Thanks largely to budget airline AirAsia, Malaysia is criss-crossed by a network of affordable flights, with “special fares” starting as low as RM9 if booked early. Flying is the only practical option for travelling between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, as well as reaching some of Borneo’s more remote outposts. State-owned Malaysia Airlines also has competitive fares, now offering equivalent or even cheaper tickets if booked in advance over the Internet, while maintaining the class of hospitality. And its offshoot, Firefly, has a convenient network that radiates out from Penang and also operates from Subang Airport (Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah).
Berjaya Air also flies small Dash-7 turboprops from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to its own airports on the resort islands of Pangkor, Redang and Tioman. Fares are steep (from RM214 plus fees each way), but this is by far the fastest and most convenient way to reach any of these islands.
In Sabah and Sarawak, MASWings operates turboprop services connecting inland communities, including those in the Kelabit Highlands, with coastal towns. MASWings took over the rural air network on 1 October 2007 from FlyAsian Express, which in turn had taken over the service from Malaysia Airlines 14 months earlier.
Long-distance trains in Malaysia can rarely match road transport in terms of speed, but state operator Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad(KTMB)provides relatively cheap and generally reliable services around Peninsular Malaysia (but not Sabah/Sarawak in Borneo). The main western line connects Butterworth (near Penang), Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, while the eastern line runs through Gua Musang and the Taman Negara to Kota Bharu, near the Thai border and the Perhentian Islands.
The pride of the KTMB fleet is the ETS (Electric Train Service) from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, on which modern, air-conditioned trains run ten times a day at a speed of 140 km/h and a journey time of just over 2 hours. However, the rest of the network is mostly single-track, with slow diesel locomotives and all too frequent breakdowns and delays. First and second class are air-conditioned, third class has fans instead. For sleeper trains, KTMB’s epitome of luxury is the Premier Night Deluxe (ADNFD – only between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur) with single cabins sleeping two and a private shower/toilet. More economical are the Superior Night (ADNS) sleeper cars, which have upper and lower berths on each side, with each berth having a solid partition at each end and a side curtain for privacy. The carriages shake and rattle a little, but are comfortable and clean.
The Jungle Train is the apt name for the eastern route between Tumpat (near the Thai border) and Gemas, including stops at Gua Musang, Kuala Lipis, Jerantut (for Taman Negara) and Wakaf Bahru (for Kota Bharu and the Perhentian Islands). The original “Jungle Train” is the slow day train that stops at every station (every 15-20 minutes or so). It is 3rd class only, i.e. no air-conditioning and no reservation, and some stops can be lengthy as it is a single line and all other trains have priority – so the “Jungle Train” waits in side loops along the route to allow oncoming or overtaking trains to pass. Tourists can use this service to travel to Some find the journey fascinating and scenically breathtaking, others find that there is not much to see when you are in the jungle. The overnight trains on the Eastern line (for which reservations are possible and recommended) also have sleeping berths and seats in 2nd class, some also have sleeping cars in 1st class.
Tickets can be booked online on the KTMB website and even printed out. Enquiries and reservations can be made by calling KTMB’s call centres at +60 3 2267-1200 (Malaysia) or +65 6222-5165 (Singapore).
In East Malaysia, the only railway line is operated by Jabatan Kereta Api Negeri Sabah(JKNS)(website in Malay only), which runs from Tanjung Aru near Kota Kinabalu to Tenom town.
Malaysia has an excellent highway network, culminating in the north-south highway along the west coast from Singapore to the Thai border. Petrol or locally known as petrol is slightly cheaper than market prices (in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak) at RM1.90/litre (Ron 95). Tolls are payable on the motorways, but they vary from expensive to cheap: Driving across the country (734 km) from the Thai border to Singapore costs RM108 (~US$25). While you can drive from Singapore to Thailand within a day on the west coast, the highway system is much less developed on the east coast, where there are no motorways, and even less so in Sabah and Sarawak, so you should allow extra travel time when travelling to these areas. Tolls for highways and causeways within major cities, especially Kuala Lumpur, are exorbitantly high, ranging from RM4.00 to RM7.00 per exit.
