Ever watched a Hollywood movie where the characters decide they want to eat Mexican food and so they drive to Mexico for lunch… or want to visit a great little Italian restaurant so charter their own private jet to go to Rome for the evening? As I child I watched these characters absolutely fascinated. In Australia we’re just too far from anywhere else to just go to another country for dinner. Even a weekend in another country is unrealistic given the travel distances. The whole notion seemed so exotic. I made a vow that one day I would do it!
Of course yesterday we realised that there’s a good reason the Hollywood hero’s never “just pop over” to another country for lunch with two young kids on the backseat of a car. Its not romantic or exotic with kids in tow… its just a long, tiring, long long day filled with 500 “are we there yet” queries and backseat fighting. I now understand why my parents used to build a wall of pillows between my brother and I on long car journeys!
Our visa for Malaysia was about to expire but we still have another two months before we want to head back to Australia for Christmas. The Thailand border is just two hours drive from Penang so we decided to drive up for the day to get a new Malaysian visa. We contemplated heading to Kuala Perlis and catching a longtail boat to Satun as it sounded like a particularly adventurous way to cross into Thailand. But then we read the reports of people missing the last long tail back or holding on for dear life as a small boat not really designed for rough seas crosses the 6km’s to Thailand in the monsoon season, and decided just driving to the border was the way to go.
We researched a number of border crossing points and decided to try one of the Bukit Kayu Hitam – Sadao border crossing as it was the easiest one to reach from Penang.
We set out at 8am, with jokes that we’d leave the kids at daycare on a Satuday while we went to Thailand for lunch. Out of all of us Hayley was the most excited about heading to “kai-land” for the day so there was no way she was even going to joke about being left behind.
“NO! We’re coming to Kai-land with you guys”, Hayley confidently told us. “We’re travelling people too!”
At our first toll point we remembered the benefits of driving in Malaysia as Colin accidentally pulled into the automatic booth on a busy 6 lane motorway that required a special card we didn’t have. In Australia you would be in serious trouble, with drivers piling up behind you honking and swearing. In Malaysia – no problems. Everyone reverses out and changes lanes, while we back out of the toll booth and find one that takes change.
“Are we in Kai-land yet?” Hayley asks for the tenth time since leaving Penang.
“Its THAILAND not KAI-LAND” shouts Noah with the superiority that only an older sibling can muster when correcting a little sister.
“That’s what I said. Kai-land!”
And so starts the next five minutes of fighting over the matter of Kai-land, that eventually escalates into toy throwing and screaming until Dad pulls the ‘no talking for 5 minutes’ card. We made the border in under two hours, with our sanity just hanging on thanks to the constant fighting and the ridiculously noisy McDonald’s guitar toys the kids got with their breakfast on the road. We’ll be having a little word to the heads of marketing at McDonalds. Anyone that decides to gives out noisy toys with Happy Meals obviously doesn’t have children. That’s OK, after the drive to Thailand we’re happy to lend them ours, with their McDonalds toys filled with fresh batteries.
Our car wasn’t allowed over the border thanks to our rental companies mistrust of all things Thailand and the Thai border insurance, so we parked outside the Malaysian Immigration Checkpoint at Bukit Kayu Hitam and grabbed our overnight slash “no no we’re really staying a few days, honestly” bag out of the car… just as the rain started to bucket down. Once through the Malaysian side it was a 500m walk in the rain to Thailand, past the Duty Free shopping zone (where we realised there’s car park closer to the Thailand border that would have kept us out of a lot of puddles).
Soggy shoes, paperwork filled out and a free Visa On Arrival saw us officially in the Thai town of Sadao. Sadao is a fairly typical border town – markets selling cheap t-shirts, food stalls filled with peanuts and snacks, local restaurants with less than appealing food and drivers selling rides to Hat Yai and Krabi every two meters.
Luckily for the kids, Sadao has a new KFC that took Malaysian Ringett and handed out less noisy toys. The staff didn’t speak a lot of english but pointing at a menu and smiling got around that… mostly. The kids drinks came out all wrong but their meals had toys so they didn’t care. The highlight of our time in Sadao – this wonderfully confusing sign in the toilets at KFC:
After our less than exotic lunch one hour in Thailand it was time to head back to Malaysia. Funny how in my visions of popping over another country for lunch I’d never pictured myself eating chicken nuggets in soggy shoes and wet travel clothes, and repeating endlessly “sit down, put down that toy and eat”. As I said, there’s a reason they don’t have kids on those chartered jets to Paris or Rome in the movies.
“We can’t go back to Malaysia yet! We haven’t been to Thailand” Hayley proclaims as she finally gets the hang of saying Thailand.
“Yes we have, sweetey. This is Thailand.”
“Noo, I want to go to the real Thailand.”
“What do you think the real Thailand has?”
“Beaches! Thailand has beaches.”
When we were preparing the kids for the trip we’d been talking about our last holiday in Thailand with all the amazing beaches and our fantastic hotel with a bathtub large enough to slide in. I guess for a 3 year old Sadao, with its trucks and KFC’s doesn’t quite live up to belly slide bathtubs and sandcastles. At least we finally understood why Hayley had been so excited to visit Thailand for lunch.
