Getting around in Malaysia
• Local transport
Boats and ferries sail between the peninsula and offshore islands. If a boat looks overloaded or otherwise unsafe, do not board it. There are no ferry services between Malaysian Borneo and the peninsula. Travel on the larger rivers, such as the Rejang and Baram in Borneo, is accomplished in fast passenger launches known by the generic term ekspres, which carry around 100 people. Travel on smaller, squeezier Bornean waterways is mainly by costly motorised longboat. It’s best to organise a group to share costs.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country and we don’t recommend it. True, Malaysia has long had a reputation for being an excellent place to hitchhike but, with the ease of bus travel, most travellers don’t bother. On the west coast, hitching is quite easy but it’s not possible on the main lebuhraya. On the east coast, traffic is lighter and there may be long waits between rides.
Bus & tram
Peninsular Malaysia has an excellent bus system. Public buses do local runs and a variety of privately operated buses generally handle the longer trips. In larger towns there may be several bus stations. Local and regional buses often operate from one station and long-distance buses from another; in other cases, KL for example, bus stations are differentiated by the destinations they serve.
Buses are an economical form of transport, reasonably comfortable and on major runs you can often just turn up and get on the next bus. On many routes there are air-conditioned buses, which usually cost just a few ringgit more than regular buses.
Ekspres, in the Malaysian context, often means indeterminate stops. To make up this time many long-distance bus drivers tend to think of the lebuhraya (highway) as their personal Formula One track.
The main highway routes in both Sabah and Sarawak are well served by buses. The main road in Sarawak winds from Kuching to the Brunei border and, although sealed, can be rough in parts. Roads in Sabah are better, but have unmarked hazards.
The main destinations in Sabah are linked by a reasonable system of roads. You can travel between Sabah and Sarawak by road via Brunei, but there are several immigration stops and no public transport on some sections – we recommend travelling by boat between Kota Kinabalu and Bandar Seri Begawan via Pulau Labuan for this section.
Car & motorcycle
Driving in Peninsular Malaysia is a breeze compared to most other Asian countries; the roads are generally high quality, there are plenty of new cars available and driving standards aren’t too hair-raising. Road rules are basically the same as in Britain and Australia. Cars are right-hand drive and you drive on the left side of the road. However, you should be constantly aware of the hazards posed by stray animals and numerous motorcyclists.
Unlimited-distance car-rental rates cost from around RM145/920 per day/week, including insurance and collision-damage waiver.
Be aware that insurance companies will most likely wash their hands of you if you injure yourself driving a motorcycle without a licence.
Peninsular Malaysia has a modern, comfortable and economical railway service that has basically two lines. One runs from Singapore to KL, then to Butterworth and on into Thailand. The other line, known as the Jungle Railway, cuts through the interior of Malaysia linking Gemas, Taman Negara with Kota Bharu, a transit town for Pulau Perhentian.
In Sabah on Borneo there’s a narrow-gauge railway line that runs from Kota Kinabalu south to Beaufort and then through Sungai Pegas gorge to Tenom.
Peninsular Malaysia has three main types of rail services: express, limited express and local trains. Express trains are air-conditioned and generally 1st and 2nd class only, and on night trains there’s a choice of berths or seats. Limited express trains may have 2nd and 3rd class only but some have 1st, 2nd and 3rd class with overnight sleepers. Local trains are usually 3rd class only, but some have 2nd class.
The privatised national railway company, Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM; 03-2267 1200, 2773 1430; www.ktmb.com.my), offers a tourist Rail Pass for five days (adult US$35), 10 days (adult US$55) and 15 days (adult US$70). This pass entitles the holder to unlimited travel on any class of train, although it does not include sleeping-berth charges. Rail Passes are available only to foreigners and can be purchased at KL, JB, Butterworth, Pelabuhan (Port) Klang, Padang Besar and Wakaf Baharu train stations. You have to do an awful lot of train travel to make it worthwhile.
Local transport varies but almost always includes local buses and taxis. In many Peninsular Malaysian towns there are also bicycle rickshaws. While these are dying out in KL, they are still a viable form of transport in a few towns. Indeed, in places such as Georgetown, with its convoluted and narrow streets, a bicycle rickshaw is the best way of getting around.
Good luck finding a taxi with an operational meter in Malaysia. Except where prepurchased coupons are involved or where drivers have agreed on a standard route fare, you will inevitably have to negotiate with the driver about fares. On their worst days, taxi drivers will charge extortionate amounts. Don’t be afraid to turn down a fare you think is too high and walk over to the next taxi to negotiate a fairer price. Even better, ask at your hotel or a visitors centre about reasonable fares.
Compared to buses, long-distance (or share) taxis are an expensive way to travel around Malaysia. The taxis work on fixed fares for the entire car and will only head off when a full complement of passengers (usually four people) turns up. Between major towns you will have a reasonable chance of finding other passengers without having to wait around too long; otherwise, you’ll probably have to charter a whole taxi at four times the single fare.
With all airlines, it pays to check websites for specials.
Malaysia Airlines (code MH; 1300 883 000; www.malaysiaairlines.com.my) is the country’s main domestic operator, linking major regional centres on the peninsula and on Pulau Langkawi and a network of Bornean flights, including a rural air service. Economical, five-city Discover Malaysia air passes are valid for 28 days but can only be purchased with an international Malaysia Airlines ticket.
Firefly (code FY; 03-7845 4543; www.fireflyz.com), a subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines that began services in April 2007, has budget flights from Pulau Penang to Pulau Langkawi, Kuala Terengganu, Kuantan and Kota Bharu, and to Phuket and Koh Samui in Thailand. Services are ¬expected to expand.
Air Asia (code AK; 03-8775 4000; www.airasia.com) is a no-frills airline offering super-cheap flights. Air Asia flies to/from KL, Johor Bahru, Penang, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching as well as a handful of smaller Malaysian cities.
Tiny Berjaya Air (code J8; 03-2145 2828; www.berjaya-air.com) has flights between KL, Pulau Tioman and Pulau Pangkor.