Malaysia to Thailand Visa Border Run: A Cautionary Tale

It all started out so lovely but by the middle of the day it nearly evaporated into a real disaster!

The border in the plan!
"We are leaving at 9am, out the door, so get to bed early because I am waking you up around 8:30am. I mean it!!"  Famous last words right?  We are not exactly a get up early type family.  We usually (when we have no firm plans) roll out of bed between 9 and 11am and then sort of take our time getting into the day.  So getting out the door at 9am, is nothing short of a miracle.  I had good intentions and figured my 5-year-old would be up by 8am so no need for an alarm.

But when you watch a movie until after 11pm even a 5-year-old sleeps until 9!  I rolled over and grabbed the iPhone when I pried my eyes open. "CRAP", it was exactly the time I wanted to leave.  I knew at our pace that meant leaving a full hour behind my arbitrary schedule. Well, no importa, I thought and then proceeded to wake the older boys, gather all our stuff, brush teeth, and sit down for 10 minutes to enjoy my coffee. Right, on the road by 10:15am, just as planned.

The plan was to drive to the Thai border from our Penang location to renew our 90-day visa.  We heard from many people that this is no big deal, that you just cross over and enjoy a Pad Thai lunch and turn right around a get your new visa.  Yeah, not really.

After a stop for McDonalds breakfast, a novelty we are rarely up and out the door to enjoy, we hit the road.  About 45 minutes from Batu Ferringhi to the bridge.  Picking a non-holiday Sunday was a great choice as we had hardly any traffic at all. We made a short "detour" once over the bridge due to the fact that I let my 13-year-old navigate and I may have been slightly anxious resulting in some...ehem...yelling.  This led to an error, some cursing, and stress but once we righted the error we were on our way.

The border is a straight shot up the E1 once you get over the bridge.  Once over the bridge it took approximately 1 hour to get to the Thai border.  Admittedly I drive a bit faster then my husband would like to know so perhaps set aside a bit longer for this portion. The boys and I chatted, sang and danced to Rick Dees top 40 (not a great option but when you lose all the music on your iPod it's not a terrible option), and although there was some bickering it went quite smoothly.

When you get to the border there is a small free parking lot on the left hand side of the road.  We parked there hoping it was close enough and it the Malaysian border anyway.  Stay to the left as you walk up and you will see the appropriate building (the building on the other side is for entering Malaysia so stay to the left) or at least you can ask a guard to be sure you are headed in the right direction.  No line at all, we got stamped out of Malaysia and looked ahead to the Thai border.

It is about 1/2 mile walk uphill, not terrible at all.  If you do not want to do it there were many men with cars asking if we wanted a ride so that is always an option, if you feel lucky anyway.  Security lined the street as we approached the border and we couldn't help but notice that they mostly just sat around.  We figured it was most likely that they never need those huge machine guns they were toting but rather this was just a show of force.  The interesting part was that no one really looked at us, or asked us anything. There were walls with barbed wire but loads of areas you could just walk right through, if you didn't care about getting the official stamps anyway.

At the Thai border you need to get a white form to fill out. There is an office to the left of the passport control booths.  Head in there, the woman will hand you a form and promptly kick you out. NO enjoying that free AC for you!  Fill out the forms quickly and wait in line for the Thailand entry stamp. The women wore a scowl on her face most of the time and unlike the Malaysian side all the officials we came across spoke very little if any English.  I explained through hand gestures and remedial English that we were only there for the day and again we were on our way.

We all felt happy crossing the actual border into Thailand. We really prefer the rawness to the Thai landscape and culture. It is shocking when you walk across and see the difference between Malaysia and Thailand side by side. We all had a long talk pointing out the differences, highlight back page style.

 Everyone was overheated and the 5-year-old was about 10 seconds from a total meltdown at this point so we walked over to KFC for a little AC that hardly worked, bathroom complete with the biggest cockroach I have ever seen, and a cold ice cream.  We giggled profusely as the heat inside was nearly as bad as outside and it was all we could do to keep from getting covered in the ice cream as it melted.  Me included!

After exploring the area (read as 5 minutes to realize this is your typical border town in SE Asia and wishing we were able to drive over and head to the mountains we could see in the distance) we were off to the other side of the road to complete our process and get home before the rental car needed to be returned at 5pm.  Since it was 1pm we figured this was no problem. We approached the exit line for Thailand. Moving quickly we get stamped out and start the 1/2 or so mile walk down to the Malaysian border to get back in and head home to Penang.

Thailand electricity
My 5-year-old is now in full, I am not moving unless someone carries me, mode.  It is hot as h-e-l-l and none of us are in any mood.  As we try to speak to him calmly, pick him up sweetly, plead with him somewhat angrily about the heat and general exhaustion we all feel, a tour bus pulls up and dumps out what seem like 1000 fellow tourists. Ughh, great!

