Jun 27 2013
As an island, Penang is not the most easily accessible place in Malaysia and however you choose to travel over from the mainland, you will first have to negotiate several kilometres of the Malacca Straits. Fortunately, there are a number of different ways to make the trip so here’s a rundown to help you plan how to arrive in Penang.
The famous 13-kilometre bridge, opened in 1985, is the most popular way to get across the channel and if it’s your first time, there is something of a childish thrill about driving over the sea. Sadly, for cars travelling towards the island, the view of Georgetown is obscured for much of the way by an annoying central barrier. However, since you are more likely to make the journey by long-distance coach from one of the Malaysian peninsula’s other main cities, you can be confident that your elevated seats will offer an uninterrupted vista of Penang’s east coast, with Georgetown on the far right. Views or no views, the bridge gives a real sense of ‘arrival’ when you finally make dry land.
If you make the journey by bus, the cost of crossing the bridge is included in your ticket. Cars, meanwhile, pay 7 ringgit approaching the island, although the return to the mainland is free.
Malaysia’s long-distance buses are a reliable and economical way of getting around, and the journey from KL to Penang is about five hours, including rest stops. Some services, such as the Nice Executive Coach, offer serious five-star service, including executive waiting rooms, personal TV screens and refreshments for 75 ringgit one-way. You can also go for ‘mid-range’ (that is, without the personal screens) with Aeroline for 55 ringgit, and other companies offer the same journey, without the perks but with comfortable seats, air-conditioning and toilets, for around 35 ringgit. A comprehensive list of Penang bus operators can be found on the Journey Malaysia website.
However, it is worth checking where your coach terminates. If you had assumed that you would be deposited conveniently near to your hotel, you may be disappointed. The long-distance coach station at Sungai Nibong could not really be any less convenient for Georgetown, and is situated about 10 kilometres south of the city. Most coaches now terminate here, so you will have to spend more time and money finding alternative transport to go those last few kilometres and taxis into Georgetown cost around 25 ringgit. The local Rapid Penang bus routes 102 and 401, leaving from just in front of the coach station, will also take you into the centre for around 2 ringgit, but can be unreliable.
If you want to avoid the hassle of buses and taxis when you arrive in Penang, it is worth contacting Gunung Raya (T: 04 250 0250) or Five Star (T: 04 262 6666) travel agencies in Penang, who can organise drop-offs at Komtar in Georgetown, from where it is a short walk to the hostels and hotels around Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Muntri.
Flying to Penang is also another very good option, especially since the advent of the low-cost carriers, and flights from KL can start from as little as 50 or 60 ringgit all-in on Air Asia and Firefly. This is cheaper than some of the high-end coaches, and if you are coming from elsewhere in the region, there are a surprising number of direct flights, from places including Singapore, Bangkok, Ko Samui, Phuket, Langkawi, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, Jakarta, Medan, Hong Kong and Taipei. It is also worth checking out Malaysia Airlines flights from KL, since these are sometimes not that much more expensive than the budget airlines.
Arriving at Penang airport is easy since it is relatively small and, following a very recent makeover, it is also quite a pleasant experience. However, since the airport is 14 kilometres south of Georgetown, you will need to take the bus or else hire a taxi to get into the city. At 2.70 ringgit, the 102, 401 and 401E buses are definitely the cheaper option and depart every half hour or so, although don’t be deceived by their ‘Rapid Penang’ livery, since it can take up to an hour to get to Georgetown. Look for the bus stop on the left hand side as you exit Arrivals, on the outermost road beyond the drop-off lanes, and double check that the final destination is Georgetown, since some of the buses go in the opposite direction.
More expensive, but also more reliable, are the white airport taxis. The trip to Georgetown is expensive, at 43 ringgit, but this is a flat rate and requires no haggling. Tickets can be bought at the kiosk on the right hand side as you exit the arrivals hall.
Although flying or crossing the bridge might be more convenient, there is no doubt that taking the ferry from Butterworth, on the mainland opposite Penang, is the most romantic way to arrive on the island. As a historical port town, there is a certain attraction to approaching the Georgetown via the sea, and the ferry also has the distinct advantage of taking you right to the city centre. Services leave every 15 to 20 minutes, and take about the same time to cover the three kilometre stretch. Pedestrians pay only 1.20 ringgit and cars cost 7.80 ringgit.
When Butterworth railway station re-opens in 2014, travellers arriving by train from either Bangkok or KL will be able to transfer easily to the ferry terminal, which is right next door. The North-South railway line is currently undergoing extensive improvement works which will reduce journey times significantly. At the moment, however, the services are quite slow and you are dropped at a makeshift station 30 kiometres away, so the coach is currently a much better option. Some long distance coach services stop in Butterworth, also just next to the ferry terminal, for those keen to make the short three kilometre sea crossing.
If you are travelling to Penang from either Langkawi or Medan, you have the option of taking the ferry. Be warned, however, that the Langkawi ferry in particular is something of a ‘vomit comet’ when the seas are rough and being trapped in a cabin under these conditions may not necessarily be the nicest way to travel. Check the weather forecasts before you set out.
The three-hour ferry from Langkawi departs twice daily, at 14:30 and 17:30, and costs 60 ringgit one way. At the moment, the ferry from Medan costs 110 ringgit one way, departing on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11:00 and arriving in Penang at around 17:00, although this schedule changes frequently so check the ferry company’s website for up-to-date details.
Later in 2013, there will be one more option for getting to Penang, when the second bridge opens. However, since it is situated at the opposite end of the island to Georgetown, the chances are you might just prefer to take the ferry.
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