I found my berth, climbed up, and fell fast asleep. I found the berth to be comfortable enough and came with a blanket but was disappointed to find there were no power outlets. Although I was fine, if you’re someone who experiences motion sickness or feels uncomfortable on long journeys such as this, it is not a bad idea to visit a pharmacy on Samui before leaving to pick something up.
Arrival in Pedang Besar and clearing Thai-Malay customs
In the morning I woke up and we were practically at the border already. I packed up my bag, visited the bathroom to freshen up, and awaited arrival at Pedang Besar train station. On the platform the Malaysian officials directed myself and other farangs to the Thai immigration section inside the station. There I was stamped out of Thailand and followed the signs over to the Malaysian immigration officials. Depending on your nationality you can simply get the 30 day visa on arrival with no difficulties, just check beforehand. My passport was stamped again, this time with the Malaysian visa, and then I put my bag through a scanner and that was it.
Pedang Besar train station
At this time the KTM express train to Butterworth arrived and I had to frantically run upstairs to find the ticket kiosk and purchase my ticket. Thankfully they accepted Thai baht because I couldn’t find somewhere to change my money at the station. I ran back downstairs hoping to catch the train but to no avail; I was stuck there for another couple hours until the next train.
If you’re unfortunate to have to wait for the KTM, then there isn’t much to do but wait. There was a small store selling snacks and maybe there was a food court upstairs but I can’t confirm did not as I did not venture that far. I don’t think there were even any air-conditioned waiting rooms, so expect to sweat it out in the intense Malaysian heat.
On the KMT
When the train finally arrived, I got on at the back of the train hoping that it would be less busy. As Pedang Besar is the first station on the line, it was completely empty and I made a beeline for a corner seat at the back of the train. While the train arrives empty, by the time it gets to Butterworth it will be quite crowded. That is why it is important to find a comfortable seat because the journey from Pedang Besar to Butterworth is 2hrs and stops quite frequently at various stations along the way. I will also say that the KMT carriages feel more like a subway than a traditional train.
Ferry from Butterworth to Penang
At the end of the line in Butterworth, I got off and looked around for somewhere to change my money into RM. This was annoying as by that point I just wanted to get to my hotel in Penang and sleep. Eventually a seller exchanged some money for me and I followed the signs to the ferry from the train station. It is possible to take a bus to Penang from Butterworth train station but the ferry really is the way to go. The ferry takes 15mins and costs a dollar or two. What makes the ferry even more attractive are the city-scape views of Penang from Butterworth.
Transferring to hotel and street food market at night
At the ferry terminal in Penang is also the bus station and a taxi stand. Without my phone, dead by that point and no opportunity to charge it, I took a taxi to my hotel located in the ‘downtown’ area of Penang not far from the Thai consulate. I paid 600 or 700 baht to stay at the Ink Hotel, which is a new and stylish boutique hotel I’d recommend for those not looking to spend much for the short stay. There were cheaper hotels when I booked mine online but I specifically wanted somewhere near the more historic center of Penang with more to see and do while waiting for the education visa.
Having slept from mid afternoon to early evening, I was ready to venture out and find something to eat. A quick Google search led me to a street food market outside the Sunway Hotel. There I found a pork dumpling noodle soup that became my go-to meal for dinner over the next few nights. After dinner I made my way over to a bar with an outdoor patio for a beer before turning in back to the hotel for an early night; had to get to the Thai consulate bright and early the next day!
Prior consulate visit advice and what to do in your free time
Some advice about the Thai consulate in Penang; treat the opening days and times with suspicion. Upon arrival at the consulate the next morning I was told it was closed for a public holiday and to come back the next day…a public holiday listed on the Thai consulate website for being next week….It turned out the information on the website was from last year and so months into 2017 they still hadn’t updated it. Thanks Thailand!
If you have the time and resources, I’d recommend getting to Penang on a Thursday and dropping off your passport on the Friday morning and taking a ferry to Langkawi which is the Malaysian answer to Koh Samui. There you can have a weekend to relax before returning Sunday evening to Penang and heading to the Thai consulate the next day. As for what to do in the day time in Penang while waiting, you’re spoiled for options. You can take a walk or bus tour around the city to gaze at the colonial architecture, explore Little India, go to Batu Ferringhi beach, or if you’re looking for a spot of retail therapy, Penang has several large Western style shopping malls to satisfy your needs. Personally, I took it easy. I did some sight seeing, ate some quality Indian food, drank some local beers, and watched a couple movies at a cinema.
