Southeast Asia comprises 11 countries, and there are land borders with China, India, Bangladesh, and Papua New Guinea. With so many land, sea, and air gates, there is a variety of border-crossing experiences to be had.
I was thinking about border crossings while on the beach in Koh Lipe in Thailand, waiting for a ferry to Langkawi in Malaysia. This was one of the most unusual border crossings I have experienced, so while I was waiting I made a list of the best, worst, and most memorable border crossings in Southeast Asia.
I write about transport in Southeast Asia, so I have a reasonable sample size now. These are all first-hand personal experiences, so they don’t mean they are the best. Maybe you had a terrible experience at my best crossing, and vice versa.
Best border-crossing experiences
Chiang Khong (Thailand) – Huay Xai (Laos)
My first visit to Laos was by getting the bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong, and then crossing the Mekong River in a little wooden boat to Huay Xai. The combination of no crowds and no immigration drama on either side, plus the novelty of the boat trip makes this one of my best border-crossing experiences.
Nong Khai (Thailand) – Thanaleng (Laos)
[Immigration gate at Nong Khai Railway Station.]
If only all border crossings were as easy and interesting as this one. There is a cross-border shuttle train that operates between Nong Khai in Thailand and Thanaleng in Laos. The trains are timed to meet the Bangkok – Nong Khai train.
There is a Thai immigration checkpoint on the platform at Nong Khai, and then passengers enter an enclosed platform for the shuttle. The train crosses the First Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge, which has tracks on the road. Traffic is stopped while the train crosses.
[Train crossing the First Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge.]
There is an immigration point at the platform at Thanaleng, and as there were so few passengers this was a quick process.
Johor Bahru Sentral (Malaysia) – Woodlands (Singapore)
The Johor Bahru – Singapore shuttle train service is even shorter than the Nong Khai – Thanaleng service, and it might be the shortest international train service in the world. The 5-minute train trip and quick immigration procedure make it the best way to enter Singapore by land.
Unfortunately there are not many international train services in Southeast Asia.
Singapore Changi Airport (Singapore)
Singapore Changi Airport is the gold standard for airport immigration experiences, and it’s no wonder that they continue to win awards for the best airport. I once had such an impressive arrival that I blogged about it afterwards.
Departing is also a smooth experience, as they have done away with passports being physically stamped. Now you just scan your passport at the gate to enter the departure area. Stamp collectors will be sad I suppose, but I welcome not getting stamps in my passport.
Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II International Airport (Indonesia)
The secret to stress-free arrival in Indonesia is to use an airport outside of Jakarta and Bali. I discovered this after arriving at Palembang Airport. Apart from not being a busy airport, not many non-ASEANers use it.
There was one other Westerner on my flight, and when we got to the visa-on-arrival stand we were told that the visa fees were temporarily being waived. With no queue and no visa hassles, I strolled to the light rail that connects the airport to the city centre. It was a great feeling to walk through a gaggle of taxi drivers knowing you have an airport train as an alternative.
Da Nang DAD (Vietnam) and Chiang Mai CNX (Thailand)
Da Nang and Chiang Mai are my two favourite airports in Southeast Asia in terms of exit speed and access to the city.
Da Nang Airport is in the city centre, and it still blows my mind that you are in the city proper once you leave the airport. My last trip from Da Nang was to Chiang Mai, and the Grab taxi from the beach area was 99,000 VND ($4.20 USD) and took about 10 minutes. There were 5 people in front of me at immigration, and the AirAsia flight departed 10 minutes ahead of schedule (thank you fellow passengers for arriving at the airport on time).
[Da Nang International Airport is literally in Da Nang.]
Arriving at Chiang Mai is even better. My personal best is 30 minutes from landing to arriving at the door of my hotel. My last trip took 40 minutes, mainly because I was seated at the back of the plane so there was a queue of about 10 people in front of me at immigration. If you sit near the front of the plane you shave more time off this process. Not that I’m in a great hurry, but I just find it amusing that this can be so quick.
After going through immigration at CNX I went to the toilet, and by the time I got to the baggage carousel, my bag was there. Walk outside to the prepaid taxi stand (150 THB / $4.45 USD) and then to my hotel. Like DAD, CNX is practically in the city centre. If you stay in the Nimmanhaemin Road area you are reminded of how close the airport is with planes constantly flying overhead.
Could be better
Nong Khai (Thailand) – Thanaleng (Laos) land crossing
I also crossed the First Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge on foot, which was more hassle than the train option. It’s not too busy (at least the times I went) but there are things that could be improved.
On the Thailand side, you get dropped off near the gate and then walk the rest of the way. I walked to the wrong building as it is not apparent which one is for foot traffic.
After you get stamped, you wait in a shuttle bus to cross the bridge. I wanted to walk, but it is 2.9 km (35 minutes walk according to Google) and I don’t think they would let you walk such a long distance in no-mans land.
