In Malaysia, you can hop aboard the world’s blingiest trishaws or fly into one of eight international airports. There are modern highways, trains and buses, as well as big-city mass transit in Kuala Lumpur — along with big-city traffic jams.
One important consideration when you’re planning: Malaysia is divided by the South China Sea into two distinct land masses. Peninsular Malaysia is sandwiched between Thailand to the north and Singapore to the south. East Malaysia shares the large island of Borneo with tiny Brunei and part of Indonesia.
Peninsular Malaysia is more populated, with more transportation options; East Malaysia is wilder — a great place to explore nature — but has fewer transportation choices.
Here’s our guide to help you get to where you want to be in Malaysia.
Flying to and Around Malaysia
By far, the most flights to Malaysia arrive in Kuala Lumpur (Peninsular Malaysia), followed by Kota Kinabalu (East Malaysia) and Penang (on Penang Island off of Peninsular Malaysia). KL is particularly well served from Singapore and Bangkok.
The Kuala Lumpur area is served by two airports. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), the city’s main international hub, is located a hefty 46 miles outside the city. It’s served by numerous international carriers, as well as national airline Malaysia Airlines and Malindo Air, a joint venture between Malaysia and Indonesia. Nearby, KLIA2 is a new complex purpose-built to serve low-cost carriers, including AirAsia, which flies to many international and domestic destinations.
KL’s second airport, Skypark Subang Airport (Sultan Abdul Azia Shah Airport), located about 12 miles from the city, is served by Firefly, a subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines. It flies domestically and to Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.
To get into KL from KLIA, you can take a taxi (we recommend using the coupon system, described in the Local Transportation section below), board the KLIA Ekspres light rail (a 28-minute trip) or take the Airport Coach (an approximately one-hour trip).
From Subang Airport, you can take a taxi, or a direct RapidKL bus will take you to KL Sentral.
The rest of the country is dotted with more than 30 additional commercial domestic airports, served by Malaysia Air, AirAsia, Firefly, Malindo Air and MASwings (East Malaysia only).
To give you an idea of travel times between Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia, it takes about 2.5 hours to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, or an hour and 40 minutes to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching. Flights to East Malaysia also depart from Johor Bahru and Penang.
Malaysia by Train
Peninsular Malaysia is served by 1,149 miles of rails, with a main line stretching from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and northward to Thailand. They also head off from the main line to the country’s northeast corner, not far from Kota Bharu. This modern national train service is operated by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTMB), with its main hub at KL’s Sentral Train Station.
There are two types of rail service:
– Express trains, which are air conditioned and have a choice of two to three classes of seating (premier, superior and sometimes economy), as well as three classes of overnight service with berths.
– Local trains, which are typically only economy class, though some may have superior-class seats. Because of frequent stops, these trains can take twice as long to reach a destination as the express trains.
It’s possible to view schedules and buy tickets on the KTMB website. Be sure to confirm schedule times, as they are subject to frequent changes.
In East Malaysia, the North Borneo Railway operates a short, narrow-gauge line for four-hour roundtrip tourist jaunts in Sabah from Kota Kinabalu to Papar, including lunch and a sightseeing stop in Kinarut.
And, if money is no object, the luxurious Eastern & Oriental Express runs between Bangkok and Singapore, with stops and tours along the way.
Malaysia by Bus
A number of long-distance bus services operate in Malaysia. Konsortium Transnasional Berhad includes several bus brands, including Transnasional, Cityliner and Plusliner. These buses tend to be slower and may or may not have air conditioning.
More upscale bus offerings include Aeroline, First Coach, Nice Executive Coach and Super Nice. These lines are typically air conditioned and may even have meal service. For a small upcharge, they’re well worth it.
Frequent buses ply the north/south route between Singapore and Thailand; less frequent service will take you to many other destinations. It’s always a good idea to buy tickets a day in advance from the bus companies, particularly during holiday or festival periods. Research a company before purchasing a ticket, because some have rather daunting accident records. You’ll be able to find news reports and recent accident information in English by Googling “Malaysia bus companies accident records.”
Traveling by Ferry in Malaysia
Ferries serve a number of domestic and international destinations from Peninsular Malaysia, including links with Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. East Malaysia is served by local ferries, as well as service connecting to Brunei and the Philippines.
See the resource list below for some of the most popular ferry routes.
Renting a Car in Malaysia
All the major rental companies operate in big cities like Kuala Lumpur, including Avis and Hertz. You’ll also find Mayflower and Orix well represented. If you’re interested in traveling throughout the country or picking up and dropping off in different cities, consider going with a major provider that has plenty of locations. Rentals on the peninsula tend to be cheaper than on Borneo. You’ll also find motorcycles or scooters available for rent in some locations.
You may be able to get away with just using your regular driver’s license, but in some instances you might be asked for an International Driving Permit, which can be obtained from AAA offices in the U.S.
In Malaysia, drivers sit on the right-hand side of the car and drive on the left side of the road, British style. Seatbelts are required. The Peninsular road system can be quite good, with an excellent toll highway, the North-South Highway, running from Johor Bahru in the south up to Thailand. Toll roads tend to be less frequented, while local routes can be busier — with Malay drivers who may have little regard for speed limits and other road rules.
The situation in East Malaysia is a bit more rugged, though good roads can be found around Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.
Malaysia by Long-Distance Taxi
Long-distance taxi stands can be found next to most intercity bus stations in Malaysia. The taxis operate with four passengers, so you need to wait until taxis are filled before departing — or you can buy out the entire car if you’re in a hurry and have the cash. It’s best to arrive early in the morning to up your chances of getting a ride. Taxis usually cost about double what a bus would, and prices are posted at the stands.
Getting Around by Local Transportation
Trishaws, or bicycle rickshaws, are available in George Town, Melaka and a few other cities. In Melaka, drivers compete for passengers by decorating their rides with over-the-top themes; you’ll see artificial flowers, feathers, blinking holiday lights, dolls, Hello Kitty and more. Negotiate and settle on a price for your destination or travel time before climbing aboard.
Taxis are also widely available. In Kuala Lumpur, there are two types, regular cabs and more expensive “executive” or “premier” cabs, which are usually painted blue. It is mandatory for drivers to use the meter, aside from areas that operate on a prepurchased coupon system. Coupon system areas include rides from KLIA into the city (coupons can be purchased in the airport’s arrivals area; the price includes tolls), KL Sentral and some shopping malls. There is a charge for luggage transported in the trunk and extra passengers beyond two; from midnight to 6 a.m., there is also a 50 percent surcharge. Drivers may try to charge you an inflated flat rate elsewhere, particularly near upscale hotels, so negotiate and agree on a price before getting in the cab — or just walk away and look for a more honest driver.
Most larger towns have a local public bus system, but schedules and routes can be difficult to find or tough to decipher. Get help at your lodging for information on pertinent routes.
In KL, there are a number of additional mass transit options. The Light Rail Transit system (LRT) operates trains around the city. A monorail line connects KL Sentral with the “Golden Triangle” area in the central city; since 2012, it has been integrated with the Ampang light rail line. KTM Komuter trains go to areas outside KL, and an ambitious new project, the MRT, is underway to connect various systems; it includes some underground sections.