Getting Around Penang Without a Car
We obviously spend a lot of time driving our truck when we are living in our Airstream so when we travel abroad we love the opportunity to live car free for a while. Even though the locals complain about the traffic here I actually don't think it's that bad. Of all the Asian cities I have visited Penang has the least crazy driving. I actually think driving a car here would be fairly easy. However, during our recent three month stay in Penang we decided not to rent a car so here are a few ways we got around the island.
Depending where you stay you are likely to be near lots of facilities like stores and places to eat. You can't walk more than 100 meters here without finding a food stall. So walking is a great way to get around. The first thing to remember is that it is incredibly hot in Penang. We were there at the hottest time of the year, and apparently the area is seeing some of the highest temperatures ever. But even when it's not scorching here, it's still very hot. If you are going to walk remember to take your time, bring water, and if necessary stop for a shade break on the way. The best way to cope with being out in the heat is to follow the locals lead and use an umbrella for shade. The best ones are reflective silver on the top. You can pick them up everywhere for a few ringgits. Don't try to use it for double-duty to protect from rain. When it rains here it pours and even a sturdy umbrella will be mostly useless instead pick a nice small one that is easy to stow in a purse or bag.
Another thing to say about walking is that the quality of sidewalks in Penang range from good, to terrible, to non-existent. In the center of Georgetown most people just walk down the side of the road. It is much easier than attempting the obstacle course of motorcycles and boxes stacked against doorways. Get over your fear and just relax, no-one is going that fast, and everyone is used to pedestrians on the road.
Even though the driving here is pretty tame compared to most Asian destinations, pedestrians get no respect. It's your responsibility to make sure you are safe. Keep an eye out for scooters, they often don't follow road rules and frequently ignore one-way signs, so look both ways. Also don't be afraid to cross the busy roads in Georgetown. Everyone does it, just be brave, bold and confident and don't hesitate or show weakness.
Rapid Penang is a good, inexpensive bus system. It runs all over the island and the buses are modern, clean, and most importantly, air-conditioned. Most ex-pats and tourists stay in the north between Georgetown and along the northern coast (Tanjung Tokong, Tanjung Bungah and Batu Ferringhi). That area is served by buses 101 and 102. The 103 doesn't run along this route anymore, some outdated information will tell you it does. We mostly took the 101 as it runs most frequently, about every 10 to 15 minutes. It's not on a set schedule and often 2 (or 3) buses come along at once and then there's a big wait for another. You just have to take your chances.
We used the bus primarily to get from Tanjung Tokong to Gurney Drive, where there are major malls with cinemas and food courts. It is just a few kms and costs RM1.40 / US$0.36. Georgetown with all it has to offer is a little further and will cost you RM2.0 / US$0.51 fare. We also went a couple of times in the other direction up to Batu Ferringhi or the Penang National Park (RM2.70 / US$0.69 fare). You pay the fare at the front as you board. Simply put your cash in the box by the driver and he will give you the correct ticket. The drivers don't handle the cash so they don't give you change. Hang onto RM1 notes and small coins when you can to be sure you have the exact fare.
A Rapid Passport weekly travel card is available for RM30 / US$7.71 or a monthly one which costs foreigners RM110 / US$28.10. These save you having to deal with cash, but unless you are living on the bus it is much more cost effective to pay for individual fares. I only saw westerners using this card, I guess they are happy to pay more for less hassle.
There is also a free bus that runs around Georgetown in the World Heritage Zone. It looks like all the other buses - so you need to look for the illuminated "CAT" (Central Area Transit) on the side. It's often easier to walk around, but if you are hot and tired it can be a beautiful thing to get in the AC for your journey back after a hot day's sightseeing.
There's a tourist Hop On Hop Off bus, which we never used. It maybe a good option if you only have a day or two on the island, otherwise I would go for the less expensive options.
Buses run all over the island and we did take one to Kek Lok Si temple, changing at Komtar. Honestly for a journey of that length, changing buses can be tiresome, after that experience we took cabs or Uber for anything other than the main bus route.
Uber has been running on the island for about a year, and they have had some challenges with retaining drivers because they keep dropping rates. We found times where it was too difficult to find a driver nearby. In Georgetown and Gurney Drive you should have no trouble getting one. It may be more difficult if you are elsewhere on the island. If you can get an Uber it is a great way to get around and it is inexpensive compared to the local cabs. We had nothing but high quality drivers and vehicles. Many of the drivers are really chatty and joined the service to meet people or practice their English. It cost us around RM6 to RM12 / (US$1.50 to $3) for a 10 to 20 minute journey. Only slightly more expensive than the bus, and cheaper if there are three or more of you. It is also definitely the best option for getting to and from the airport. It cost between RM20 to RM25 (US$5 to 6) for the 45 minute to 1 hour journey up to the Georgetown area.
Taxi's in Penang are not as shady as in many Asian cities, but still need some vigilance. Some taxis are metered and some are not. Make sure you ask first, a non-metered one will nearly always be more expensive even if you haggle. Also make sure they turn on the meter and zero it. Other than that you should have no problem with them. They are usually clean and I have found the drivers to drive safely. The cars tend not to be as comfortable as an Uber and they are significantly more expensive - a 10 minute trip costing around RM15 / US$3.86. We only took taxis if Uber wasn't available. I know some people have a moral objection to Uber in which case the taxis are a good, albeit pricier, alternative.
This is not really different to a taxi, it is just an app to help you find one. If you can't get an Uber it is a convenient alternative to find a cab. You can use the app to pinpoint your pick up location (just like Uber) and it will give you a fare estimate for where you are going. This is very helpful to make sure you are not getting ripped off. Your cab will also be metered if you request it using Grab. Unlike Uber you still pay the driver directly and the rates are normal taxi rates, not the inexpensive Uber rates. So again this is a good back up if you can't get Uber.
For our 3 months in Penang we easily got around with a combination of walking, bus, Uber, and the occasional cab. It all takes a bit more time than if you have your own car or scooter but if you have plenty of time it's an easy place to navigate without the cost of renting a vehicle.