Getting Around Penang by Bus

October 16, 2012

pros, cons and tips for taking the bus in Penang

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.

We tend to like to do slow travel and get to know an area at ground level, so we mostly walk Asia (and the world)  or take buses here. The traffic is horrible in Penang, perhaps the worst we have seen on our world travels and we have also seen the most traffic accidents here. Pretty amazing considering we have been to 44 countries on 5 continents these last 7 years of non-stop, perpetual  travel.

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.

view from bus window in rainy downpour in Penang /no side walks

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.

endless congestion in Penang- accidents are 4x the national average

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.

Penang traffic- "Penang had 321 cars per 1000 persons compared to 96 for Singapore and 49 for Hong Kong. "


* 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 traffic in Penang- I've seen 3 bad motor cycle accidents just from my terrace



* 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.

Hard on school kids to stand on crowded, lurching buses, but very hard on elderly who have to stand


* 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 view from our luxury apartment here is a beautiful sea view, and I've posted many stunning photos of the unique beauty , art , colorful history and many benefits of tropical Penang, but from a city bus window, most of Georgetown is developing world urban glut and not attractive.

* 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.

urban glut Penang

dead rat taken on one of the rare sidewalks in Penang by my 11 year old daughter on way to bus


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.

food stands every where in Penang

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Wow! I didn't know the buses were so nice and yet...they seem sort of scary. I mean, we are planning to go to Penang with our kids next year and we'd planned on traveling around by bus/taxi.
But I really don't want my kids getting coughed on or stepping on rats. Yikes! Do you see rats in the markets, too?? I just didn't know it was so third world. Maybe we'll delete it from our itinerary now that I know all of this.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Hey Puffer!

The buses are really nice and if you are here for just a short time like most tourist/travelers...quite superior to much of Asia.

Taxi's are also cheap but they add up...especially if you are far out like in Batu Ferringi where most of the tourists stay.

You won't be stepping on rats every second at all, nor is the bus always filled with coughers. MOST on the bus are elderly ( or school kids at certain times) and they just do weird things like picking their noses, picking bare toes, coughing etc. Just wash your hands after being on the buses like one would do in most places.

If you travel like most tourists do...easy bus trips to Gurney Plaza ( mall), seeing touristic sites, getting veggies at wet markets, buying street food, might not even see any. My 83 year old Mom was like that..did the typical tourist thing here for 6 weeks..and I don't think she saw a rat. We hung out a lot at the pool at our resort which is perfectly safe for kids.

( We are not here as tourists, so we have a very different agenda, so take the buses a LOT more than most people..daily.. and more to places that locals go and not the touristic spots. ) So we have a much deeper understanding and experience of the buses...after 16 months of using them.

I wanted to give an honest take on the good, bad and ugly..but didn't intend to scare.

I don't go out as much as hubs or kidlet, so I see less rats than they do. When walking here, I keep my eyes open though.( Today it was many lizards at my bus stop).

Just keep your eyes peeled if you are by the open food courts ( even when they are not open). The rats usually hang around there for the free food. Yes, we have OFTEN seen rats near the famous hawker food stands, but oblivious people might not notice and they are more sneaky and hiding when it is crowded with people.

Most places in tropical Asia have rats, I saw one in Thailand as well and another blogger wrote about the rats in KL -

MOST of Asia is 3rd world, so it is often a bit of culture shock to Americans, especially at ground level on their own ( not cruise ship or tour).

But Penang is safe and richer than most of SE Asia, so actually has less 3rd world problems.

The lack of cross walks will be a more challenging problem. Even when I come home here, I have to cross one lane, then 3 lanes, then another 3 lanes of fast moving traffic ( that often makes their own rules wildly) and disorientedly confusing because of "wrong"side or often stuck in the middle with them zipping by loudly on both sides. ( This is just crossing the main street, so common).

Even worse when we leave Gurney or other places, so the lack of sidewalks and crosswalks and pedestrian safety between bus stop and destination ( or return) is the main challenge as well as the rigamarole at KOMTAR where one often has to catch a second bus.

I wouldn't cut Penang or Asia out ...there is a LOT of good here that I have posted about...but I wanted to be honest so people would be aware.

We've done a LOT of long stays around the world using mass transit and's always harder than at home, but that is part of the adventure of travel.

The buses are great here ( albeit slow usually..I waited an hour today and hour yesterday and they almost shut the door on hubs again)'s the "pedestrian lacks" that make the most problem. I think the best drivers are the women, the male can be very reckless and speedy ( and sadly the vast majority).

The buses are def doable...even my 83 year old mom did them. ;) They are ALWAYS an adventure though!

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