Transport in Malaysia is reasonably priced and reliable. For timetables use Check My Bus (www.checkmybus.com/malaysia) for buses and www.ktmb.com.my for trains.
Bus There's hardly anywhere you can't get by bus in Malaysia.
Train Malaysia's trains are generally slower than than the bus and a far less extensive network. That said, they are still useful for access to remote locations and the newer speedy electric train service (ETS) along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia is worth considering.
Car Malaysia's roads are generally in good order, especially its highways. It's a good idea to hire a car to explore the country's hinterland, but avoid driving around Kuala Lumpur yourself.
Air Domestic flights connect up major cities, towns and islands.
Bicycle touring around Malaysia is an increasingly popular activity. The main road system is well engineered and has good surfaces, but the secondary road system is limited. Road conditions are good enough for touring bikes in most places, but mountain bikes are recommended for forays off the beaten track.
Top-quality bicycles and components can be bought in major cities, but generally 10-speed (or higher) bikes and fittings are hard to find. Bringing your own is the best bet. Bicycles can be transported on most international flights; check with the airline about extra charges and shipment specifications.
- Kuala Lumpur Mountain Bike Hash (www.klmbh.org) Details of the monthly bike ride out of KL.
- Malaysia Cycling Events & Blogs (www.malaysiacycling.blogspot.co.uk) Includes listings of cycle shops around the country.
- Cycling Kuala Lumpur (http://cyclingkl.blogspot.my) A great resource for cycling adventures in and around KL.
There are no services connecting Peninsular Malaysia with Malaysian Borneo. On a local level, there are boats and ferries between the peninsula and offshore islands, and along the rivers of Sabah and Sarawak. Note that some ferry operators are notoriously lax about observing safety rules, and local authorities are often nonexistent. If a boat looks overloaded or otherwise unsafe, do not board it – no one else will look out for your safety.
Bus travel in Malaysia is economical and generally comfortable. Seats can be paid for and reserved either directly with operators or via online sites such www.easybook.com. Some bus drivers speed recklessly, resulting in frequent, often fatal, accidents.
Konsortium Transnasional Berhad (www.ktb.com.my) is Malaysia’s largest bus operator running services under the Transnasional, Nice, Plusliner and Cityliner brands. Its services tend to be slower than rivals, but its buses have also been involved in several major accidents. It has competition from a variety of privately operated buses on the longer domestic routes, including Aeroline (www.aeroline.com.my) and Super Nice (www.supernice.com.my). There are so many buses on major runs that you can often turn up and get a seat on the next bus.
Most long-distance buses have air-con, often turned to frigid, so bring a sweater!
In larger towns there may be a number of bus stations; local/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.
Bus travel off the beaten track is relatively straightforward. Small towns and kampung (villages) all over the country are serviced by public buses. Unfortunately, they are often poorly signed and sometimes the only way to find your bus is to ask a local. These buses are invariably dirt cheap and provide a great sample of rural life. In most towns there are no ticket offices, so buy your ticket from the conductor after you board.
Car & Motorcycle
Driving in Malaysia is fantastic compared with most Asian countries. There has been a lot of investment in the country’s roads, which are generally of a high quality. New cars for hire are commonly available and fuel is inexpensive (RM2.20 per litre).
It’s not all good news though. Driving in the cities, particularly KL, can be a nightmare, due to traffic and confusing one-way systems. Malaysian drivers aren’t always the safest when it comes to obeying road rules – they mightn’t be as reckless as drivers elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but they still take risks. For example, hardly any of the drivers keep to the official 110km/h speed limit on the main highways and tailgating is a common problem.
The Lebuhraya (North–South Hwy) is a six-lane expressway that runs for 966km along the length of the peninsula from the Thai border in the north to JB in the south. There are quite steep toll charges for using the expressway and these vary according to the distance travelled. As a result, the normal highways remain crowded while traffic on the expressway is light.
Bring Your Own Vehicle
It’s technically possible to bring your vehicle into Malaysia, but there are reams of red tape and the costs are prohibitively expensive – a hire car is a much better proposition.
A valid overseas licence is needed to rent a car. An International Driving Permit (a translation of your state or national driver’s licence and its vehicle categories) is usually not required by local car-hire companies, but it is recommended that you bring one. Most rental companies also require that drivers are at least 23 years old (and younger than 65) with at least one year of driving experience.
Major rent-a-car operations in Malaysia:
- Avis (www.avis.com.my)
- Hertz (www.simedarbycarrental.com)
- Mayflower (www.mayflowercarrental.com.my)
- Orix (www.orixauto.com.my)
You'll also find local operators in individual cities.
Unlimited distance rates for a 1.3L Proton Saga, one of the cheapest and most popular cars in Malaysia, are posted at around RM190/1320 per day/week, including insurance and collision-damage waiver. The Proton is basically a Mitsubishi assembled under licence in Malaysia.