We can't complain too much although some in my party do try.  Once inside the doors there is very welcomed AC and the line actually proceeds quite well, not to mention that in 4 visa checkpoints this is the first line of the day.  "Almost done guys", I rattle off for the 20th time today in an effort to help the kids me feel better.  At this point you typically hand over your passport, get your allotted 90 days free stamp, and head out, back to the rental car for a lovely air conditioned drive back to Penang.

But that would make for a very boring story, so I will tell you what happened to us next. The women at the counter just stare at my passport, rifling through all the pages, tapping something into their computers, conferring with associates, and speaking Bahasa to each other. We have no idea what is happening but since everyone else has bypassed us and a good 15 minutes have passed I realize this is not the norm and we may very well have an issue here.

To be fair we have spent a good amount of time here in Malaysia.  It was my understanding that you can simply leave the country for a bit and return to get an additional 90 days.  I forget that it really is up to the immigration officer at the time and we, as foreigners, are not entitled to any time at all.  We spend a lot of money here helping the economy but at the same time there has to be an immigration policy, right? And they have to make examples out of tourists sometimes. I can understand that.

The conversing and general tossing about of our passports continues for another 10 minutes before the first women returns telling us we need to see the supervisor. I glance over at Dylan and we exchange a knowing, "OH SHIT" kind of glance. We proceed to the supervisor's office and are met with a women who does not think the kids are cute, does not wish to speak to me in English, and does NOT want us to go back into Malaysia.  Her co-worker agrees, I think, although I am merely guessing as they are speaking again in Bahasa so I am not clear on the exact problem.

Then the questions start.  Everything from where are we staying to where do the kids go to school to why have you returned repeatedly to Malaysia.  I try to stay calm and just answer honestly but I can see nothing about us is going to make this women happy.  She keeps the passports and tells us we must speak to the head supervisor and to, "GO, just wait, Go, Go, wait long time".  Right...great...sigh..

I speak to the supervisor explaining that we have a rental car sitting at the border, my husband is on a business trip at the moment (OK a little white lie, shoot me), and that all our stuff is in Malaysia. I plead with her to let us back in all the while trying not to freak out about what we will do if she says no. I mean we've been stamped out of Thailand already and it's a typical crap border town, exactly would that work?

She returns after another 30 minutes to tell me she will let us go into Malaysia for only one week, at which point I finally ask what the actual problem is here (yeah **facepalm**) to which she replies, "you have been here too much, back and forth, back and forth, not OK, if no like go back to Thailand."

Hmm, OK nope, no worries I'll take the week thank you.  She puts our name on some form, again in Bahasa.  She also enters it into the computer and send us on our way.  We slink out of there like we had committed a crime. Not my finest hour but admittedly very far from my worst!

Thank goodness, even if just for 1 week!
As we walk back to our car I can't help but notice that we could have just walked past the entire thing and returned to our car, without a stamp, but still. Odd especially with all the gun towers and army guys around.  Only for show of force I think again, that must be it. The drive home is uneventful save for the fact that my mind is now spinning to come up with a Plan J. We returned the car 1 hour late which was so much nicer than never had we gotten stuck in Thailand.

So we have 1 week here, my husband returns from a trip with his sister, who is visiting, soon.  We will then have to make our way to Butterworth to hopefully get some kind of extension.  I don't think it looks good but we just have to wait and see.  I am incredibly grateful though as the alternative was unthinkable to me at the time.  Take nothing for granted I suppose.  I'll file that with all the other lessons I have learned on this journey so far!

And that, my loyal readers, is how you change plans for the Spring for the 12th time since're sometimes forced to.

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  1. I have been in that town and done the border run but you are correct it is usually very easy. So sorry for your stress. Traveling with the kids by yourself is stressful when these things happen. I'm single with 5 (4 with me in Dubai:)

    Good luck.

  2. Wow, that sounds like a lot of work. The kids were really great so that helped:) Plus if they weren't there I may have gotten cranky and hurt my chances in the process!

  3. I think if you can fly it would be best and definitely stay ou for a few days. I got the feeling though that they were on to that as well so...Good luck!

  4. This suspense is killing me! I can't wait to find out what happens!! Dun Dun DUN...

  5. Wow! Great story!! Can't wait to hear more!

  6. Thanks for sharing this post...I agree with your's very interesting.

  7. Hi,

    I am from Singapore and looking to drive a rental car from KL to Bangkok. Could you point me to the rental car company you rented from?

    1. Sorry, it was a very small place in Penang. It is located across the plaza from 7 eleven in Batu Ferringhi. Near the McDonalds:) Hope that helps a bit, they were the cheapest around!

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