[The Thai-Laos border shuttle bus.]
On the Laos side, I got a visa on arrival at the immigration area. The visa official wanted crispy dollar bills, which I did not have. I had a bunch of small notes which he kept rejecting, but then I showed a $20 that he previously rejected in combination with some $10s and he accepted it.
Coming back to Thailand, I went to the immigration point, but I had to go back to another room where the immigration forms were.
Neither here nor there
The best crossings are probably the ones I don’t have any memory of. These are where there is no drama and not too long of a wait, so the experience is not seared onto my memory.
These are all the border crossings I have done that I don’t remember anything about.
– Padang Besar Thailand-Malaysia by minivan. It was probably crowded at the border but I might have enjoyed getting out of the cramped minivan at that point.
– West Timor-East Timor minibus. The minibus caught fire in East Timor, but I don’t remember anything in particular about the border crossing.
– Visa run from Thailand to Cambodia. Poipet is one of the most notorious border crossings in Southeast Asia, but I haven’t experienced it myself. The visa run was a concierge experience where everything is done for you. It was just a boring day in a van.
– Cambodia to Vietnam via Chau Doc. A minivan/boat combo trip but I don’t remember how we crossed the border.
– Cambodia to Vietnam via Ha Tien. The bus ticket I was sold from Kampot to Can Tho was actually a trip made up of three local buses. I remember it being a longer day than I thought it would take, though I have no memory of the border crossing.
– Sungai Kolok (Thailand) – Rantau Panjang (Malaysia) I got the train to Sungai Kolok and then a taxi to the border. Here you can walk across the border.
– Vang Tao (Laos) – Chong Mek (Thailand) is the border between Pakse and Ubon Ratchathani. It must have been another drama-free crossing if I remember nothing of it.
– Langkawi (Malaysia) – Satun (Thailand) ferry.
– Singapore – Batam (Indonesia) ferry both ways.
– Labuan (Malaysia) – Brunei.
– Johor Bahru (JHB)
– Kota Kinabalu (BKI)
– Kuala Lumpur (KUL) main terminal
– Luang Prabang (LPQ)
– Makassar (UPG)
– Medan (MES) (old Polonia International Airport)
– Penang (PEN)
– Phnom Penh (PNH)
– Yangon (RGN)
I have never flown internationally into Hanoi or Jakarta, so I don’t know what I am missing there.
Most memorable border corssings
Koh Lipe (Thailand) – Langkawi (Malaysia)
[Koh Lipe immigration point on the beach.]
The most memorable border crossing for me was the aforementioned border gate at Koh Lipe in Thailand. There is no enclosed area on the beach, so international passengers are on the beach with the general population. Incoming and outgoing passengers are also in the same space.
I was going from Koh Lipe to Langkawi but I was thinking about how amazing it would be from the other direction. Imagine if it’s your first time in Southeast Asia and you are travelling overland from Singapore to Thailand. You are in Langkawi and then get the international ferry to Koh Lipe. Your first impression of Thailand would be to land on this tropical paradise where the immigration booth is on the actual beach. This introduction sets an unreasonable picture of what border crossings in Thailand are really like.
[Passengers from Langkawi arriving at Koh Lipe. Someone in the group has never been to Thailand.]
This border crossing loses points because once you check in and surrender your passport, you have to wait around on the beach in the middle of the day. I ended up standing around for an hour as there was nowhere to sit.
Phuket International Airport (Thailand)
I flew to Phuket during the Phuket Sandbox era, not long after Thailand reopened after the pandemic closure. There was a lot of paperwork to get on the plane, including arranging accommodation at an approved hotel and getting a covid test. Upon arrival at the airport, we had to line up to have our paperwork checked and then get another covid test.
I had similar experiences at BKK and PNH in those early months of Southeast Asia reopening.
Most embarrassing border crossing
Woodlands (Singapore) – Johor Bahru (Malaysia)
My most embarrassing experience was crossing from Singapore to JB. I went to the train station but discovered that the tickets were sold out, so I had to walk to the foot passenger area. On the way I took some photos of the trains, completely forgetting that I was in a place you shouldn’t take photos. Some guards saw me so they came over and asked to see my camera. They started scrolling through my photos, and I was starting to wonder if there was anything on the camera that a stranger shouldn’t see. After not finding any nudes and scrolling through boring photos of buildings that I use for this blog, they deleted my precious train photos.
Annoying border crossings
Bavet (Cambodia) – Moc Bai (Vietnam)
I recently went from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh by bus and it was actually a good experience. Things have changed since my first few times. One time I was going from Vietnam to Cambodia, and the bus operator wanted to charge $5 per person to process our passports. They would take the passport to the counter for us to charge this service fee.
Another time upon entering Vietnam, the immigration counters were trying to charge a $1 health scan fee. They were just checking your temperature (this was before Covid). I objected to this obvious scam, and I have not seen it since.
