Alternative Visa Runs from Phuket
Trips Done: Apr 2005 & Aug 2006
Penang is an island off the west coast of Malaysia just 140 km south of the Thai border. The main reason for visa-runners to visit this island is that it has a Thai consulate that until recently was considered the friendliest in the region for obtaining visas.
Since the October 2006 visa regulation crackdown, this consulate has stopped issuing multi-entry visas. However, it is still the consulate of choice for Phuket's residents who want single-entry tourist visas or non-immigrant visas.
A lot of people seem to have a very negative view of Penang. It is somewhere they visit to get their visa and get out again as fast as they can. They say it is dirty and unfriendly with no real attractions.
I have done this trip twice and have enjoyed it both times. I guess it is what you make of it. I like Indian food and Penang has this well covered. I also like Guinness which is brewed in Malaysia and therefore widely available at a reasonable price. English is widely spoken and they have a much better range of English books than is available in Phuket, especially if you are looking for children's books. Oh, and the currency rate on the Malaysian Ringot is very easy to convert to baht, roughly you multiply by 10.
Getting to Penang
For both trips, I traveled by bus and stayed two nights. Generally, you need to stay two nights because you have to enter your visa application in the morning and collect it the next afternoon. If you are traveling by bus, you are just not going to arrive in time to enter the application in the morning. Therefore, you have to stay overnight, enter your application the next morning and then collect it the following day before returning home.
There are now a few visa-run companies offering organised trips to Penang for around 5000 baht. They leave Phuket and drive overnight so they arrive at the consulate in time to enter your application in the morning. You then only need to stay one night before collecting your visa and returning to Phuket. Now I am sure they make a healthy profit on this run but it is a good option if you don't like arranging everything yourself and you just want to get it done as quickly as possible.
To travel by bus, you take a morning bus from Phuket Town bus station to Hat Yai. Unfortunately, there are no VIP buses to Hat Yai in the morning, I don't know why; they are so worth the extra cost. I can't remember the exact cost of a first-class bus ticket to Hat Yai but it is around 450 baht. This bus ride takes around 7 hours so you arrive in Hat Yai mid afternoon.
From there you need to get a minibus for the 3-hour journey to Penang. There are a couple of shops by the bus station selling tickets for the ride. They cost around 250 baht. They may quote you 350 baht or more but tell them you have been before and know the cost. Do not let one of the local touts take you to the shop as you will pay extra for their commission.
The minibus will probably deliver you to Chulia Street in Georgetown, Penang. Georgetown is the capital of Penang and Chulia Street is the budget traveler area with lots of cheap guesthouses and is also where most of the visa agents are based. If you go to the end of this street and turn right, you will find the Continental Hotel which has a reputation as the best value for a mid-range hotel at around 80 RM a night.
I have never actually stayed at the Continental. The first time I went, I decided to stay out of Georgetown at one of the beach resorts, Batu Ferringhi. I took a taxi and told the driver I wanted a good but cheap hotel near the beach with a swimming pool. In Southeast Asia, it is always risky to put your faith in the hands of a taxi driver but he seemed like a good guy. As we drove, he got on the radio and asked for recommendations. He delivered me to Sri Sayang Apartments. It is a 33-storey apartment block. I got a two-bedroom apartment with kitchen, bathroom and living room for 90 RM. I was more than happy with the taxi driver's recommendation so I asked him to come and pick me up in the morning to take me to the Thai consulate.
Batu Ferringhi is a fairly standard resort town. Hotels, restaurants and stalls line the main road. The beach is difficult to reach because the big hotels block access. When you do reach the beach, it is very quiet and nobody was swimming. I believe they have a bit of a problem with jellyfish stings in this area. There are some good Indian restaurants and prices are reasonable for a tourist town.
