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Getting Around

by The Expatriate Lifestyle Editorial Team 2 Jun 2013
Getting Around


Exactly how to get around is an immediate conundrum facing all newcomers to Malaysia. Whether you choose to take the driving route, buying or hiring a car and braving the road network, or simply try your luck with the public transport system, orientating yourself can be an initially stressful period. However, a little local knowledge, common sense and bravery to get out exploring and experimenting goes a long way.

Those unfamiliar with roads and driving in Asia will find the learning curve steep; driving here can be a hair-raising experience. Indeed, many expatriates spend their first few months saying how they’ll never drive in Malaysia. However, those that persevere find that driving is the most convenient way to get around, despite the chaotic rush-hour traffic, especially if you live outside of the central districts.

The freedom to explore the country by car is also an interesting possibility. Though some journeys (such as that on the North-South highway between KL and Johor) can become tedious as the novelty of palm oil estates soon wears thin, travelling north from the capital is fascinating.

Through the rocky outcrops around Ipoh, alongside the Cameron Highlands and across the Penang bridge, Malaysia has plenty to offer from the road. Otherwise, venture east to the coastal road and you’ll be treated to a way of life vastly different and considerably slower to that of the city.

However, aside from driving yourself, the public transport system is certainly improving. The long-haul coach services in particular offer superb value for money as well as comfort on typical journeys between the major cities and tourist destinations and are definitely recommended over the rail network. In town, however, taxis, trains and buses can be a case of hit or miss.

KL’s LRT and Monorail services, for example, are clean, efficient, user-friendly and cheap but are somewhat limited in the areas they serve. If you live close to a station though, travelling into the city centre is a breeze. The RapidKL buses too are very cheap but can be unreliable and confusing for the uninitiated, while taxis can be a lottery in terms of price and knowledge of the suburbs.

This section also provides information on buying, hiring, registering and selling a vehicle, advice for drivers in Malaysia and tips for negotiating the public transport systems across the country.


Prospective owners are essentially faced with two viable and cost-effective options when looking at buying a vehicle: new or second hand. Each has its advantages; it’s really a case of choosing which is best for you.

While new cars should prove to be more of a hassle-free option, they do come at a heavily taxed premium if choosing an international brand. On the flip side, local brands actually benefit from the tax laws (which are, after all, aimed at promoting the local motor vehicle industry) and servicing is both cheaper and more readily available for these vehicles.

The other cost-effective option when buying a car is to go second hand. If possible, buyers may wish to investigate their expatriate community (whether it be through work, social networks or internet communities) to see if anyone is leaving Malaysia and is looking to sell a vehicle. Dealing with a trustworthy acquaintance will likely be less expensive and certainly saves trawling through the endless pages of local adverts.

Unfortunately for those thinking of importing a car from home, the import duty of around 200 per cent of the vehicle’s costs, including insurance and freight, effectively makes it an unviable option.


Whether it’s for a special holiday or business, there are several car rental companies offering good deals for daily and long-term rentals. Be warned though, in comparison to the new, low mileage rental cars in Europe especially, vehicles for hire in Malaysia tend to be older and in some cases a little run down.

Nevertheless, the rental system, whether you’re picking the vehicle up from an airport or a city centre, works similarly to that found across the world. As such, the process is fairly simple and, if booking through a large global agent such as Hertz or Avis, can be completed online.


Whatever your plans for driving in Malaysia, there are a few things you should know before stepping behind the wheel.

Malaysian Driver’s Permit

You are allowed to drive on Malaysian roads if you have a valid driver’s license from any country in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). If not, International driver’s licenses are available. You may drive in Malaysia with an International license; however, it is only legal to do so for the first three months.

After three months, you will need to get a Malaysian driver’s license. It is important to realise, however, that many foreigners report complications with International licenses and Malaysian police. You may still be issued a ticket even if you’re within the three month timeframe if a police officer chooses to disregard your International license.