Penang (Malaysia) – Medan (Indonesia) ferry
I wish I had blogged about this experience because the details are now lost to time and the ferry service no longer operates. The ferry trip took hours in a cramped boat, but this article isn’t about the modes of transport. I arrived at the Medan port in Belawan and I recall being confused about how to get to the city. This was my first time in Indonesia (an un-Australian thing to have not gone to Bali first) so it wasn’t the best first impression of Indonesia.
Belawan is not near the city centre, though it is gerrymandered into the boundary of Medan. Google Maps says it is 23 km and 38 minutes by car. It felt twice as long, which might have been time feeling elongated after the long ferry ride.
[Belawan in the city of Medan.]
This was before the age of smartphones, so I went into Medan not knowing where I was. I had the giant Lonely Planet Indonesia guide, so I will have to consult that to piece together what I did.
Worst border-crossing experiences
Unsurprisingly, some of the worst immigration experiences are at the big airports.
The Johor–Singapore Causeway is the main land border crossing between Singapore and Malaysia, and the busiest land border in Southeast Asia. If you go at the wrong time of day it can be a nightmare. My last border crossing by foot took about 90 minutes of queue time. This is the reason that the JB Sentral – Woodlands train is so popular.
[Johor Bahru immigration queue.]
Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Philippines)
No worst airport experience is complete without Manila’s NAIA. This is in my worst category but not the worst I’ve experienced, mainly because I have only been there a few times. On my last visit, I was greeted with a chaotic jumble of queues that was hard to tell which was the shortest. This time took about an hour.
[The anxiety-inducing immigration line at NAIA.]
This listicle is about immigration experiences, so I won’t go into the shambolic state of the terminal and equally long line for a taxi.
Kuala Lumpur Low Cost Carrier Terminal (Malaysia)
The old KUL budget terminal (LCCT) was basically a tin shed that was built to accommodate low-cost airlines. The meteoric rise of AirAsia soon overwhelmed the intended capacity of the terminal.
I don’t have any memory of a specific flight. I just remember dreading the experience because there were always lots of people.
klia2 – KUL New Budget Terminal (Malaysia)
[Immigration queue at klia2.]
A bigger and better budget terminal was built to replace LCCT at KUL, and it wasn’t long before it was overwhelmed as well. I’ve had arrivals days where I waited over an hour in line, so that puts it among the worst.
Since my last visit to klia2, Malaysia has opened up automated immigration gates to visitors from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and 4 other countries. If this is as good as the Changi experience, then klia2 might soon feature in the best and worst categories. I will report back on my next visit.
I Gusti Ngurah Rai International Airport (DPS)
The last time I arrived internationally at Bali I arrived at the same time as some flights from Australia, so that was over 1 hour of queuing. There was an improvement with the visa processing now that the Visa On Arrival is being done at the passport point, and payment can be made with a credit card.
That last trip also included the most thorough baggage inspection I have ever gone through. The border police went through everything, even unrolling socks. The most incriminating thing in my bag was a box of business cards, as if I was arriving on the island to do business.
This thorough going-over was about a month before the G20 summit in 2022, so I suspect they were doing practice runs before the event.
Tan Son Nhat International Airport (Vietnam)
The airport of Ho Chi Minh City with the old SGN IATA code seems to polarise residents and visitors alike. Personally, I am on team Tan Son Nhat. Even though it has long since outgrown its capacity, I still marvel that it can function as well as it does. I have had days when I arrived and there was no queue at immigration, my bag was almost instantly at the carousel, and there was a taxi waiting for me at the Vinasun taxi queue.
Those days are getting rarer though, and you are more likely to encounter a queue going down the corridor.
[Crowded immigration at SGN.]
The queue is made worse by the fact that you have to pick a line. If you pick a slow line, you will watch the line next to you move faster. I have the uncanny ability to always pick the slower line, so if you ever see me in a queue, then pick another line.
It was even worse when the visa process involved applying for a visa online and then queueing at the visa window to get a stamp. I have had times when I waited 45 minutes for a visa and then an hour or so for immigration. Thankfully, the new online visa has done away with this double-queueing.
[Immigration queue at SGN.]
Bangkok BKK and DMK (Thailand)
The two airports of Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang) are also bad when they are busy. The same disclaimer applies here. I’ve had days when there were only a few people in the queue and I have had a smooth exit. On the bad days, there are waits of over 1 hour. My record for any immigration queue was 90 minutes at Don Muang. I then had a long queue for a taxi (this was before the airport commuter train opened).
[Don Muang Airport immigration line.]
Future border crossings
Looking at this list I see some gaps in places I haven’t been. I still need to travel from Vietnam to China by train at two locations, the Laos-China train, and there are some border crossings between Vietnam and Laos I am curious about. I also can’t wait to see the RTS link in operation, which is a metro line that will connect Johor Bahru to Singapore (and do away with that awful land crossing).
If you have a memorable border-crossing experience in Southeast Asia then leave a comment.