What is the easiest way to get around Penang, Malaysia? The cheap, clean, new air conditioned buses ( many with free wifi) is the most affordable way to navigate Penang, which is quite a spread out area between Georgetown and Batu Ferringhi ( most popular areas with tourists and locals ) and all around the island.
Some motorbike drivers are particularly unaware of pedestrians and cars, often choosing to do crazy things like going the wrong way on a street or carrying whole families sans helmets or piled high with stuff, thus very serious injuries are common to see. A car running over a foot or a neighbor with her teeth knocked out by a moto accident is every day life here.
Penang is a former British Colony, so driving is on the "wrong" side of the road, thus more challenging for the American or European visitor not use to that, plus added risk to the perpetually crazy traffic. Almost every time on the road, we witness accidents or near accidents.
A bus ride in Penang is ALWAYS an adventure. This is our second stay here,( 7 months last year, 9 months this year) so we've gained lots of experience using the buses. We're usually the only Caucasians on the bus, but not always, sometimes we run into a few others ( usually Australian or Russian who like to vacation here). Since we live in a building and area with almost all locals and our daughter goes to a local Chinese school, we use the buses much more than typical tourists.
GOOD NEWS WITH BUSES
* The Rapid Penang buses are cheap and go almost everywhere and the A/C is good for a tropical climate. If one gets a seat, they are quite confortable.
* The fare varies depending on where you go, but ranges between RM 1.40 to RM 4.00..( 33 cents to $1.66), so you can't beat the price, but do make sure they charge you the same as locals. ( It is not uncommon in the developing world to have tourist prices and local prices, so get savvy if you are doing a long stay). Our daughter travels free or even cheaper with her Mandarin school pass.
* The people are friendly and most speak English, so if you have a question about your direction or where to get off etc, the driver and other passengers often can and do help. Usually, if you ask the driver, about ten other people will also give you advice.
* There is a FREE shuttle bus ( Central Area Transit CAT loop) every twenty minutes for the UNESCO central area. Handy for tourists, although we usually like to walk in this unique, historical area.
BAD NEWS WITH BUSES
( FROM FOLKS DOING IT DAILY FOR 16 PLUS MONTHS -SOMETIMES 10 LONG BUSES A DAY AND ON THEM 12 HOURS A DAY)
* Because traffic is always horrible on Penang Island, getting any where fast is not usually an option ( by bus, car, taxi , motorbike, bicycle, rickshaw or what ever). Parking also seems to be a serious problem every time we ride with someone in a car. We almost daily go to a Georgetown destination that would take 20 minutes by car if there was no traffic and it always takes two hours or more each way by bus.
* Friday is particularly bad because more cars are on the road with people needing to get to their mosques to worship. Weekends are very bad as well, but also week days are bad. Sometimes we luck out, sometimes not.
* The buses get backed up because of the traffic, so there is no rhyme and reason as to when they will come. It is not uncommon to wait an hour or more for a bus. Sometimes 6 empty ones go by, then nothing for an hour. Luckily, we don't have to be out in it every day and can time when we are, to hopefully avoid the worst hours.
* Quite frequently, buses will pass you by, even when you are flagging them down and even when their bus is not full. This can be frustrating. This has happened to us as well as witnessing it with locals. Bus drivers are probably not paid well and some don't seem to like their job.
* Sometimes busdrivers will not stop at the stop you want to get off...even when you ring the bell several times. This has happened to us as well as witnessing it with locals . When you are carrying heavy packages, it is annoying to have to walk many extra blocks for nothing.
* Many bus drivers drive pretty wild, so if you are standing it can be dangerous. Grab a seat as soon as you can or brace yourself well for big lurches if you are standing.
* Some less fortunate people are on the buses, so lots of coughing and such going on. Wash hands always after being on a bus, which applies to any in the world. ( We've taken local friends on the bus with us and it is always their first time as Penang is full of contrasts).
* Like most public transportation around the world, one has to be aware of petty theives and theft. It doesn't seem bad here and once when a crime team was trying to open DaVinci's bag, another local passenger alerted him immediately as she spotted them right off, so nothing was stolen.
* One often has to take more than one bus and the large central KOMTAR bus terminal is usually involved..not the prettiest or cleanest place in Penang, but typical dreary bus depot in Asia.
WORST PARTS OF BUSES IN PENANG
* Sometimes a busdriver not paying attention closes the door on you and that hurts. This has happened to DaVinci and we've witnessed it with locals as well, even elderly women.
* The very WORST part of the buses is getting to them. There are no real side walks or cross walks in most of Gerogetown and Penang, so getting to a bus stop is usually quite the challenging guantlet that can involve dodging large rats, crossing very busy 4 or 6 lane roads on your own hoping the wild traffic will not run you over, crossing very polluted,smelly streams, evading mud puddles, low hanging tree branches, bugs and wobbly cement and getting much closer to the very loud, sensory overloading traffic than one wants to. Maybe doable for a young backpacker on a " visa run" or tourist holiday short visit, but much harder on seniors and elderly and dangerous for the school kids.
PROS AND CONS OF BUS TRAVEL IN PENANG
If you are not in a hurry, don't mind walking in maniac traffic and living a bit on the wild side like locals, the buses are a viable option. Even my 83 year old mother managed when we did 3 generation travel , here, so it is doable for most that are hardy or not doing too much by bus.
But for long term, the traffic, urban glut and outlandishly bad pedestrian options are major flaws in Penang ( and much of Asia). The bus system certainly beats "chicken buses" in parts of the third world, but still has a long way to go and a better system is needed. I worry about the fragile elderly who must use the buses the most.