For this reason, it is advisable to obtain a Malaysian driver’s license as soon as possible if you plan on driving for an extended period of time. If you currently possess an American or British driving license, you can go to the Putrajaya JPJ (Road Transport Department) office with the following required documents:

• Identity card/Passport (original and copy)
• Original and copy of work permit and foreign driving license
• 1 colour photograph (25 mm x 32 mm)
• Translation of the foreign driving license from the relevant foreign embassy (if details of the license are in languages other than English)

Road Transport Department
Pejabat JPJ
Bahagian Lesen Memandu, Aras 3, Blok D 4 Parcel DPutrajaya
Tel: 03–8886 6400

If you do not possess an American or British driver’s permit, you will need to send your applications to the Driver Licensing Division, RTD Headquarters for approval. Exact requirements, however, are subject to change so seek the advice of your embassy or driving school for the procedure on changing your license.

In The Event of an Accident

Try to stay calm. If there are any injuries, call 999 for assistance. If there are no injuries, try to move your vehicle to a safe area away from traffic. As with any traffic accident, it is important to collect as much useful information as possible. Have the other driver write down his or her name and address, and note the model and vehicle registration of all vehicles involved.

Exchange your respective insurance information and avoid discussing whose fault the accident was. It is very important to refuse the services of tow trucks that arrive uncalled on the scene. Known as ‘vultures’ by locals, these tow trucks look for accidents and offer to tow the car to their workshop before charging an extremely high rate for their assistance. Make sure to call your insurance company or its accident hotline for a listing of reputable tow companies and workshops.

Car Theft

Drivers should do everything they can to prevent their car from being an easy target, such as always remembering to lock doors and windows before leaving the vehicle. It is advisable to invest in an alarm or immobilization device, especially if the car is new or expensive.

Other Road Rules & Tips

• The road signs in Malaysia are in accordance with the international road signs, so despite the occasional Malay words, most foreigners should be able to understand basic traffic signs.

• The slow lane is the very left hand lane on a three lane road. That being said, for some reason most drive in the middle or fast lane. The fast lane is the right most lane, however, many slow vehicles will remain in the fast lane despite other motorist’s hooking and flashing lights.

• In general, the speed limit around town is always between 50 kmph-70 kmph, but when you’re on the North-South highway (NKVE) the speed limit is 110kmph. However it differs for other highways such as the Kesas and the Karak Highway where the speed limit is 90kmph. With the increasing numbers of road accidents, especially during the festive seasons, the number of strategically-placed speed cameras and traps are increasing.

• Adjusting to the speeding motorcyclists may be the greatest challenge to expat drivers. Their high speeds and seeming disregard for safety can be unnerving for new drivers. An important tip is to know that red traffic lights don’t always mean “stop.” If the light has just changed, it is best to proceed with caution, as many motorbikes (and cars) will continue to go through the intersection. Overall, the authorities are taking increasing steps to reduce road fatalities and punish those that break the rules.


Registration is required for all vehicles being driven in Malaysia. If buying a new vehicle, registration is usually completed by the dealer, however, if you decide to go second hand, it will most likely be left to you. The registration process (and annual renewal thereof) is relatively simple, though taking a local friend with you for the first time could prove useful if there are any complications. Renewal will cost RM50 and can be completed at the nearest road transport, or JPJ office. You’ll be required to present the original registration certificate along with proof of insurance.

As well as vehicle registration, road tax must be paid annually. Costs vary depending on engine size; a typical 1.5-litre (1500cc) petrol car, for example, will cost less than RM100 while an average 2.0-litre saloon should cost around RM 380 for the year. The maximum fine for driving without valid road tax is RM 2,000.


Malaysian police are becoming increasingly vigilant when it comes to traffic summons which, if you’re a driver in the city, is definitely a good thing. Illegal parking and dangerous driving in particular are issues that are being targeted by the police. If caught for less serious offences (speeding, talking on the phone etc.), you will be issued with a ticket, typically highlighting a fine of up to RM 300.

Such a document must be signed by you and the issuing police officer and can be paid only at police stations with a Traffic Police Division before the stated deadline. Prompt payment is highly advised as road tax, for example, cannot be renewed if summonses are outstanding.