Back in Malaysia, our day started to go rapidly down hill. Colin’s dream of car boot full of cheap cartons of beer were dashed when he found out you couldn’t bring duty free beer back into Malaysia. The duty free store also didn’t have any toys so filling in time as the rain continued to pour down wasn’t exactly enjoyable. At least there were giant bags of M&M’s and being stuck in the rain gave us an extra hour before we had to face the officials at the Malaysian checkpoint.
The rain continued and we eventually made a break for it with our even soggier shoes and beer-less backpacks. Back in the Malaysian Immigration Office Colin and I realised we’d forgotten to fill the kids in on the plan of not saying anything about living in Penang for a few months as they happily told the immigration officers about their home in Penang. Thankfully they quickly followed it up with stories of going home at Christmas to their real home and toys.
Then came my moment of brilliance… “We’ve come all this way, can we please drive back through Perlis and past the beaches?”.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time. In retrospect, seeing Perlis wasn’t worth an extra two hours in the car on a day when the kids were in a fighting mood. Such a shame as Perlis was fantastic. Green rice fields, canals, small fishing villages, giant power plants and stormy seas. The coastline isn’t as beautiful as I imagined it would be, being so close to Thailand. Its mostly rocky with muddy water and a few small beaches. But the state is quiet and far less developed than the southern states that we’ve travelled through.
As we had a quick play on the shore, we could just make out Langkawi in the distance through the rain.
The few beaches are small and covered in plastic but they have the most amazing collection of shells littering the sand. A child could spend a whole day there collecting buckets filled with shells.
Back in the car, the fun begins again. “How much longer until we get to Penang?” Noah’s been asking that same question since 20 minutes into the drive home and he’s not liking the answer. But he’s going to keep asking in the hope that he gets a better answer soon. My detour was longer than we thought. Hayley’s given up on pretending to rest for five minutes and hit that hyperactive mode where she just can’t stop talking, moving or crying. We’ve split the kids up by now and given them turns sitting in the front. Its helping… a little. At least this way they can’t hit each other when they fight.
After four hours we finally made it back to the bridge to Penang… right in time for Sunday peak hour. At least we don’t have to do it again! We’re right to stay in Malaysia until we head back to Australia at Christmas and set out on our next adventure (we have no idea where that will be yet though!).
I’ve learnt my lesson though. Dreams of popping over to Thailand for a green curry lunch or Paris for a romantic dinner along the canals are best left for days when you have a babysitter!
Information on the Bukit Kayu Hitam – Sadao border crossing
As far as border crossings go, the Bukit Kayu Hitam – Sadao crossing between Malaysia and Thailand was easy to reach and simple to pass through. Its a busy border crossing so they’re very efficient at processing visas.
To reach the border crossing point its a simple matter of following the E1 motorway to the very end. If you’re coming from Penang, the road across the bridge from Georgetown turns into the E1. Just follow the signs to Alor Setar and then keep going until you hit the border. You can’t miss it.
If you’re driving you can just drive through the border, staying in your car as they process your visa applications. You can purchase insurance for your vehicle at the border and then you just have to show the proof of your insurance before you cross into Thailand. If you don’t want to take your car into Thailand, you can either park just outside the Malaysian Immigration Checkpoint and walk across, or drive through the checkpoint in your vehicle and then park at in the duty free zone. Taking out walking time it took us approximately 20 mins to cross into Thailand, and 20mins on the way back.
Visa on Arrival:
Until May 2011, Thailand is providing free Visa on Arrivals and the 15 day Tourist Visa Exemption on arrival at the border for more infomation see the MOF website). Make sure you fill out every question of the visa forms available at the border. The Thai immigration officer was quite picky about this and wanted to know where we were staying during our visit to Thailand. Thankfully we’d been in Thailand before and remembered the address of our last guesthouse in Krabi so put that down.
Once you reach the Thai side of the border, Sadao is right there. We thought we would have to jump in a taxi to reach the nearest town for lunch but when we got to the border we realised that the town of Sadao was literally on the border itself. If you’re just in Thailand for a visa run there was certainly enough to see in Sadao to not bother heading anywhere else for a few hours. A lot of Malaysian’s visit Sadao for the cheap, fresh peanuts and cashew nuts on sale at the markets just outside the border. Cheap shoes, tshirts, handbags and backpacks also seemed to be the order of business.
If you’re heading elsewhere from the border there were plenty of minivans and taxis offering rides to Hat Yai, Satun and Krabi.
Going back to Malaysia:
We’ve heard of people just staying 20 minutes in Thailand before heading back to Malaysia. You go through different immigration lines on the opposite side of the road on your return so its probably quite easy to do this and not get in trouble. But we decided to stay for two hours to explore. Going back into Malaysia was a simple process of just retracing our steps.
And yes, unfortunately you can’t bring duty free beer back into Malaysia without a hefty 100% tax imposed on it.