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Topical JBR: Rapid Penang and other transport. A narrative r

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Topical JBR: Rapid Penang and other transport. A narrative r

I hope this JBR helps some folks to plan their local travel arrangements.

We just spent ~5 days on Pulau Pinang on a short break. Half in Georgetown, half in Batu Ferringhi. I have been coming to Pulau Pinang, and to neighbouring parts of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand for 3+ decades. My first arrival in SE Asia was by passenger ship from Chennai (and before that by ship from Mombasa to Mumbai) to Georgetown – and the area remains a special one for me for vibe and food. The others in our group were teenagers (my son and one of his cousins) taking breaks from school and work in a nearby city. Our son had been here a decade ago during a several-day a stopover on the BKK-Butterworth-KL-SIN rail journey. The cousin had never been here. They mainly wanted a bit of SSSS: see, sea, shopping, and savouries (good food).

Prior to arrival we had a multiple working hypothesis approach to local transport. We walked and took the gratis CAT bus in Georgetown. We walked and swam in Batu Ferringhi. We rode the Penang Ferry – this time only for the glorious ride-view-vibe {but not to connect to any bus, taxi or train going beyond Butterworth}. We arrived and departed by Air Asia. This was my first-ever time neither arriving nor departing by train. The current KTM schedules, devoid of a morning KL-Butterworth train or afternoon Butterworth-KL train right now, just did not work for this short trip. Hopefully that will be rectified if/when the rail line and services between Ipoh and Butterworth are upgraded.


But we were not sure about other road transport. Previous experiences give me the sense that Penang taxis rank dead last of all taxi “services” throughout Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, other than the “mafia-infested” ones on Phuket (and possibly Samui – though Samui and Penang seem about equally poorly served, IMHO, by their taxi drivers). And reports suggested a degradation in the bus service.

On the other hand, anyone familiar with the old single-door yellow-red-blue buses operating from Maxwell Road etc. in the 1970s probably doesn't look back to that format with fondness.. One might not feel nostalgic about the condition of bus stops in those days, either.

So would we take more of the overpriced taxis, or more of the reportedly increasingly unreliable and cranky buses? We were ready for either – to go with the flow – and prepared ourselves with a local SIM card in one of our mobile phones minutes after clearing customs.

BTW, we had obtained some RM in Singapore and Johor Bahru. In both cases we found those rates to be slightly better than any which we encountered on Pulau Pinang. But that's covered by another post


– other than to say that we had small notes upon arrival – but no coins at that time. If you don't have small change – the coffee shops or mobile phone SIM card outlets want to be your friend.


Day 1: Arriving at Penang airport we were headed into Georgetown for a hotel stay there. Would the bus connection be convenient, or would we get frustrated and revert to a taxi? We confirmed the current location of the bus stop at the Tourism Malaysia counter. Two minutes later we had boarded a route 102 bus which was sitting there. Normally folks would take this bus to the north coast beaches. And wait for it or pay ~RM70 for a taxi. Some folks groan that the wait is dreadfully long. But sometimes one can be lucky. Bus 102 stops at KOMTAR on its way to Teluk Bahang – and from KOMTAR we could take the gratis CAT loop bus to a stop directly in front of our hotel.

So that's what we did – rather than waiting for the more heavily promoted and more frequent 401/401E. Bus 102 departed, mostly full but with no standees at that point, a few moments later. Cost of trip: RM9 for 3 people (RM8.10, but we didn't have a 10 sen coin so rounded up). Time of trip – a bit less than an hour. Where the bus got stuck in traffic, taxis were also getting stuck. So that bus trip was only slightly slower than a taxi ride might have been. And the bright, new bus gave better views, and was more comfortable, than an aged red and white Proton Saga with dysfunctional metre {and who knows what else?} would have been.

Rest of day 1, discovering our hotel and its environs, walking, eating, and taking the Penang Ferry.