Batu Ferringhi is an okay option to stay but I think Georgetown has a little more to entertain a visitor. For my second visit to Penang, I booked a hotel in advance. I wanted a hotel with a gym so I booked into the Grand Continental Hotel in Georgetown which on the internet said it had a 'health and fitness center'. Silly me, what it actually had was a sauna and massage parlour. This hotel was a bad choice. The room was poor with very small beds, ineffective air-con and only one channel on the TV. Oh well, you live and learn.
There are two large shopping malls right next to each other in the center of Georgetown. They are Komtar and Prangin malls. They have a good range of shops including a department store, a good bookshop and a multiplex cinema.
There are plenty of taxis around although most of the city is in walking distance. You can also take a ride in one of the many bike-rickshaws. They will take you for a tour of the city attractions such as temples, old Chinese houses and the city fort. It is a good tour and takes 3 - 4 hours. The one thing I would say is make sure you agree the price before you start. My guy took me by surprise when at the end he asked for 80 RM. I tried to talk him down but he insisted that was the price and in the end it wasn't worth fighting. It was a good trip but it wasn't worth that.
Along Penang Road, there are plenty of good eating-places where you can get a small meal like curry and bread for 3 RM. There is an excellent Indian restaurant on Penang Road opposite Chulia Street. Further down Penang Road are some nice western style pubs. This is also the naughty nightlife area with girls touting on the street. It might be a Muslim country but the oldest profession goes on. I am told there are also a lot of ladyboys around.
Determined to get my quota of exercise to work off all that curry and Guinness, I searched for a gym. On Penang Road, I saw a building signed as a health club. I took my kit and entered. I quickly realised it was not a gym. 'Is this a gym?' I asked the man at the desk, already knowing the answer. 'No Sir. This is hanky panky. Would you like some hanky panky?' I wasn't looking for that sort of exercise so I moved on.
I eventually found a reasonable Gym at an almost reasonable price on the fourth floor of the Traders Hotel. Non-guests can use the hotel gym for 35 RM. The gym does not have a great deal of equipment but what it has is good enough and you can use the swimming pool..
The Thai consulate is out in the suburbs of Georgetown. Almost all the taxi drivers know it and the return fare should be 10-15 RM.
You must get your visa application with relevant documentation there in the morning between 9:30am to 11:00am. The application is processed and assuming it is granted, you can collect your passport with visa the next day between 2pm and 4pm.
Note that the consulate is closed for both Thai and Malaysian national holidays so check your planned trip does not clash with one of these days.
Personally, I have always entered the application personally at the Thai consulate. However, many visa-runners choose to use the services of a visa agent. They are mostly based in Chulia Street. You give them your passport and documentation and they will do the application for you. Their fee is around the same as the two return taxi fares would cost, so it works out no more expensive and saves you the running around.
Some of these agents claim to have contacts at the consulate that will get you the visa even if you do not have all the required documentation. Do not rely on this claim, they are as likely to have the application rejected as you are. The best policy is to make sure you have the required documents.
So you collect your passport with visa from the Thai consulate just after 2pm. Get your taxi to take you back to the Swiss Hotel in Chulia Street. Here there are a few shops where you can get a minibus back to Hat Yai.
You should be in Hat Yai by 6pm and joy-oh-joy, there is a 24 seat VIP bus to Phuket at 7pm. I think it is about 650 baht but it is worth every baht and more. Plenty of legroom, refreshments and the bus does not stop all the way to Phuket. You are back in Phuket about 1am.
I am not going to attempt a detailed listing of visa requirements because they change so often. Needless to say, do your research before you go and make sure you have everything you could need.
You will definitely need your passport and two passport photos. For a 60 day tourist visa that is probably enough.
For a non-immigrant visa based on marriage, you will certainly need a marriage certificate and a photocopy of your spouse's id card. You should also consider taking a passport photo of your spouse and your Thai Bankbook preferably showing a balance greater than 400,000 baht.
Note as previously stated, the Penang consulate is currently only issuing single-entry non-immigrant visas. Of course, that situation could change at any time