Public transport in Malaysia is reliable and inexpensive. Much of your travelling, particularly in Peninsular Malaysia, will be by bus, minivan or, less often, long-distance taxi. Budget flights are a great option for hopping around the region, especially given that no ferries connect Peninsular and east Malaysia. Although the Peninsula’s rail system (there’s also a small stretch in Sabah), has to some extent been superseded by highways and faster buses, it still has its uses, particularly in the interior and on the express run north from Butterworth to Bangkok. Sabah and Sarawak have their own travel peculiarities – in Sarawak, for instance, you’re reliant on boats, and occasionally planes, for some long-distance travel.
The transport system is subject to heavy pressure during any nationwide public holiday – particularly Muslim festivals, the Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Christmas and New Year. A day or two before each festival, whole communities embark upon what’s called balik kampung, which literally means returning to their home villages (and towns) to be with family. Make bus, train or flight reservations at least one week in advance to travel at these times; if you’re driving, steel yourself for more than the usual number of jams.
And finally, bear in mind that chartering transport – longboats, or cars with drivers – to reach some off-the-beaten-track national park or island, is always an expensive business.
Malaysia’s national bus network is comprehensive and easy to use, with regular express coaches between all major cities and towns, and much slower local services within, usually, a 100-km radius.
Buying a ticket at any sizeable Malaysian bus station is like wandering into a street market: routes can be served by dozens of companies, each with their own ticket booths and staff vying for your attention. The atmosphere is never aggressive, however – touts won’t grab your bags as hostage or hustle you into the wrong bus – and in practice things work reasonably well. The plethora of bus companies also means departures are pretty frequent (in practice, hourly or every other hour during daylight hours). Much of the time you can just turn up and buy a ticket for the next bus, though you might want to do this a day in advance on popular routes, such as those involving the Cameron Highlands. While comprehensive timetables are never available, bus station staff (and even staff for competing bus companies) can fill you in about schedules and connections.
Most intercity buses are comfortable, with air conditioning and curtains to screen out the blazing tropical sun, though seats can be tightly packed together. Buses rarely have toilets, but longer journeys feature a rest stop every couple of hours or so, with a half-hour meal stopover if needed. On a few plum routes, notably KL–Penang, additional luxury or “executive” coaches charge double the regular fares and offer greater legroom plus on-board TVs and toilets.
Fares are cheap, but note that if you want to leave the bus at a small town en route, you may be charged the full fare or the fare until the next major town. Local buses, where available, are more cost-effective for such journeys, but take much longer.
Express and local buses usually operate from separate stations; the local bus station is often fairly central, the express-bus station a little further out. In some towns, buses may call at both stations before terminating. A handful of well-established bus companies give reliable service in Peninsular-Malaysia. The largest is Transnasional (w), whose services have the entire Peninsula pretty well covered. Alternatives include Plusliner (w) and Konsortium Bas Ekspres (w).
Sabah and Sarawak
In Sabah and Sarawak, modern air-conditioned buses ply the various long-distance routes, including Sarawak’s trans-state coastal road between Kuching and the Brunei border, serving Sibu, Bintulu and Miri en route. In addition, local buses serve satellite towns and villages; these are particularly useful when exploring southwestern Sarawak and for the cross-border trip to Pontianak in Indonesian Kalimantan.
The Peninsula’s intercity train service is operated by KTM (short for “Keretapi Tanah Melayu” or Malay Land Trains; w). The network is shaped roughly like a Y, with the southern end anchored at Singapore and the intersection north inside Malaysia at the small town of Gemas. The northwest branch travels into Thailand via KL, Ipoh and Butterworth, crossing the border at Padang Besar; the northeast branch cuts up through the interior along a stretch known as the Jungle Railway, to terminate at Tumpat, outside the port of Kota Bharu.
There are two main classes of train. Express services call mostly at major stations and are generally modern, fully air-conditioned and well maintained; local trains, often not air-conditioned and of variable quality, operate on various segments between Singapore and Tumpat, and call at every town, village and hamlet en route.
Unfortunately, not even the express trains can keep up with buses where modern highways exist alongside. The 370km journey from KL to Johor Bahru, for example, takes the train five and a half hours; on a good day, buses are roughly an hour quicker. Until the rail tracks themselves are modernized, you’re unlikely to rely heavily on trains for journeys along the west coast and in the south.
The rail system does, however, retain a couple of advantages. Sleeper services – between KL and Singapore, KL and Hat Yai in Thailand, and Singapore and Tumpat, not to mention the international service from Butterworth to Bangkok – can save on a night’s accommodation. Express trains also remain the quickest way to reach some parts of the forested interior, while local trains through the interior can also be handy for reaching small settlements. Moreover, there’s still a certain thrill in arriving at some of the splendidly solid colonial stations, built when the train was the prime means of transport.