Day 2: We wanted to visit the Botanic Gardens, and possibly the Penang Hill Railway and Kek Lok Si Temple. I suspect that the best way to visit those places would be to take an early bus or taxi to the Penang Hill Railway station, visit the temple afterward, then hope that a taxi would be available to take us to the Botanic Gardens (or to walk down to the Gardens from Penang Hill), then take a bus back into town if a taxi were unavailable at the Gardens – which would be likely. However, I prefer sunset and post-sunset, or to overnight on Penang Hill. And our group is all late-risers on vacation – so we decided to let our body clocks rule over an overly ambitious wish-list of things to see (absent a full-time car at least). In the end we took a leisurely morning, and walked just before lunch time to the jetty to catch the #10 bus to the Gardens. After waiting for 30 minutes, a #10 bus appeared. But the driver said that he only departed after another 45 minutes. Apparently he had to take his lunch, and Rapid Penang apparently just shuts down that route during that period (on that Sunday, at least..). At least the bus was cool while we waited – and there were some goings-on in the area to observe. (Note: IMHO the sitting position of the bus beats any car that I know of for views. The seats beat any ordinary taxi for comfort.) When the bus finally left, it alternatively found gridlock traffic with a few brief breaks. Bus route 10 is especially convoluted. So it took us an hour to reach the Gardens. At least there were good views of goings-on along the way.

After enjoying the Gardens, we exited to find no taxi – but only a few minutes later a bus appeared. So we took that back to town. The bus was quite a bit quicker this time – though the route was identically convoluted. We got down at KOMTAR for a bit of shopping in the area, and for a delightful Chinese veg dinner also nearby, before walking back to our hotel {the An-Nur AnCasa Express – which is converted from residential apartments into a very well-located, very home-like, place to stay}. We decided, ultimately, to skip Penang Hill and the temple. Transport cost day 2: RM4 each.

Day 3: In the morning we cruised around in the gratis CAT bus. After checking out of our in-town hotel we debated whether to take a bus or taxi to the ParkRoyal in Batu Ferringhi. The hotel clerk phoned a private transfer, got us a RM40 quote in a spacious new SUV, so we took that for convenience – and a break from the bus after day 3's little inconvenience. We used no other road transport on day 3 – just swam and walked around our hotel area.

Day 4: We just enjoyed the ParkRoyal and surrounding area. No road transport was used.

Note: we discovered that the Website Penang TravelTips had links to Google Transit – which enables one to check car, walking, or public transit logistics for some cities. Public transport information is stated as being adapted from information provided by some public transport operators. I was happy to see this offered for Penang – and was curious.


Could it be accurate enough, particularly for times, to be useful? Trying this, the site offered a main suggestion of bus 102, which it listed as passing in front of the ParkRoyal at 1610, and taking just under two hours to the airport. This would be OK for our ~1900 check-in target for our flight at 2100 hours. The site offered as an alternative route 101 buses every ~15 minutes to KOMTAR, with transfers to 401, 401E and 102 being sort-of frequent (especially if one could take any of those).

Day 5: We enjoyed the ParkRoyal and environs some more, and headed to the bus stop in front of the ParkRoyal at 1550. Our plan was to see if bus 102 would work, or if bus 101 could work as a backup. If not, we had plenty of time to regroup and take a taxi. Between 1550 and 1610 four number 101 buses passed by, each with some passengers, but enough available seats for our group. Then, at 1615 – what should appear but a #102 bus – going westward! Hmmm. How long would the driver's break be at Teluk Bahang? But sure as the buses run precisely on time (almost.. lol), this #102 pulled into our stop at 1630, only 20 minutes behind what Rapid Penang had probably provided to Google Transit. There were seats, the driver was quick, traffic into KOMTAR was light at that hour, traffic was heavy but moving between KOMTAR and the airport – and we reached the airport at a convenient time w.r.t. the checkin time for our flight. Transport cost for day 5: RM4 per person. Travel time about 2 hours including the extra wait at the bus stop because bus 102 was ~20 minutes late in picking us up. Though that was longer than a taxi or other car would have taken, it was also about half of a round-island tour, from panoramic windows at the height of a bus seat, essentially gratis. (I usually take a round-island circuit when I visit Pulau Pinang. One was by charter car and driver – the other times have been by public bus. This time we skipped such a tour – but got half a circuit of the island by bus 102.)