Thai consulate: what to expect
The next day I got up early again and arrived at the Thai consulate before the hordes of other visa runners showed up. Pro tip: get there about a half hour before the consulate opens, that way you will be near the front of the line and not stuck behind potentially dozens or hundreds of other people. The Thai consulate itself is a big house with surrounding grounds and an empty pool out front. You will speak to a guard at the gate, write your purpose for visiting the consulate, and line up. On top of the completed visa forms given to you by the Koh Samui Language and Vocational School, you will be asked to complete a standard visa form asking for things like your last visa, occupation, where you will stay in Thailand, etc. Just be sure to state that you will not be working in Thailand. If you’re unsure how to fill this form in, there are usually locals waiting out front who will fill in the form for a small price. When paying for your visa, bring baht and RM just in case. I paid in baht but others paid in RM. At the visa window I handed over my paperwork, he stamped a few things, made a few notes, and told me to come back in the afternoon the next day.
The following afternoon I was back at the consulate and outside the gate I was given an ad targeting people on their return to Thailand from visa runs. The destinations included Koh Samui and so I was set! I had planned on taking a bus to Hat Yai and sorting the rest out from there but this option took care of everything and was priced under 1000 baht, I believe. The agent even took Thai baht! Picking up my visa was painless, I gave them the receipt, the official went and came back within 5mins, and handed pack my passport with the all important education visa! For more information about what to expect at the Penang Thai consulate, check out our post.
The journey back to Koh Samui
Out front of the embassy I purchased the ticket back to Koh Samui from the agent and waited until he was ready to leave. During this time I got talking to a Russian girl going with the same company on her way to Hat Yai. When the agent was ready myself and the Russian girl got into his car and stopped at a food and coffee gift shop. The Russian girl was interested in buying some white Penang coffee, famous to the island city. We tried a sample and bought a bag of individual servings of the coffee each. From there we went back to the car and the agent transferred us to a van. We then proceeded to drive around the city until the van was full and finally set off for Hat Yai on the first leg of my trip back to Koh Samui.
We reached the Pedang Besar border with Thailand after crossing the bridge from Penang to Butterville in just over 2 hours, including a stop for gas. At the checkpoint we got out of the van and walked a short distance to the Malaysian immigration officials. There we hand over our passports, were stamped out, and walked on up ahead to the waiting van. After everyone was back in the van we proceeded to drive another couple hundred meters before getting out again, this time to clear Thai immigration. Again, this was very easy and involved nothing more than handing your passport over to the official at the window for inspection, being stamped in, and walking over to the other side to await the other people on the van.
From the crossing in Pedang Besar, we drove about an hour to the agency office in Hat Yai where everybody climbed out. For the passengers going to Koh Taio, Phangan, and Samui, we had to wait a couple hours for the next van. Feeling hungry I went and found a small local restaurant for dinner, chatting with other passengers on the trip. Unfortunately the delay in rounding everyone up in Penang for the van and the hours of waiting in Hat Yai meant the chance to catch the last ferry back was long gone. It was going to be a long night.
The van ride to Donsak pier was uneventful and I managed to get some sleep on the bumpy ride over. I was given the impression by the agent that we would be sleeping in the van until the first ferry came at 5am but that turned out to be false. We were practically dumped out of the van and told to wait until the morning. We arrived at 2am or so, that meant 3hours outside in the dark with none of the buildings open. Sleep was futile and I ended up chatting to a fellow Canadian who lives on Koh Phangan. When it was finally time to get on the boat I found a quiet spot and just slept.
Arriving in Lipa Noi at about 6:30am and still aching from a day of van rides and lack of sleep, I got a moto taxi back to Maenam. Safely home after traveling hundreds of miles involving a journey entailing cars, vans, ferries, and motorbikes, I was happy to crawl into bed and collapse, safe in the knowledge that I had obtained the education visa.