Seats and berths
Seats on the trains divide into economy, superior and premier class, though not all are available on all services – local trains on interior routes tend to be economy only. In reality there’s very little difference between them anyway, besides slight increases in padding, seat size and legroom.
Some night services also offer sleeper berths, which come in superior, deluxe and 2plus. Superior are two tiers of twenty bunks in an open carriage, with a curtain for privacy on each tier, while deluxe and 2plus are private cabins – only deluxe has its own washroom.
While tickets can be bought up to 30 days in advance for any train, you can only book seat and berth reservations on express services – and you’ll need to for these popular trains. Make bookings at major stations, by phone on t1300 885 862, or online at wktmintercity.com.my. Timetables and fare tables are available online, and at major train stations.
Most towns in Malaysia have a long-distance taxi rank, usually at or around the express bus station. Taxis run between cities and towns throughout the country, and can be a lot quicker than buses. The snag is that they operate on a shared basis, so you have to wait for enough people to show up to fill the four passenger seats in the vehicle. In most major towns this shouldn’t take too long, especially early in the day; afternoon journeys can involve a bit of thumb-twiddling. Fares usually work out at two to three times the corresponding fare in an express bus. Note that long-distance taxi fares, in particular, may jump when fuel prices are rising rapidly.
For visitors travelling in small groups, the real advantage of these taxis is that you can charter one for your journey, paying for the vehicle rather than per person. Not only does this mean you’ll set off immediately, but it also allows you to reach destinations that may not be served directly by buses, or even by normal shared taxis. There’s little danger of being ripped off: charter prices to a large number of destinations, both popular and obscure, are set by the authorities, and usually chalked up on a board in the taxi office or listed on a laminated tariff card (senarai tambang), which you can ask to see.
Some taxi operators assume any tourist who shows up will want to charter a taxi; if you want to use the taxi on a shared basis, say “nak kongsi dengan orang lain”.
Ferries and boats
Ferries sail to Langkawi, Penang, the Perhentians, Tioman and Pangkor islands off Peninsular Malaysia. Vessels are either modern speedboats or, occasionally, converted penambang, compact motorized fishing craft. You generally buy your ticket in advance from booths at the jetty, though you can sometimes pay on the boat.
Within Sarawak, the only scheduled boat services you’re likely to use are those between Kuching and Sibu and on up the Rejang River to Belaga. To head up smaller tributaries, it’s often necessary to charter a longboat.
Sabah has no express-boat river services, though regular ferries connect Pulau Labuan with Kota Kinabalu, Sipitang and Menumbok, all on the west coast.
Thanks to some low-cost carriers, flying around the region is fairly inexpensive. Malaysian domestic flights are operated by Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and the budget carriers AirAsia and Firefly. If you’re flying within Malaysia, note that many connections between regional airports require a change of plane in KL, making flying less of a time-saver than it might seem.
Airfares throughout this section are for one-way tickets (return fares usually cost double) and include taxes and any fuel surcharges. Check all fares online with competing airline websites; huge discounts are sometimes available.
MAS, MASwings and Firefly
MAS (Malaysia t1300 883 000, w) flies from KL to most state capitals, as well as Langkawi and Labuan. Its subsidiary MASwings (w) operates flights within East Malaysia, some services using propeller-driven Twin Otter planes that are something of a lifeline for rural communities.
MAS’s budget arm, Firefly (w), mostly serves smaller destinations around the Peninsula, but has recently added services to Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan in Sabah, and Sebu and Kuching in Sarawak.
Short hops within the Peninsula start at around RM150 on MAS; going with Firefly can halve fares if they operate on the same route. As for Borneo flights, MASwings’ fare for Kuching to Kinabalu is around RM100 if booked early. Note that many Malaysian cities no longer have a downtown MAS office; book online.
The no-frills carrier AirAsia (w) offers a network of internal flights rivalling those of MAS, though flights are prone to short delays. Most of its services originate at KL airport’s low-cost-carrier terminal, though conveniently it also flies between Senai airport near Johor Bahru and Penang, Kuching, Miri, Sibu and Kota Kinabalu.
AirAsia’s fares for short hops within the Peninsula are as low as RM40, while the very longest domestic route offered, from KL to Kota Kinabalu in eastern Sabah (2hr 30min), weighs in at around RM133 one-way if booked early enough. Note, however, that hefty surcharges apply if your checked-in baggage weighs more than 15kg, and that the lowest fares are hard to come by for travel on or close to public holidays, and during the school holidays.
