Challenges on the Malaysia/Thai Border- A Rail Journey through Asia Part #2

Padang Besar to Hat Yai, State Railway Thailand (SRT) Third Class Scheduled Departure: 18:00  Scheduled Arrival: 18:10 1 hour 10 min (time change at border)
Total distance: 35 miles / 60 km 

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There is now just one State Railways of Thailand train that crosses the Thai/Malay border. All previous trains no longer operate. This may change again, of course.

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In an ideal world, the Malaysian Railways electrified line that goes to Padang Besar should be extended all the way to Hat Yai, allowing the Express Train Service to run between Kuala Lumpur and Hat Yai. Immigration and border procedures should be conducted on board the train. This would give people a very fast route to this popular tourist spot. Many Malays already travel to the city but use cars and buses and planes. Time to get the train a greater market share!

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The line heading to Thailand. The overhead wires end just beyond the freight yard.

Booking: 6/10

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The train from KL at the Malaysian “end” of the station

Most of the passengers who get off the services from Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth choose to get taxis or minibuses through to Hat Yai rather than wait for the slow basic train. There is definitely a great opportunity for passenger numbers of the railways can get their heads together on this to provide a through service from KL (as mentioned above).

State Railways of Thailand (SRT) advised me on the telephone that you cannot buy tickets for this short service online. You can buy tickets to stations further up the line online. So you can easily buy tickets if you are taking the train all the way to Bangkok. But I was only going to the first city inside Thailand’s territory so it seems that I had to buy the ticket from the Thai Railways ticket office on the northern end of Padang Besar station. SRT also helpfully let me know that they never sell out!

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In the ticket office, were two SRT officers and another friend. One of the officers was playing Flight Simulator on the computer while the friend watched.

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The fare was 272 baht ($7.75) although Thai nationals seem to be able to buy it for 80 baht ($2.28). Per kilometre, this was the most expensive part of my  Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok train trip costing me 13 cents per kilometre! The whole 1500km ride cost me $US72: five cents per kilometre. This the price of crossing the border?

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Check in: 1/10

Padang Besar station is interesting in that the upper level of the station is located in Malaysian territory. Downstairs, the southern end of the station is for immigration purposes Malaysian and the northern end is located n Thailand. There are only a few joint stations like this in the world: Woodlands on the Singapore/Malay border is another. Do you know of others?

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Passengers have to proceed through Malaysian and Thai immigration which are located next to each other on the platform level of the station. It was not well signposted. After finding the immigration booths, I then had to find an officer on duty!

IMG_7301I interrupted some Customs staff who were chatting. One of them slipped out and found me a Malaysian immigration officer who vaguely looked at my passport before stamping it. I was now officially in no-mans land which stretches for about four metres.

One of the customs officers handed me the immigration form for Thailand. I know this one well having filled it out quite a few times!

I could not find an immigration officer for Thailand, either. A waiting passenger asked me “what do you want?“. “Immigration“, I said. Another gentleman called out “Relax. You waiting“.  I replied: May pen ri (not a problem) Karp Khun Krub (Thank You).

A few minutes later, an immigration officer arrived. After my greeting, he looked very closely at my passport. Then he read through every existing visa in my passport, using a magnifying glass to examine each one. Thankfully this was my new passport so I have far fewer than my completely full passport which was retired late last year. My heart began to constrict at this point. Then he checked some SMS messages on his phone before leaning back and saying “No Entry“. I have learnt not to panic or react so I calmly replied: “No Entry? Why problem” staring with a friendly but firm smile.

He said: “New Law. I check Boss“.  This followed an animated conversation in Thai on the phone with a faceless supervisor. On ringing off the call, he tried to explain what was going on, in broken English which made it confusing for a while until I called a Thai friend in Bangkok who spoke to the officer and then explained the situation to me. Since January 1, 2017, foreigners (except for Malays) entering Thailand via border posts at Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Malaysia without securing a prior visa will only be allowed to do this twice in a calendar year. There is no limit to how many times someone can arrive by air.

Having satisfied that this was my first land crossing for 2017, thanks to my friend in Bangkok’s intervention, I got my 30-day visa stamp in my Passport. My Thai friend in Bangkok wondered why they did not have someone posted at the Malaysia border who could speak English fluently. What could have happened to someone who did not have this lifeline?

There was no customs check to enter Thailand on this day.

