Penang to Phuket: island hopping around Southeast Asia – but in a car

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Forget about getting on a plane or taking a boat. Writer Tony Cope finds that island hopping in a car is much more of adventure.

One of the benefits of living in Penang is that Asia is on your doorstep – and if you shop around and travel outside of the major cultural festivals and holidays, you can fly anywhere for very little – even to more distant destinations such as Japan and India.

In addition, Peninsular Malaysia is part of a large landmass, so while Singapore is a day’s drive to the south, to the north there are many countries to be explored if you have the time and are adventurous. In 2012, the major car club here, the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register, hosted the Penang start of the 2012 Tiger Rally for classic cars which ended in Myanmar (Burma).

Photo credit: Malaysia and Singapore Vintage Car Register
Photo credit: Malaysia and Singapore Vintage Car Register

As the Thailand border is less than two hours north of Penang, I had been close to the border a few times on a few road trips. When my company announced the annual Senior Directors’ Conference was to be in Phuket, my immediate thought was that, rather than taking the easy option and flying there, why not make it more of a challenge and drive there – and more importantly, in my 20-yearold Rover Cabrio?

So decision made – or I thought so. The conference involved over 400 people from all over the world and all arrangements for attendance had to be made online, and I could not register unless I provided all my flight details – they had not taken into account that some masochist would actually drive to the conference. It took weeks to sort that out, and even after I was registered, I kept getting emails asking me to confirm my flight details – my replies got shorter and sharper every time.

As it happened, my Australia-based adult children, Jessica and Mitchell, had planned to visit me in Penang at the same time, so they arranged to fly direct to Phuket, stay in the conference resort and then we would all drive back together.


However, I had not planned to come down with Dengue Fever and a week before the conference I was still very weak and also suffering from postinfection fibromyalgia (searing muscle pain) and was physically not up to the two-day drive. Of their own initiative, they changed their plans and flew to Penang early – which of course enabled enjoying a meal or two at the many heritage restaurants in George Town.

So off we set with Jessica taking the wheel initially – Malaysia has a modern freeway running from Singapore to the Thai border so for the first two hours it was a 110km/h cruise past the majestic peak of Gunung Kedah and the town of Alor Setar before the chaos of the border crossing. (As an aside, I often take visitors on day trips from Penang to Gunung Kedah where we have lunch at the restaurant near the peak before exploring downtown Alor Setar in the afternoon.)

Fortunately, a number of members of the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register had briefed me on the border procedure – stop at a certain roadhouse five kilometres before the border, buy Thai road insurance, proceed to the border, park in a certain parking lot, and then fill in all the paperwork to import your car (temporarily) into Thailand – it took me a minute or so to work out the value of the Rover in Thai Baht and judging by the reaction of the customs official most people must underdeclare the value of their car. Then when all this is done drive back to the Malaysian side of the border and proceed through with all the paperwork. If I had not been clued up, the process would have been totally opaque.



The road on the other side of the border was more like that on most developing countries – slow progress through town after town and getting stuck behind slow trucks, while on the alert for errant motorbikes and pedestrians. As soon as Mitchell spotted a McDonalds, we had to buy some lunch and establish what the Big Mac Index (world value of currency comparison) was for Thailand.

I am pleased to report that all future stops were at roadside stalls offering delicious Pad Thai and Sate Beef and the like for minimal money.

The overnight stop was at a hotel I had prebooked at Krabi – the only problem was the hotel was in a beachside town some way beyond Krabi so it took a bit of finding – but a long swim in the pool and a dinner on the beachfront watching the sun set over the Andaman Sea, well-lubricated with $1 beers, made it a perfect ending to the day.

The less said about work conferences the better – other than the networking, it is the usual corporate speak of “goal setting, work smarter/not harder, and go for growth, etc.” But Jessica and Mitchell made full use of the Rover over the three days and explored the various beaches of Phuket – and there are many. Every evening was an excited rundown of the events of the day – and in particular a day tour which involved quad bike riding and seeing elephants.

james bond island
Photo credit: Banana Republic Images

On the way home, we had more time, so chose to spend two nights at Krabi where Jessica and Mitchell went on a day tour of the islands now known as the James Bond Islands featured in the movie The Man with the Golden Gun and they came back raving at the beauty of the island and the tour with plenty of swimming and a lunch on a secluded beach. A must-do for a future visit to Krabi.

My plan was to stay in the hotel room and attend to work matters as the pain from the fibromyalgia would have precluded any bouncing around in a speedboat. As it was, I had a terrible night with pains and sweating and I went to clinic to get some medication – they promptly put me on a drip and a wave of relief washed over me – and I stayed on Cloud 9 for the next 24 hours. Not sure what was in the drip – I did not dare ask – but it sure worked!

The day we left Krabi was the first clear sunny day we had experience due to the late monsoon rains; however, after we had packed the car, the temperature was at least 34°C and 99% humidity so we took the easy option, left the roof up, and enjoyed the airconditioning – in fact, we never dropped the roof the whole trip.

Southern Thailand is very scenic with beautiful beaches and karst (limestone) mountains like those found near Ipoh in Malaysia, Guilin in China, and Hanoi in Vietnam, and it was a pleasure watching the picture-postcard scenes unfold as we drove along.



Crossing the border was a lot easier this time, but I made sure all my paperwork was stamped that I was taking the Rover out of Thailand – I had no desire to pay any customs fees!

But all good things come to an end, and after a week and almost 2,000km later, we were driving over the Penang Bridge. And for those readers with younger children who experience the repeated question from the back seat, “Are we there yet?” – there is hope – my children in their 20s did not ask once – mind you, though, they did all the driving!

The next day we took the car in for a complete wash and interior detail – it was a slow day at the carwash and at one stage there were six people washing/wiping/vacuuming the car for a total cost of RM12. As usual they did an immaculate job.

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Source: The Expat Magazine October 2014

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