For those thinking of using GPS (Garmin, Papago, Galactio and Mio-Polnav), Malaysia maps can be downloaded for free from http://www.malfreemaps.com/index.php. Garmin users are lucky to have another choice from http://www.malsingmaps.com/portal/. Both parties’ maps are contributed by an amazing non-profit group of people who share a common passion for creating GPS maps of Malaysia.
While the driving quality and habits in Malaysia are better than in the rest of Southeast Asia, it is not necessarily great, especially for travellers coming from a Western country. Traffic in Malaysia drives on the left, a legacy of the British. Beware of reckless motorcyclists, especially at night, and especially if you are a pedestrian: Locals typically disregard a red light to turn left, putting pedestrians in danger. As a motorist, motorcyclists will pile up in front of you at traffic lights – let them move away first to avoid accidents.
Caution is advised when driving in larger cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Problems include seemingly suicidal motorcyclists, crowded lanes all day and confusing roads, especially in the older parts of the city where planning by the then British colonial occupation was virtually non-existent. Outside the city, however, cars and motorbikes are the best and sometimes the only way to explore the country. In some of the more rural areas, motorbikes and scooters can be rented for as little as RM25/day, a great way to explore the local area or larger islands like Langkawi. As you would expect, most rental companies require you to show a valid driving licence at the time of rental. Fuel levels are often compared before and after rental, as well as in case of damage, so make sure everything is documented and ask for a refund of the excess fuel if possible. The larger car rental companies such as Hertz and Avis may also require a valid credit card from which a deposit will be authorised but not deducted (unless there is damage to the car).
Taxis are available in all cities and larger towns, although in smaller towns you may need to hail one (ask any shopkeeper or consult the Yellow Pages). You will usually need to negotiate the fare in advance, although prepaid coupon taxis are usually available at airports. RM5 should be enough for a short ride across town, while RM100 is enough to hire a taxi for a whole day.
In Kuala Lumpur, budget taxis are usually red and white (city taxi – these taxis are not allowed to go out of the city, e.g. to another state) or yellow in colour. The taxis are usually small sedans such as Proton Wira and run on NGV (Natural Gas). The blue taxis are larger sedans or MPVs (Multi Purpose Vehicles) and more luxurious. These usually cost 25-30% more than the budget taxis and are usually available at taxi ranks throughout Kuala Lumpur, including major shopping malls and hotels. The red and white taxis can be hailed on the streets and are chargeable. Make sure the taxi driver is a Malaysian (all drivers must have a taxi licence with photo) before getting in, as unscrupulous taxi owners have been known to hire out their taxis to unlicensed substitute drivers. As in most other countries, foreigners with a work visa are only allowed to work in the profession/industry specified in the visa. All taxi drivers must be Malaysian citizens or PR visa holders, as the Malaysian government does not issue work visas to foreigners to drive taxis.
Also, beware of unlicensed taxis (Taxi Sapu) at the airports. They can literally rip you off. There are touts at the airports offering their taxi service to travellers, even pretending to be legitimate. Incredible as it may sound, some have been known to rob first-time visitors of hundreds of ringgit for a single ride into town and charge 100 times the correct fare. At airports, always take a taxi from one of the authorised operators set up in the airport itself, and never from someone who approaches you directly. These will always claim to be legitimate but are rarely licensed and can be unsafe. The taxi driver stands can give you receipts. Another tip is to book your taxis in advance. The concierge at all good hotels will be able to help you with this. If you take an unlicensed taxi, you may not be covered by your travel insurance should the taxi be involved in an accident.
The cheapest way to travel in Malaysia is by bus. All cities of any size have a bus terminal offering connections to other parts of the country. There are many companies with varying degrees of reliability, but two of the largest and most reliable are Transnasional and NICE/Plusliner. 24-seater ‘luxury’ buses are recommended for long-distance travel.
If you are travelling on public holidays or even over the weekend, it is advisable to book your seats in advance. Many bus companies allow you to book directly online through their website. However, some only allow online booking for people with Malaysian credit cards, which is not really convenient for international visitors. Fortunately, most bus companies have joined together to form two booking portals, which are particularly handy if you have specific destinations but are not sure which bus company to use. Both allow payment with any credit card and charge a small fee for their service (usually RM1-2).
Note that the air conditioning in some buses can be extremely cold. So don’t forget to bring a good jumper, trousers and socks, especially for overnight trips in the luxury buses!