We checked in early for our flight, and passed the time pleasantly having a tasty snack and drink at the airport. That cost only a bit more than “Uncle John's Roti John” or other Air Asia meal, and filled the time before we headed to the departure gates. Penang's high standard for food extends to its airport IMHO – at least by global airport standards.

Had we done this trip by buying a bus pass, we would have paid RM30 each = RM90 total. Had we taken taxis or other cars with driver we might have paid RM150+ all-in. Our total cost by bus and private driver was RM73 all in. The only inconvenience was the bus to the Botanic Gardens. In other cases the bus system worked adequately (even predictably or better) for us – with great views, a reasonable ride, and courteous drivers {and Jetty station staff} all the way.

Overall, the bus experience was far better than I experienced on my first visits to Pulau Pinang – for comfort, logistics, and promptness. Hardly perfect by Japanese standards. But just fine by Bangkok standards. Our one trip by private driver also worked out – with a reasonably personable and competent driver, reasonably comfortable vehicle and trip.

I had come to Penang with moderately low expectations for Rapid Penang, based on posts mainly on TA. It might help to avoid having high expectations regarding public transit – in places like Penang. But (or maybe because our expectations were a bit low) those expectations were generally exceeded.

Current buses may be too few for optimum service. Routes could be tweaked (e.g. to connect the Botanic Gardens and the base station of the Penang Hill Railway). The number of seats could be increased by providing fold-away seating for use when wheelchairs are not tethered to their dedicated posts. (This is done on some other systems). But the buses were otherwise comfortable. We always got seats (though some others stood). One sits higher, with better panoramic views, than is possible from the back seat of a taxi or hire car. The bus stops are also considerably improved compared with the past.

Overall, a 4-stars transport experience from a reviewer who grades on a curve (with more 3-star ratings than any other category).


An off-topic PS: Walking along Chulia Street, I did not notice my all-time favourite-named business in Georgetown, the “Ah-Choo Medical Hall”. (A good place to buy Hacks lozenges?) I also missed it the last time I was in town. RIP if it's really gone.

Edited: 12:14 pm, December 01, 2013
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1. Re: Topical JBR: Rapid Penang and other transport. A narrative r

Are you referring to this shop?


I think its still there, well maybe I might be wrong too. Seldom visit Chulia street lately, but Hacks lozenges is available widely in penang especially the black one which is the most famous.

Nice JBR by the way.

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2. Re: Topical JBR: Rapid Penang and other transport. A narrative r

karloon, sorry, was on travel. That looks like the place!

Yeah, Hacks are common. But I like the pun in the name of the establishment, so would choose to buy my Hacks there, if available (and I could find the place again).

Thanx for your comment on the JBR. I assume that, for some, it gets boringly detailed on bus travel. A better-organized list of tips might be useful, but is (1) beyond me and (2) perhaps likely to become obsolete as numbers of available buses change.

Edited: 4:13 am, December 08, 2013
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3. Re: Topical JBR: Rapid Penang and other transport. A narrative r

BTW, in re-reading the JBR, I see that I forgot to mention:

=> Tired of waiting for the 102 bus from the airport to the beaches? Take the more frequent 401/401E to KOMTAR, then take the 101 (or 102 if it shows up) to your destination on the north coast. This may cost you RM 5.40 (2.70 per bus) rather than 4.00 for the single ride on 102, but should reduce uncertainties.

=> Otherwise, follow the link in the OP to Google Transit Penang, plug in your time and end points, and see if it could work for you as well as it did for me. Although imperfect in my case, it worked acceptably well to be rather helpful, IMHO.

Edited: 4:22 am, December 08, 2013
4. Re: Topical JBR: Rapid Penang and other transport. A narrative r

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