There are multiple ways to head north from Penang to Hat Yai in Thailand. Which is right for you will depend on your desired route and personal preference.
If you are going the other way, from Hat Yai to Penang, this information will still be useful even though it mainly describes going north to Hat Yai. Just as there are buses headed to Hat Yai there will be a bus to Penang that you can take.
Ferry From Penang to Langkawi Then Ferry to Thailand
This option does not require you to go to Butterworth on the Malaysian mainland. From Georgetown catch a different ferry to Langkawi, Malaysia. From Langkawi you can catch a ferry to Satun, Thailand then a bus on to Hat Yai. Click here to read our guide on how to get from Langkawi to Hat Yai.
We have previously documented that route so click those links and do some reading if it is of interest. Unless you are already going to Langkawi it is however a bit of a pain. Lots of changing modes of transport, lots of waiting around between different ferries and buses. We previously went that way as we wanted to spend some time on Langkawi, which is beautiful by the way, but if you just want to get to Thailand as quickly as possible this route is not the best.
Train From Butterworth to Hat Yai
To us this seems the most appealing way to get from Penang to HatYai if you do not plan to spend time on Langkawi.
Every day at 2pm a train to Hat Yai leaves Butterworth train station. It actually goes all the way to Bangkok if you are interested in going further north. Click here for a detailed Butterworth to Hat Yai train schedule.
There are other trains heading north out of Butterworth but most do not go past the Malaysian border. You could almost certainly catch a train to the border, cross into Thailand then arrange a bus on the Thailand side to get to Hat Yai but that seems like making work for yourself.
The Butterworth to Hat Yai train trip takes five and a half hours. Be aware that clocks go back an hour when you cross into Thailand so you will depart at 2pm (Malaysia time) and arrive at 6:30pm (Thailand time).
If you are going on to Bangkok I would recommend getting a second class sleeper. Overnight there is very little better than being able to lay flat and sleep properly. Do not bother with first class unless you are feeling particularly flush. If you are just going to Hay Yai just get whatever train ticket is the cheapest as it is a relatively short trip that happens during daylight hours.
A second class sleeper should set you back something in the neighbourhood of 50 MYR. It is 57 to go all the way from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai so from Butterworth should be a touch less. If you want a sleeper in particular I strongly recommend getting your train ticket at least the day before. The number of sleepers available is limited and they do sell out from time to time.
Bus to Hat Yai
The next option is to take a bus from Penang to Hat Yai.
There are numerous bus companies that ply routes around Malaysia and Thailand so there are plenty of options for a Penang to Hat Yai bus. For anything over a few hours this is not always a super comfortable way to travel but it will get you where you need to go. At least on a train you can get up and walk around as much as you like but the buses tend to be as comfortable as buses can realistically be.
To get bus tickets the most convenient option will be asking at your guesthouse or hotel. They will often be able to arrange tickets with the added bonus that you may get picked up from your accommodation by a minivan and taken to where you need to catch the bus. Of course you can expect them to tack on a few extra ringgit for all of this convenience.
You can buy bus tickets in person at a handful of different locations, which are also some of the places where you can board your bus. Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal on Penang island, Komtar (also on Penang island) and Butterworth bus terminal. Of these the best option is, in our opinion, the Butterworth bus terminal.
Komtar in particular may be more convenient depending on where you are staying but be aware that if you depart from Sungai Nibong Bus terminal or Komtar you may find that your bus travels via Butterworth bus station anyway. Thanks to Penang's traffic the bus may take an hour to get to Butterworth when a pleasant, and free, 15 minute ferry ride would have gotten you to the same place where you could then catch a bus from Butterworth to Hat Yai without the extra hour on the bus. Click here for details about the Georgetown to Butterworth ferry
Unless it is a national holiday you should be ok to get bus tickets on the day you wish to travel. It does not hurt to arrange them a day or two in advance if you can but it is rarely a problem if you arrive at a major bus hub like the Butterworth bus terminal and simply ask around for the next bus to Hat Yai.
If you are arriving and departing Penang via a bus terminal and you are staying in Penang for a fixed period of time consider buying your onward ticket when you arrive. You are already at the bus terminal after all. This does lock your schedule in so we typically do not do this but if you know that you will be leaving Penang on a particular day you can save yourself some leg work.
Finally, you can purchase tickets online from places like Easybook.com. We have temporarily stopped catching buses around south east Asia due to our daughter Zoe. Until she is a few years older we are taking a break from buses. That means that we have not had a chance to use an online bus ticket booking service. We have always just bought our tickets the old fashioned way, in person. If you have used an online bus ticket company do contact us and tell us how it went. We would love a few personal recommendations.
If you do use Easybook make sure that you are very clear on which departure and arrival location you are selecting. There are fifteen locations grouped under "Penang". Use google maps to check you know where you are going to catch your bus and, if in doubt, just choose a easily findable location like Butterworth bus terminal or Komtar.
Also, pay attention to the coach type if that is important to you. They will range all the way from big coaches through to mini-vans. It is no a long trip, 3-4 hours, so it probably is not a huge deal regardless but better to know what you are getting.
According to Easybook you are looking at 35 MYR for a bus ticket from Butterworth to Hat Yai. Click here to check prices and bus schedules.
There are of course a few other alternatives. You could rent a car and drive to Hat Yai although I am unsure what you would do with the car if you do not plan to return to Penang. You could pay someone to drive you. You could taxi to the border then get a bus there.
There are endless options but most of these are going to be both more expensive and more hassle than the train, the bus or maybe two ferries and a bus.
Whatever option you pick will be determined by whether you want to go via Langkawi and your preference for buses Vs trains. Whatever you choose, have fun 🙂