Malaysia Tip: Getting to the Old Towns in West Malaysia
One of the most common questions that travellers asked is "how to get from one place to another?".
Indeed, when planning for trips, we spent more time searching for ways to get around a country than what to do in that country. Such information tends to be limited and gets outdated rapidly due to changes in the transport system, city development and, sometimes, natural consequences. In such situations, we may have to find other transport options when on the ground which may adversely affect our travel plans.
I did a trip to visit most of the old towns in West Malaysia in July 2017 using only trains and buses to get around the country. Technically, a "land trip". In this post, I will share how I planned the journey to get to the various destinations in West Malaysia from cities to cities. Sharing is the best I can do to assist fellow travellers to get around West Malaysia.
As shown in the map, I started from Singapore, travelled to Malacca, then Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang, the furthest point in the journey. After Penang, I made a U-turn and headed to Taiping, then Kuala Lumpur again and Muar before returning to Singapore. It is a leapfrogging roundabout trip along the western coast of West Malaysia.
What are common in these cities or towns? They are well-known to most travellers and have old towns with pre-war structures, historical buildings, traditional local food and rich cultures. And the primary travel objectives are food hunts and street arts.
Let's study the considerations that affected the planning of the road trip in West Malaysia. You may have your own considerations — or personal preferences.
1. Each bus journey should not take more than 3 hours without a restroom stop or 4 hours with at least one rest stop. Sounds funny? Some bus drivers are so seasoned by their work conditions that they can drive for hours without rest stops. If the bus is getting nearer to the bus terminal, they are more unwilling to stop the bus. This caused some passengers, especially unknowing travellers, to "burst" their bladders.
2. Maximum bus journey should be capped at 4 hours to prevent poor blood circulations. Unlike travelling in a plane or train, it is dangerous to walk up and down the aisle of a moving bus.
3. For overnight travelling or journeys that take more than 6 hours, it is better and safer to use overnight trains with sleepers. One: travelling more than 5 hours during daytime wasted the day. Two: Overnight trains can save on accommodations and still provide sufficient sleeping time — with a pair of good ear-plugs.
However, the railway network, managed by KTMB, in West Malaysia is undergoing upgrading and train schedules are ever-changing until the work is completed — latest change in schedule was in August 2017. Between Johor Bahru (JB) and Gemas, the railway is being upgraded and older trains are still in use. Between Gemas and further north, the newer and faster ETS trains (Electric Train Service) are used. Travelling to the north from JB requires a change of trains at Gemas.
Due to the faster trains, doing overnight travelling is difficult at this time. It may be possible after the upgrading is completed but over much longer distance.
4. Avoid cabs in Malaysia. Not only foreigners, locals get ripped-off too!
From points 1 & 2, you should know why I leapfrogged from cities to cities instead of making a straight line to Penang. I am breaking all the journeys down to 3 hours travelling time. It is achievable. Now, let's get going!
1. Singapore to Malacca
Note: There is no train station in Malacca. The nearest station at Tampin is about 36Km to the north. The easier way to get to the historical city from Singapore is by bus. The most budget option is to take an intercity bus from Larkin Sentral.
First, get to Larkin Sentral from Singapore. The travelling time can be 1.5 hour on weekdays to more than 3 hours on weekends depending on the time required to cross the border. At Larkin Sentral, get a ticket from any bus companies to Melaka Sentral. 44-seaters cost RM18.00 and 27-seaters/executives cost RM21.00. The journey is about 2.5 hours non-stop or 3 hours with one rest stop — the bus driver calls the shot unless there is an urgent request for restroom.
More details on getting to Malacca: From Singapore to Malacca and Back for Just S$20 D.I.Y.
To get to Malacca's historical city, go to the domestic bus platform in Melaka Sentral and take bus service 17. It costs RM2.00 to Dutch Square or the "red house". Uber will cost around RM6.00.
What to do in Malacca Old Town?
Coffee: Go Cafe-Hopping in Rustic Cafes
Eat: Local Food in the Old Town
Eat: Places to Eat Outside the Old Town
Coffee: Calanthe Art Cafe | The Stolen Cup
See: Malacca Street Arts
Sleep: Hangout@Jonker (replaced by Styles Hotel)
2. From Malacca to Kuala Lumpur
If you are in the historical city, take bus 17 to Malacca Sentral. At the terminal, go to the intercity bus platform and get a ticket to Kuala Lumpur (KL). The bus will stop at Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (TBS), the intercity bus terminal in KL. The journey is about 2 hours non-stop and cost RM13.40 (executive).
Note that TBS is about 10Km to the south of Kuala Lumpur city centre. To get to the city centre, use one of these options:
KLIA Ekspres high-speed train (the non-stop airport metro line) to KL Sentral. 15 to 20 minutes interval.
KTMB's ETS trains. There are only 4 services a day running at fixed schedules from Bandar Tasik Selatan Railway Station (just beside TBS) to KL Sentral or Kuala Lumpur Station. These are northbound trains from Gemas to Butterworth or Padang Besar (on the Thailand-Malaysia border).
KTMB's older Komuter trains will also service between Bandar Tasik Selatan Railway Station and KL Sentral/Kuala Lumpur Station but at hourly interval.
Rapid KL's LRT networks covering Kuala Lumpur. Get to Bandar Tasik Selatan LRT Station (beside the railway station) and use the monorail to get to your destination. Changing of monorails may be required.