Two Malaysian resort islands, Redang and Tioman, are served from KL by Berjaya Air (Malaysia t03 7845 8382; w); both host resorts owned by the conglomerate Berjaya Corporation. Reckon on S$110–180 each way.
Driving and vehicle rental
The roads in Peninsular Malaysia are good, making driving a viable prospect for tourists – though the cavalier local attitude to road rules takes some getting used to. It’s mostly the same story in Sarawak, though in Sabah a sizeable minority of roads are rough, unpaved and susceptible to flash flooding.
Driving is on the left, and wearing seat belts is compulsory in the front of the vehicle. To rent a vehicle, you must be 23 or over and need to show a clean driving licence.
Malaysian highways – called expressways and usually referred to by a number prefixed “E” – are a pleasure to drive; they’re wide and well maintained, and feature convenient rest stops with toilets, shops and small food courts. In contrast, the streets of major cities can be a pain, regularly traffic-snarled, with patchy signposting and confusing one-way systems. Most cities and towns boast plenty of car parks, and even where you can’t find one, there’s usually no problem with parking in a lane or side street.
Speed limits are 110kph on expressways, 90kph on the narrower trunk and state roads, and 50kph in built-up areas. For intercity journeys, expressways are almost always quicker than using a trunk road, even if the latter passes through the town where you’re starting out while the expressway is a little way away. Whatever road you’re on, stick religiously to the speed limit; speed traps are commonplace and fines hefty. If you are pulled up for a traffic offence, note that it’s not unknown for Malaysian police to ask for a bribe, which will set you back less than the fine. Never offer to bribe a police officer and think carefully before you give in to an invitation to do so.
All expressways are built and run by private concessions and as such attract tolls, generally around RM20 per 100km, though on some roads a flat fee is levied. At toll points (signed “Tol Plaza”), you can pay in cash (cashiers can dispense change) or by waving a stored-value Touch ‘n Go card in front of a sensor (w). Get in the appropriate lane as you approach the toll points: some lanes are for certain types of vehicle only.
Once out on the roads, you’ll rapidly become aware of the behaviour of quite a few Malaysian motorists, which their compatriots might term gila (Malay for “insane”). Swerving from lane to lane in the thick of the traffic, overtaking close to blind corners and careering down hill roads are not uncommon, as are tragic press accounts of pile-ups and road fatalities. Not for nothing does the exhortation “pandu cermat” (drive safely) appear on numerous highway signboards, though the message still isn’t getting through.
If you’re new to driving in Malaysia, the best approach is to take all of this with equanimity and drive conservatively; concede the right of way if you’re not sure of the intentions of others. One confusing local habit is that some drivers flash their headlights to claim the right of way rather than concede it.
Car and bike rental
Car rental rates begin at around RM120 per day for weekly rental of a basic 1.5-litre Proton, including unlimited mileage and collision damage waiver insurance. The excess can be RM1500 or more, but can be reduced or set to zero by paying a surcharge of up to ten percent on the daily rental rate. Fuel is subsidized: at the time of writing, petrol cost RM1.9 per litre, diesel was RM1.8 per litre and gas about RM48 per tank.
Motorbike rental tends to be informal, usually offered by Malaysian guesthouses and shops in more touristy areas. Officially, you must be over 21 and have an appropriate driving licence, though it’s unlikely you’ll have to show the latter; you’ll probably need to leave your passport as a deposit. Wearing helmets is compulsory. Rental costs around RM20 per day, while bicycles, useful in rural areas, can be rented for a few ringgit a day.
City and local transport
Local bus networks in most Malaysian cities and towns serve both urban areas and hinterland; details are given in the text. Fares are always low (typically under RM2), though schedules – particularly in KL – can be unfathomable to visitors (and to some locals). KL also has efficient commuter rail, light rail and monorail systems.
Taxis are metered in KL and some other large cities, though Malaysian drivers often prefer to turn off the meter illegally, and negotiate a fare. If you encounter this, simply get straight out of the cab and flag down another. At a few taxi ranks you can pay a sensible fixed fare at a booth before your trip.
Outside the largest cities, taxis neither use meters nor ply the streets looking for custom. In these places, whether you want to make a standard journey within town or charter a cab for a specific itinerary, you should head to a taxi rank and will probably have to bargain if you’re doing an unusual route. Your accommodation might be able to charter a vehicle for you, or at least provide an idea of likely prices; reckon on at least RM30 per hour.
Trishaws (bicycle rickshaws), seating two people, are seen less and less these days, but they’re still very much part of the tourist scene in places like Melaka and Penang . You’re paying for an experience here, not transport as such.