Top tips for an incredible Malaysia road trip

Top tips for an incredible Malaysia road trip

West Malaysia is one of the best places in Asia to drive the open roads. But know this before you hit the highway
Malaysia road trip - Penang bridge
The Penang Bridge connects George Town, the capital of Penang, with Perai on the mainland of West Malaysia.

“Don’t drive to Malaysia,” Singaporean friends warned me when I told them I was planning to take my car on a road trip around their northern neighbor and former motherland.

“The people will see your Singapore license plate and ram into the back of you. Then they’ll rob you.”

I nodded my head.

And then ignored their warnings -- because nothing is further from the truth.

Driving in West Malaysia (the part sandwiched between Thailand and Singapore), where 80% of the country’s population lives, is a surprisingly simple -- and safe -- endeavor.

Gas is cheap and the expressways are as good as any highways you’ll find in the United States. 

Signs are frequent and clearly marked and most people you encounter speak English.

Almost all the major car rental companies are in the region -- Hertz, Avis, others. 

Also known as Peninsular Malaysia, the area is a tolerant, culturally complex part of the world. 

Though the majority of Malaysians are Muslim, you might see a truck full of live pigs rumbling through a small town (for the country’s large Chinese population) or signs plastered over a church wall in Tamil for the upcoming elections.

Best of all, West Malaysia has such a variety of terrain that on a two-week driving trip you’ll feel like you’ve experienced four different vacations.

Since distances aren’t huge (the longest drives are likely to be five hours), travelers can fly in to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Penang, and then map out the destinations in the most logical fashion -- north to south or vice versa. 

More on CNN: 10 best islands for a Malaysia holiday

Driving tips

Taking sides

Roads and cars follow the British system -- steering wheel on the right, vehicles on the left.

Highways, or expressways as they're known in Malaysia, are well maintained, with frequent stops offering rest, food and gas.

​Smaller roads that pass through towns and have traffic lights -- you’ll sometimes take them to connect from one destination to the next -- aren’t quite as well maintained.

Posted speed limit on highways is 110 kmh (about 68 mph), but most people in the passing lane drive at about 120 kmh or higher.

 

The busy Johor–Singapore Causeway stretches 1,056 meters to link Singapore with the city of Johor Bahru in Malaysia. Unless you're passing, stick to the left lane; if not, you’ll find drivers tailgating you, eager to pass.

Drivers aren’t overly aggressive, but they don’t like to be held up when they're tearing down the highway at 160 kmh.

You'll be constantly reminded to stay on the left by road signs in Malay that announce "Icut Kiri," or “stay left." Other words that you’ll see on signs worth remembering include "Awas" (danger) and "Hadapan" (in front).

 

Tolls and meters

On highways, the most convenient way to pay tolls at booths is with a Touch’n Go card that can be purchased and refilled at any gas station.

It’s a prepaid card that works like the EZ Pass in the U.S. -- load money into it then swipe the card to pay at the dedicated blue-and-yellow signed Touch’n Go lanes at toll plazas.

In cities, parking meters are usually in effect from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., unless otherwise noted. Meter rates are Ringgit 0.80 per hour.

If you’re coming from Singapore

​If you start your journey in Singapore, I recommend entering Malaysia via the Tuas checkpoint. It’s always less congested than the Woodlands crossing.

In Malaysia, Singapore-plated cars (Singapore plates are easily identified, they always starts with the letter S) will have to pay US$0.33 more per liter (about US$1.25 per gallon) of gas than if the car was rented in Malaysia.

Following a 2011 Malaysian ordinance, Singapore-registered cars can only be refueled by station attendants with 97-octane gas.

Getting lost

Using a GPS to get around is wise, but you'll likely get lost from time to time anyhow.

Especially in KL, where new roads are constantly being built and one wrong turn onto an arterial road can lead you 20 miles off track.

Here’s my suggested itinerary for first time visitors to West Malaysia. It starts from Singapore, which gives you a chance to explore the popular West Coast.

First stop: Melaka

Melaka's Baby Nyonya Museum. Singapore to Melaka distance: 237 kilometers

Over the centuries, Malacca (Melaka in Malay) has been colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

Its small size makes it easy to navigate the shaded alleys and passageways by foot or trishaw.

The colonial heart of this UNESCO-listed city is situated on the east side of the Melaka river (Sungai Melaka) and includes ruins of the old Portuguese fort Porta de Santiago and St Paul’s Church.

The town square offers reminders of Melaka’s Dutch past and the old Stadhuys (Town Hall) and Christ Church offer a small slice of Amsterdam.

It’s not all ruins and architecture.

Visitors can fill up on some renowned Nyonya cuisine -- a fragrant fusion of Chinese and Malay cooking, the result of centuries of mixed marriages in the area.

Kuala Lumpur

 

You'll take at least one wrong turn while driving in Kuala Lumpur. There's no avoiding it.Melaka to KL distance: 148 kilometers

A pulsing metropolis ringed by multi-lane motorways and peppered with befuddling one-way systems, KL's key sights are clumped into two areas.

The first, KLCC (for Kuala Lumpur City Center), is where you’ll find the towers, shopping malls and adjoining virgin rainforest at Bukit Nanas.

The second, to the south, is Bukit Bintang, where tourists spend the biggest chunk of their time, lingering in cafes and restaurants, ambling around air-conditioned shopping malls and bedding down in the city’s broadest selection of hotels.

Malaysia’s multiculturalism is boldly apparent in KL, with the city home to a Chinatown, a Little India and fine Moorish architecture around Masjid Jamek and Merdeka Square.

More on CNN: Insider Guide: Best of Kuala Lumpur

Cameron Highlands

KL to Cameron Highlands distance: 200 kilometers

A few hours north of Kuala Lumpur, this mountainous region named for an 1800s British surveyor is refreshingly cool.

Roads are adventurous and curvy, days are sunny, nights have a pleasant chill to them.

This is a popular spot for weekenders from the capital. Roads are mostly single lanes in each direction.

There’s a quiet pace to the Highlands. Most people come for the hiking (there are many great hikes, from easy to calf-torturing), the strawberries at Brinchang’s pick-your-own farms, to enjoy tea and scones or to just cool off and take in the gorgeous, undulating scenery.

Excellent roadside tea stops include Bharat Tea café, on the road between Tanah Rata and Ringlet, with stunning views of the valley and tea plantations.

More on CNN: Cameron Highlands: Malaysia's enduring 'Little England'

Penang

Penang City Hall. Showing why George Town is UNESCO-worthy. Cameron Highlands to Penang distance: 150 kilometers

Penang Island has sealed its reputation as Malaysia’s food capital, most notably for its fantastic selection of street food. 

Hawkers cook up outrageously tasty dishes like char koay teow (fried rice noodles with bean sprouts, shrimp and chives), Penang laksa (spicy noodle soup with seafood), ee foo mee (egg noodles), lor bak (deep-fried pork), lok lok (meat and vegetables put on skewers and dipped in soup), nasi goreng (fried rice), balacan ayam (chicken with shrimp paste), wan than mee (wanton noodle soup) and more under fluorescent strip lights late into the night. 

Penang also attracts visitors for its architecture -- from art deco to Malay to Georgian -- which has accorded the island World Heritage Site status.

Though Penang is an island, few come for the beaches (there are a few decent ones).

The main points of interest are in the city of George Town, where the daily commerce of small businesses is run out of fascinating little shophouses, (the shop is on the street level, the owner or a resident lives on the floor above) as it has for decades. 

More on CNN: Malaysia's top 40 foods 

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