For greater infringements upon the law (such as driving under the influence of alcohol or considerably higher than the speed limit), drivers can face large fines (upwards of RM1,000) and even prison sentences of up to six months as well as loss of license.


Try to stay calm. If there are any injuries, call 999 for assistance. If there are no injuries, try to move your vehicle to a safe area away from traffic. As with any traffic accident, it is important to collect as much useful information as possible. Have the other driver write down his or her name and address, and note the model and vehicle registration of all vehicles involved.

Exchange your respective insurance information and avoid discussing whose fault the accident was. It is very important to refuse the services of tow trucks that arrive uncalled on the scene. Known as “vultures” by locals, these tow trucks look for accidents and offer to tow the car to their workshop before charging an extremely high rate for their assistance. Make sure to call your insurance company or its accident hotline for a listing of reputable tow companies and workshops.


You’ll see motorcycles everywhere in Malaysia, and for good reason. Newcomers to Asia will be surprised by their quantity and behaviour on the roads whereas those familiar with this part of the world will be used to their unpredictability. For the brave, motorcycles are actually the ideal way to navigate busy cities though riding them can be incredibly dangerous and unless you have a large-engined bike, long journeys soon become tedious.

Travelling with families and luggage, despite what you may see the locals doing, is also not possible so motorcycles are best left to inner city commuting duties. When driving, you should always be aware of motorcyclists darting between traffic and travelling between lanes, especially through traffic jams. Check your mirrors regularly and always indicate your intentions as clearly and as early as possible.


The train network in Malaysia can be split into two types of service—the inter city, countrywide, traditional KTMB rail network and the inner city, light rail transit networks. While the KTMB service serves the entire country, travelling between major cities and also up into Thailand, trains can be old, slow and, ultimately, an uncomfortable way to travel the breadth of the country.

Nevertheless, the service is well priced and some locals favour this method over the road transit alternatives. In contrast, KL’s LRT, Monorail and (hopefully) Penang’s planned rail services are fast, clean, cheap and very well used. Providing you are close to a station, they are perhaps the best way to commute around the city.

The Putra LRT network, run by RapidKL, serves 48 stations across the Klang Valley. Even the longest single journey will cost less than RM3 and travellers can use prepaid Touch ‘n Go cards to pay the fare. Alternatively, daily travel cards can be bought for RM7 and allow travel throughout the Klang Valley on all RapidKL affiliated services (including buses and trains).

Also in the Klang Valley, the KLIA Express has been a fantastic success, transporting travellers to and fro KL city centre and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The journey costs just RM35 one way (RM15 for children) and takes 28 minutes from station to station (KL Sentral–KLIA–KL Sentral). Malaysia Airlines also have a check-in counter at KL Sentral allowing travellers to check in for their flight before even arriving at the airport.


For travel between Singapore, KL and Penang, the coach services in Malaysia are difficult to beat. Air travel is considerably more expensive, trains considerably slower and driving, more tiring. As such, it’s a popular choice for many locals and expatriates as well (undoubtedly though, for business commuting, flying is the favoured option). Fares are well priced at roughly RM 50 – RM 60 for KL–Penang and just under RM 100 for luxury coaches from KL–Singapore.

The best services also provide food, drink and entertainments for the journey. A word of warning though: buying tickets in Malaysia works out much cheaper than buying them in Singapore. Therefore, if travelling from KL to Singapore and back again, make sure to purchase a return ticket from the Malaysian side. Long-haul coaches run throughout the week and several departures on the popular routes are offered by the larger companies each day.

Buses in town, however, are slightly less predictable and more confusing to navigate. For visitors, the Hop On, Hop Off buses run throughout the day between the tourist hotspots and have proved to be an excellent way to see the main sites. Tickets cost RM38 for 24 hours and RM65 for 48 hours (discounts are also available for children, students, the disabled and for Malaysian MyKad holders—check the website, for more details).