You can often get better prices, either through smaller local companies or when the major companies offer special deals. Rates drop substantially for longer rentals. The advantage of dealing with a large company is that it has offices all over the country, giving better backup if something goes wrong and allowing you to pick up in one city and drop off in another.
The best place to look for car hire is KL, though Penang is also good. In Sabah and Sarawak there is less competition and rates are higher, partly because of road conditions; there’s also likely to be a surcharge if you drop your car off in a different city from the one you rented it in.
Rental companies will provide insurance when you hire a car, but always check what the extent of your coverage will be, particularly if you’re involved in an accident. You might want to take out your own insurance or pay the rental company an extra premium for an insurance excess reduction.
Road Rules & Hazards
- Cars are right-hand drive, and you drive on the left side of the road.
- The speed limit is 110km per hour on expressways, 50km per hour on kampung (village) back roads.
- Wearing safety belts is compulsory.
- Watch out for stray animals, wandering pedestrians and the large number of motorcyclists.
- Malaysia drivers show remarkable common sense compared to other countries in the region. However, there are still plenty of drivers who take dangerous risks. Lane-drift is a big problem and signalling, when used at all, is often unclear. Giving a quick blast of the horn when you’re overtaking a slower vehicle is common practice and helps alert otherwise sleepy drivers to your presence.
Keep in mind hitching is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
This said, Malaysia has long had a reputation for being a great place for hitchhiking, and it’s generally still true, though with inexpensive bus travel, most travellers don’t bother. Note that hitchers are banned from expressways.
Taxis are found in all large cities, and most have meters – although you can’t always rely on the drivers to use them. Most people use the ride-share app Grab.
Bicycle rickshaws (trishaws) supplement the taxi service in George Town and Melaka and are definitely handy ways of getting around the older parts of town, which have convoluted and narrow streets.
In major cities there are also buses, which are extremely cheap and convenient once you figure out which one is going your way. KL also has commuter trains, a Light Rail Transit (LRT), Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and a monorail system.
In Malaysian Borneo, once you’re out of the big cities, you’re basically on your own and must either walk or hitch. If you’re really in the bush, of course, riverboats and aeroplanes are the only alternatives to lengthy jungle treks.
As Malaysia has become a wealthier country, with more people owning their own cars, the long-distance taxi is becoming less of a feature of the transport landscape. However, in major towns and cities there will be a teksi stand for long-distance travel.
Taxis are available on a share basis for up to four people. As soon as a full complement of passengers turns up, off you go; alternatively, you can charter the whole taxi, which is four times the single-fare rate. Early morning is generally the best time to find people to share a taxi, but enquire at the taxi stand the day before as to the best time to turn up.
Single fares are generally about twice the comparable bus fares. If you want to charter a taxi to an obscure destination, or by the hour, you’ll probably have to do some negotiating. On the peninsula you’re likely to pay around 50 sen per kilometre.
Taxi drivers often drive at frighteningly high speeds. They don’t have as many head-on collisions as you might expect, but closing your eyes at times of high stress certainly helps! You also have the option of demanding that the driver slow down, but this can be met with varying degrees of hostility.
Malaysia’s national railway company is KTM. It runs a modern, comfortable and economical railway service, although there are basically only two lines.
One line runs up the west coast from Johor Bahru, through KL on into Thailand; there's a short spur off this line for Butterworth – the jumping-off point for the island of Penang. Line two branches off the first line at Gemas and runs through Kuala Lipis up to the northeastern corner of the country near Kota Bharu in Kelantan. Often referred to as the 'jungle train', this line is properly known as the 'east line'.
On the west-coast line, a speedy electric train service now runs between Gemas and Padang Besar on the Thai border. Full electrification on this side of the peninsula is expected to be completed by 2020.
In Sabah the North Borneo Railway (www.suteraharbour.com/north-borneo-railway), a narrow-gauge line running through the Sungai Padas gorge from Tenom to Beaufort, offers tourist trips lasting four hours on Wednesday and Saturday.
Services & Classes
There are two main types of rail services: express (ETS) and local trains. Express trains are air-conditioned and have 'premier’ (1st class), 'superior’ (2nd class) and sometimes 'economy’ (3rd class) seats and, depending on the service, sleeping cabins. Local trains are usually economy class only, but some have superior seats.
Express trains stop only at main stations, while local services, which operate mostly on the east-coast line, stop everywhere, including the middle of the jungle, to let passengers and their goods on and off. Consequently, local services take more than twice as long as the express trains and run to erratic schedules, but if you’re in no hurry they provide a colourful experience and are good for short journeys.
Train schedules do change each year, so check the KTM website, where you can make bookings and buy tickets.