Across Southeast Asia, bargaining with taxi drivers is often a necessary part of the travelling experience, and can range from being mildly annoying to severely inconvenient. So imagine your relief when you arrive in Penang and find ‘THIS IS A METERED TAXI. HAGGLING IS PROHIBITED’ plastered all over the sides of the red-and-white taxis. Easy, right?
The Penang state government’s attempt to regulate taxi drivers and enforce metered fares is being systematically flouted on a fairly massive scale, and the wires from the majority of Penang’s taxi meters lead precisely nowhere. In other words, they are mostly ‘broken’.
Unfortunately, this means that you are going to have to talk money with the driver before you start out. Sure, it’s prohibited, but everyone has to do it. You could, in theory, try protesting and pointing out the irony of the big stickers on the back passenger doors, but invariably this will be met with a shrug and will not make any difference, other than delaying your journey unnecessarily.
Strictly speaking, the taxi fares are fixed and the whole experience of agreeing a price should therefore be straightforward, but this doesn’t mean that a driver won’t try to take advantage of a hapless tourist. It therefore helps to be forewarned and to be able to approach the situation with some idea about what the real fares are. A price list for common tourist destinations is at the bottom of this post.
Some pieces of advice to bear in mind when dealing with Penang taxis: Firstly, most Penang residents have their own car or bike – a fact that becomes painfully obvious during the island’s frequent traffic jams. The upshot is that the use of taxis is not as common as in other cities, and drivers do not generally look out for passengers on the streets. It is rare – though not quite impossible – to be able to hail a taxi, so it is far better to make your way to one of the taxi ranks.
These can be found outside any of the major hotels in Georgetown, and there are main ranks at Komtar/Prangin Mall and next to the Weld Quay bus terminal. Most of the outlying shopping centres and landmarks also have plenty of taxis waiting outside.
Secondly, if you find a taxi driver that you like and trust, it often pays to get their phone number and call them up as and when you need them. They will be glad to have the business, and you won’t have to go through the process of establishing prices with a new driver each time. You could also try one of the reliable radio taxi companies, listed at the bottom of this post.
For those who want to get organised and pre-book a taxi to take them from the airport into town, don’t bother. The exalted, and more expensive, white airport taxis are the only ones that are able to collect passengers at the arrivals hall and it is not worth trying to persuade the regular taxis to break this rule, since the taxi driver brethren of Penang is a law unto itself and there is a strict hierarchy. Although they cost more, the airport taxi fares are fixed and you can buy a voucher in advance at the small booth next to the taxi rank, to the right of the main door as you exit the arrivals hall. The trip to Georgetown currently costs 44 ringgit, although there is a 50 per cent surcharge between midnight and 06:00.
If the whole idea of sitting in an air-conditioned car is just not adventurous enough, a great way to get around Georgetown is by cycle trishaw. Unlike the taxis, these do tend to trawl the streets looking for tourists so if walking in the heat is getting too much, this is a very sedate and pleasant way to see the sights (although they are very sedate, so are not great if you are in a rush). Prices vary wildly and are often made up on the spot, so you have to bargain a lot harder than with the taxis, but an A-to-B journey should be 10 to 15 ringgit within the Georgetown area, depending on the distance. There is a big trishaw rank just outside the Cititel hotel, near the junction of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Muntri.
Finally, you will occasionally see smart blue taxicabs around and about, which bear the same ‘no-haggling-meter-only’ declaration on their back passenger doors. These are invariably much more comfortable cars and really are metered, but from experience it is almost always cheaper to get the red-and-white taxis, which just goes to show that there is some sense in the old-fashioned system after all.
Taxi prices to common destinations in Penang
Within Georgetown: 10 ringgit
Georgetown to Gurney Plaza: 12 ringgit
Georgetown to Straits Quay: 15 ringgit
Georgetown to Batu Ferringhi: 35 ringgit
Georgetown to Air Itam (for Penang Hill and Kek Lok Si temple): 17 ringgit
Georgetown to Teluk Bahang (for Penang National Park and Butterfly Farm): 40 ringgit
Georgetown to Queensbay Mall: 25 ringgit
Georgetown to Airport: 35 ringgit
Batu Ferringhi to Airport: 60 ringgit
Batu Ferringhi to Straits Quay: 20 ringgit
Batu Ferringhi to Gurney Plaza: 25 ringgit
Expect to pay a 50 per cent surcharge on all the above prices between midnight and 06:00.
Reliable radio taxi companies in Penang:
Georgetown Taxis: (04) 229 9467
Sunshine Radio Taxis: (04) 642 5961
Super Radio Taxis: (04) 281 8766
Penang Taxi Drivers’ Association: (04) 262 5721
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 23rd January, 2013.