COME weekends, the little town of Wang Kelian in Perlis at the Malaysian-Thai border sees an influx of thousands of visitors looking for great bargains for goods and food at its famed market.
Although it is open daily, Saturdays and Sundays are the most happening because of the document-free travel policy adopted by the authorities of both nations on the two days.
That is the exciting part of the Wang Kelian market, where Malaysians travel from near and far for the special privilege of free cross-border entry into Thailand without passports or border passes, for shopping within a 1km radius.
While the Wang Kelian Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex (CIQ) practises this policy, the authorities, undoubtedly, do not condone smuggling and other illegal activities, and carry out stringent checks for contraband at the border crossing.
Once across the border, Malaysians head for the market at Wang Prachan in the Satun province of southern Thailand.
The market stretches for some 200m, and shoppers are spoilt for choice with a wide range of items from dry food, chocolates and snacks to daily necessities, bicycles, kitchenware, accessories, toiletries, textiles, clothes, bedsheets, decorative items and more.
On the Wang Kelian side in Perlis, there is a smaller market of about half the size, offering similar goods.
Journalist Chong Keat Yin, 33, from nearby Kangar, said the weekend market at the Thai side was more popular among Malaysians because of the thrill of stepping into a foreign country without documents for shopping.
“I have been to Wang Kelian numerous times, mainly because various friends want me to take them there as they are so curious and excited about crossing the border freely and going on a shopping spree.
“There was a time I took a friend there and he was so sceptical that he kept grabbing my bag as we walked across the border, fearing that he would be nabbed by the authorities,” she recalled with laughter.
Chong said the Wang Kelian weekend market had attracted many tourists to the state, and boosted its image as a tourist attraction.
Around 50 motorcycle taxi drivers in official yellow vests can be seen gathered at the Thai side of the market with their colourful scooters, waiting for passengers.
The transport is popular among shoppers who find themselves heavily laden with boxes and packets of goods when they are ready to leave.
Driver Halimah Ahmad, 48, said they only charged RM2 to cross the border.
“If the visitors are carrying goods, we charge them between RM3 and RM5 per trip. Weekends are the busiest time for us as some visitors come by chartered buses.
“This taxi service is convenient for people who are tired of walking due to the distance between the two checkpoints and the scorching heat, and suitable for the elderly too,” she explained.
The Thai Muslim, who speaks fluent Bahasa Malaysia, said Wang Kelian is mostly dry and humid except from April to August.
Getting to the Wang Kelian market itself is a bit tricky as travellers need to drive up to Kaki Bukit and then spend some 10 to 15 minutes on hilly terrain to reach the spot.
But as one drives up the curvy, steep roads to Wang Kelian, they will be mesmerised by the panoramic view of the countryside and Gunung Medan standing majestically at a distance.
It takes about two hours to drive from Alor Setar in Kedah, and three-and-a-half hours to drive from George Town in Penang to reach Wang Kelian.
For those who are not into shopping, a trip to Wang Kelian is worth it for the journey itself, passing by Timah Tasoh Dam, paddy fields, rubber estates, Malay traditional villages and the joy of stepping into another country.
Trade union officer Nor Azlan Yaacob, 51, travelled all the way from Kuala Lumpur with his family just to get a feel of the land of smiles and great shopping deals.
“I’ve been here a few times because the items sold are cheaper than in Malaysia, and some can only be obtained here like their handicraft and souvenirs.
“Besides, what makes it so interesting is the free-border crossing policy which can’t be found at other entry point,” he said when met at the market recently after getting snacks, a carpet and kitchenware.
Nor Azlan added that his children enjoyed the trip as it was not common for kids who grow up in the city to be immersed with countryside scenery.
Food sold at the market is halal as 99% of the traders are Thai Muslims staying in Satun, and they are able to speak Bahasa Malaysia.
Business at the markets of Wang Kelian and Wang Prachan starts from 8am to 6pm.