I am not sure what the operating hours are for immigration but at 530pm, a very annoyed gentleman arrived. He had been told that Immigration at the station was now closed and to get a visa, he had to take a taxi from the station to the road border and get a visa there. Then he could then come back to the station and board the train. One would think that immigration would remain open until the train’s departure? Another challenge.

Waiting Area: 2/10

Having survived, I could now enter the platform. I asked the staff where was the best place to wait. they shrugged. There really isn’t a waiting area. Just a few seats. The bell in the picture below is rung when a train is about to depart.

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And lots of parcels waiting to be loaded onto our train:

Oddly, the best areas to wait are the waiting area and cafe upstairs in the Malaysian section! No one seemed concerned that people walked between the two!

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I, like, most of the passengers wandered back to the cafe for a meal. They served a mix of Western, Chinese and Malay foods:

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A steamed bun and Calpis. Very delicious

My biggest surprise was buying a cheese roti. This is what I was served:

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Very different to a cheese roti in Thailand or one in India.

There were two sets of lavatories in the station. Fairly clean ones upstairs in the Malaysian part of the station which cost a small amount of Malaysian money or free dirty ones at the Thailand end downstairs!

 

Boarding: 8/10

The platform burst into life a few minutes to six with the arrival of a train, The excitement was short lived when the train revealed itself to be for freight only. My train arrived finally. It consisted of two Second Class sleepers and a single Third Class car.

Confusion reigned as passengers tried to work out which was their carriage and their bunk with staff valiantly trying to organise people.

I was in the third class carriage wich was also being loaded with cargo. Boxes were thrown through the window and then dragged to the end of the car and neatly arranged in a pile.

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Departure:

We pulled out of Padang Besar (Malaysia) at 6:29pm and seconds later arrived at 6:30pm at another Padang Besar station which is in Thailand. More freight was loaded and some passengers joined the sleeping cars. No one boarded my carriage.

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On Board: 7/10

I would call the car minimalist? What a fun way to travel! Four-way air conditioning is provided as standard!

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IMG_7338IMG_7339There were only four passengers plus an immigration officer and a railways staff member who travelled in my carriage.  Passengers smoked freely in front of the no smoking signs! Two of the passengers were Thai and one was a 70 year old Japanese guy who has a sailing boat moored in Phuket!

 

Entertainment: 10/10

What beats this? Suffice to say no wi-fi, no power, no TV screens and a cellphone signal that waxed and waned! Just jungle, villages, mountains, sky and sunset. Beautiful!

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957 km (594 mi) from Bangkok

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Meals: 7/10

Sellers boarded at Padang Besar on the Thai side selling drinks and snacks. You can eat rather well for $US3-$4.

Arrival

We arrived at 6:13pm, which was a mere three minutes late despite departing half an hour late. There must be some very generous space in the timetabled service or our driver exceeded speed limit restrictions!

IMG_7358At Hat Yai, the sleeping carriages were attached to the train going through to Bangkok.

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The Verdict

My Rating:  59%  (2.95 out of 5).

About SRT: The State Railway of Thailand is the government-owned rail monopoly in the kingdom of Thailand. It owns 4,070 km (2,530 mi) of track which are split into four lines: Northern, North Eastern, Eastern and Southern.
The network serves around 44 million passengers per year. Losing money, the company has announced plans to cut ten percent of its routes this year. Personally, I think staff reductions, better use of existing resources and better service could result in cost savings.

Positives:  On time arrival

Negatives: Border process, Booking system, Time wasted through poor scheduling and border processes. Done properly I could have been in Hat Yai, at 2:30pm local time, not 6:13pm.

Would I travel with them again? I will continue to travel with SRT around Thailand. For this particular ride, the Jury is out. The trip itself is fun but the time wastage is poor. I would probably fly from Penang to Hat Yai.

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Comments

  1. The 80 baht tickets are for the shuttle trains – you found yourself on Special Express 46 which explains the higher 272 baht fares. The third class coaches are also meant for cargo rather than passengers, your ticket entitles you to the air-conditioned second ride in the two actual passenger coaches.

  2. Can I know the schedule as i may plan my train reach at Padang Besar(Malaysia site) can catch the next train to Hatyai?
    So far i know i the ETS schedule reaching to Padang Besar at 5:00am, 12:35pm; 13:15pm; 15:10pm; 18:45pm and 22:50.
    Appreciate the schedule depart from Padang Besar to Hatyai.
    Many thanks!

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