The service, as its name suggests, runs on a convenient hop on, hop off at your leisure and will basis. Buses also offer pre-recorded commentary and tours in eight different languages and stop at 22 designated stops around the city.

Besides the Hop On, Hop Off service in KL, the RapidKL buses, if you can get past the language barrier and find a suitable bus for you also offer reasonable value for money. For ease-of-use and speed, though, it pales in comparison to the rail services.

In Penang, the RapidPenang bus service, a subsidiary of RapidKL, runs relatively new buses across the island, serving the main areas of interest in Georgetown, the residential areas of Tanjung Baru and Batu Ferringhi and further afield for the airport and the west of Penang. Introduced in 2007, the RapidPenang service, though left untouched by many expatriates, can actually be a sensible option for getting around the small island.

Melaka’s services too have been vastly improved over the last few years with the introduction of Melaka Sentral—the historic city’s version of the capital’s central transport hub, KL Sentral. Though it features no access to trains, the hub serves as the central port for both city buses and long-distance coaches.

In Sabah, the central bus terminal is found in Kota Kinabalu. From the Kota Kinabalu North Terminal, buses are available to other major cities in the state and regular, though rather confusing and sporadic, services run across the city. The public bus services in Sarawak, however, are even more unreliable. Mostly without air-conditioning and no clear indication of stops and destinations, the public buses are best left to those with a better understanding of the system and its irregularities. Tourist buses do run to the popular tourist areas though and can be a cheap and relatively comfortable way to get around.


As a tool for commuting, bicycles, in the cities, are rare. However, despite the distinct lack of cycle paths or lanes, their use is on the increase and bicycles are a relatively popular mode of transport in the slower-paced and quieter rural regions. As with motorcycles, riding a bicycle in the city can be a dangerous occupation and the heat, humidity and pollution makes it hot work. If you live reasonably close and have clear access to work with washing facilities when you get there, though, cycling could be a possibility.


Walking as a form of transport in Malaysia is rare. In the midday heat, the climate makes it a hot and sweaty medium and the treat of tropical downpours is ever present in the afternoons. As such, it is really only tourists that you will see walking long distances in the cities. Particularly among locals, walking any reasonable distance in the city is shunned (as is evident in shopping mall car parks; shoppers will often drive round and round in search of a space as close to the shops as possible).

Having said that, a trip to one of the country’s green lungs of a morning or evening highlights the popularity of walking outside of the day’s hottest hours, particularly among Chinese residents. In KL, FRIM, Bukit Kiara, the Lake Gardens and Bukit Jalil’s Commonwealth Hill are popular early morning and evening locations, whereas Penang Hill, Mount Erskine and the Youth Park are favoured in Penang.


Taxis are oft maligned in Malaysia, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Drivers are well-versed in the city geography and will be able to find ingenious shortcuts when the inevitable traffic builds up. Also, the recent government ruling that increased the (still minimal) base taxi fare to RM3 has seen an improvement in services and a decrease in the number of taxis attempting to run meter-less. Even with this rise in fare, Malaysian taxis are among the cheapest in the world.

Popular residential, tourist, business and entertainment districts all over Malaysia are well served and hailing a cab, providing there are no marked taxi ranks nearby is as simple as waving one down on the street. Where marked ranks do exist, though, it’s advisable (and in some places, essential) to use them.

Taxi drivers must then use their built-in meter to calculate the fare. Many drivers are reluctant to use the meter as they can usually charge more, especially to foreigners, when agreeing a flat rate beforehand. Some of the excuses used by drivers as to why the meter cannot be used can be quite creative but don’t settle for them; you’ll almost always find metered taxis turn out to be cheaper.

Journeys taken between midnight and 6am are usually subject to a 50 per cent additional night time charge and booking over the phone will also cost a couple of ringgit extra with most companies. Prepaid coupon systems are common at airports and other large transport hubs and often taxis from such locations are newer and more up market. The majority of taxis in Malaysia are generally quite old and run down, but premium taxis can also be found in KL for higher rates.

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