Industrial, workaday and obviously lacking the charm and atmosphere of Georgetown, Butterworth meets all the tourists heading to Penang Island by overland transport. And indeed, transit to Penang Island is the only reason for finding yourself in Butterworth. Getting to Georgetown from Butterworth is easy and straightforward and the only thing which can keep you in Butterworth for some time is a need to feel solid ground under your feet at least for a couple of hours after an almost 24-hour-long bus or train journey. If you are one of those types who cannot just pass through any town without discovering some little gem for yourself, then visit the largest Bird Park in Malaysia, which is located about two km east of the ferry terminal, or have a look at a huge Nine Emperor Gods Temple – you will find the similar-styled temples in Georgetown, too.
From Bangkok to Butterworth
There is no direct bus service from Bangkok to Butterworth in Malaysia and from September, 2016, the only direct rail service, train #35 of Thai Railways does not cross the border to Malaysia either. That means that travelling from Bangkok to Butterworth you have to make at least one layover.
Anyway, taking into consideration the long distance you have to cover – 1130 km from Bangkok to Butterworth – splitting your journey into several parts is not a bad idea.
From Bangkok to Butterworth by train
As mentioned above, there is no direct train from Bangkok to Butterworth any more. The two most logical way to get to Butterworth by train from Thailand are now as follows.
Option 1. From Bangkok to Butterworth via Padang Besar
From Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok take train #35 which now terminates in the border town of Padang Besar on the Thai side in Songkhla province. #35 leaves daily at 2.45pm and takes 17 hours to reach its destination.
Note There are only second class AC sleeper cars available on train #35 with tickets sold at THB1200 per person. A second class sleeping car in a Thai train has open-section compartments with four berths facing each other and two more berths at the opposite side of the compartment. There are curtains to ensure some privacy for each passenger.
Tip Try to book a lower berth: they are wider than the upper ones and thus much more comfortable.
Normally there are no issues with cleanness and service on board the train. The things which you still may find annoying during your trip include squat toilets only in some carriages; freezing temperature inside the carriage; and the head lights which are sometimes not turned off even during the night.
There is a dining car offering decently priced and quite good dishes – you can order food delivered right to your seat. If by some reason dining car is not your thing, numerous hawkers patrolling the carriages will definitely not let you die of hunger and have the usual array of international snacks and Thai delicacies. Note that it is forbidden to sell any alcohol drinks on trains, though.
Tip: It may get dead cold in air-conditioned sleeping cars. Even though every passenger is provided with clean linen and a blanket, it is still a good idea to have some warm clothes – or an additional blanket – at hand. Do not ask us why the Thais keep passengers freezing – it is actually the case with buses and trains in many hot countries, so just take it for granted and come prepared.
Note Mind that for the final leg from Hat Yai to Padang Besar train tickets are sold as seats only, and even you have your ticket marked as ‘sleeper’, after this point you have only a seat, not the whole berth, which will be folded down by a crew member and ‘vacant’ seats may be occupied by new passengers.
In Padang Besar you have to leave the train and cross the border with Malaysia.
Tip: Before setting off for Malaysia, revise visa requirements for your passport. The majority of the nations get 30 or 90 days free visa now, but to be on the safe side, double-check.
Immigration offices of Thailand and Malaysia are located on the Malaysian side. You have to take all your luggage and go through Thai immigration first to get your passport stamped out and then through Malaysian immigration. Immediately after Malaysian immigration booths there is security check. All the border formalities finished, you can proceed to Padang Besar train station in Pelis.
After all your immigration formalities are completed, take a train from Padang Besar to Butterworth. There are several trains a day between the two but note that you may or may NOT catch the next #2957 train leaving at 10.25am Malaysian time. Train #35 from Bangkok is scheduled to arrive to the Thai side of the border at 8.55am, also Malaysian time, which leaves you with 1½-hour gap for getting your out and in stamps. In most cases it is quite enough; but if the Bangkok train is late or you hit the queue at the border, you will have to wait till 4.15pm or 5.15pm (#9209 and #9215 respectively).
Option 2. From Bangkok to Butterworth via Hat Yai
Head from Bangkok to Hat Yai by train or by bus first. Make an overnight stop in Hat Yai to savour the atmosphere of this cosmopolitan southern city. The next day take one of the two daily shuttle trains from Hat Yai to Padang Besar (7.30am and 1.05pm; buy tickets at the station) or hop onto a local bus leaving from the clock tower or the city bus station; it is about 60 km from Hat Yai to the border.
From Padang Besar proceed through immigration and then to Butterworth as described above.
Tip Though both shuttle trains connect very conveniently to Komuter and ETS trains from Padang Besar to Butterworth, it makes sense to take the afternoon train at 1.05pm as if anything goes slower than expected at the immigration counters and you miss the next train to Butterworth at 4.15pm, you still have two other trains leaving at 5.15pm and 8pm.
Flights from Bangkok to Penang
There is no need to pass via Butterworth if you decide to fly. There are direct flights from Don Mueang airport in Bangkok and Penang International airport, located in the southeastern part of the island. Flying to Penang takes just under two hours; out of promotion periods you normally can get tickets for between THB2500 and THB3000.
From Butterworth to other cities of Malaysia and Singapore
There are convenient morning trains from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur and numerous buses leaving throughout the day from Butterworth bus terminal as well as Sungai Nibong terminal and Komtar Complex, both in Georgetown. No matter whether you choose a bus or a train, your journey to Kuala Lumpur will take from four to five hours.
A one-hour train ride brings you from Butterworth or Penang to Kedah; trains and buses connect Butterworth and Penang with Perak (two hours); buses go to Melaka (6 hours), Muar (7 hours) and Batu Pahat or Kuantan. To get to Singapore from Penang and Butterworth, you have to connect via Gemmas (10 hours); the same refers to the journey to Johor Bahru – trains take up to 12 hours for the same route.
From Butterworth to Georgetown
Butterworth is surely by no means your final destination in Penang State. To get to the island part of the state which is actually its main and only draw, use the famous Penang ferry. It departs regularly from the Ferry Terminal in Butterworth and heads to Georgetown. You can get to the ferry terminal directly from the train and bus stations in Butterworth – look for covered walkways and indications. Ferry takes just 15 minutes to reach the pier at Weld Quay and plies its route daily from 5.30am till 11.30pm every 10 or 20 minutes.
Getting around in Georgetown
Though as in many other places in Asia, footpaths are narrow or non-existent in Georgetown, it is still a pleasure to go on a stroll around the central part of Georgetown filled with colonial mansions, colorful temples and tasty restaurants. To go further, make use of rather a convenient and well-organized Penang public transport system. Local buses ply several routes which are clearly indicated on maps – look for them at the main bus terminals at Jetty and Komtar Complex. Buses stop picking up passengers after 10pm.Taxis have metres, though flat rates – normally, quite decent – are used for certain destinations. At night-time, taxis add 100% surcharge to the normal rate.
Renting a motorbike is a great way to get around the island. A usual daily rate is about MYR25, and many rental shops require a deposit of MYR200. Helmets are compulsory and traffic is often quite chaotic, but if you have the experience of negotiating streets anywhere in Asia, you will not be lost.