To get to Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown (Jalan Petaling), take the ETS/Komuter train to Kuala Lumpur Station and walk over. Or use the monorail and alight at Pasar Seni LRT Station, which is only one stop from KL Sentral.
What to do in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown?
See: KL Street Arts
Coffee: 3D Coffee Art @ Coffee Amos Sleep: CchineE Hotel @ Agoda
3. From Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh
If you are in Chinatown, walk over to Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and get the next ETS train ticket to Ipoh. The fare range from RM25.00 to RM46.00 depending on whether the next train is ETS Silver (ES), ETS Gold (EG) or ETS Platinum (EP). The journey is about 2 hours 20 minutes. (ETS Train Schedule — tap on "KL Sentral - Ipoh - KL Sentral").
Pre-purchasing of ticket is not required unless during peak periods. ETS Silver trains are the cheapest, servicing between KL and Ipoh only, and they get sold out fast on weekends.
When going to Ipoh, and if you are staying in Ipoh old town, getting there by train is the best option as Ipoh Railway Station is just beside the old town (approx. 400 metres).
To get to Ipoh by intercity bus, you will need to get to TBS and buy a ticket to Ipoh Aman Jaya Bus Terminal (RM28.00), which is about 10Km further north from the old town. A change to bus or cab is required to get to your destination. There is an hourly shuttle bus service between Aman Jaya Bus Terminal and Medan Kidd (local) Bus Station, passing the railway station en route. The whole journey will take more than 3 hours.
In short, it is easier to get to Ipoh by train and stay in the old town.
What to do in Ipoh Old Town?
Sleep: Brick Box Hotel
See: The "Art of OldTown" Murals
See: Mural Art's Lane
Eat: Where to Go for Local Food
Sidetrack: From Ipoh to Cameron Highlands
If you intend to go to the Cameron Highlands, getting there from Ipoh is preferable as the road is less winding and shorter than from Kuala Lumpur. Perak Transit is the only bus operator servicing the Ipoh-Cameron Highlands route.
Take the shuttle bus from Ipoh Railway Station or Medan Kidd Bus Station to Aman Jaya Bus Terminal and switch to Perak Transit bus to Tanah Rata Bus Terminal in the highlands. The journey is about 1.5 to 2 hours at RM18.50.
4. From Ipoh to Penang
Taking the ETS train from Ipoh Railway Station to Butterworth Railway Station, in Penang, is the easier way between Ipoh and Penang. The ticket is RM42.00 and takes 1 hour 40 minutes. After exiting Butterworth Railway Station, follow the signs and walk to the ferry terminal. Take the vehicle-cum-passenger ferry to Pangkalan Ferry Terminal on Penang island. The fare is RM1.20 (coins only). After alighting from the ferry, you will be at the edge of Georgetown.
If the above recommendation sounds tedious to you, try the bus network. Take the shuttle bus to Aman Jaya Bus Terminal, then change to intercity bus to Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal on Penang island. After that, change to a local bus to Georgetown (20 - 30 minutes) or wherever your accommodation is. That will be 3 buses.
Alternatively, take intercity bus from Aman Jaya Bus Terminal to Butterworth Bus Terminal, which is just beside the ferry terminal. Walk to the ferry terminal and catch a ferry to Georgetown. That will be 2 buses and 1 ferry.
Note that most of the roads in Georgetown are one-ways. Taking bus or cab to anywhere in the old town can take you down several streets before doubling back again. If the distance to your accommodation is not very far, suggest that you take a walk or try to get an accommodation within "manageable" walking distance from the ferry terminal.
What to do in Georgetown?
Eat: Penang Local Food
See: Penang Street Arts Part I | Parts II
Don't See: Touristy Penang Hill Sleep: Desa Pelangi Condo @ Agoda
5. From Penang to Taiping
The long distance bus terminals in Taiping are at Kamunting and Medan Simpang, both are about 6-7km from Taiping town centre — where all tourism activities are. Taiping Railway Station is just beside the town centre.
First, get to Pangkalan Ferry Terminal and take the ferry to Butterworth — and it's free this time! At Butterworth Railway Station, take the ETS or Komuter train to Taiping Railway Station. The ETS trains have fixed schedules, take an hour to Taiping and cost RM21.00 (Gold) or RM26.00 (Platinum).
The Komuter trains are hourly interval, take an hour too but only RM7.50. If the Komuter train is headed for Padang Besar, alight at Bukit Mertajam Station and cross to the southbound platform, board the next Komuter train to Padang Rengas. (Northern Sector Komuter Schedule — tap on "Bukit Mertajam - Padang Rengas - Bukit Mertajam")
At Taiping Railway Station, walk to the town centre where all travellers head to. Or try a Uber.
What to do in Taiping town?
See: Taiping Lake Gardens
Sleep: Sojourn Beds & Cafe
See: Taiping Street Arts
See: Historical Antong Coffee Mill
Eat: Local Food Adventure in Taiping
Sidetrack: From Taiping to Ipoh
The easiest way between Taiping and Ipoh is by ETS trains (ETS Platinum: RM24.00 and ETS Gold: RM20.00). The journey is about an hour. There is no Komuter train to Ipoh. (ETS Train Schedule: See both "Gemas - Padang Besar - Gemas" and "Gemas - Butterworth -Gemas").
Note that Taiping and Ipoh are both in the state of Perak, so there is a local bus, Kumpulan Bas Perak, servicing between the two towns. The bus departs from the local bus station, Taiping Terminal, near the town centre to Ipoh's Aman Jaya Bus Terminal (RM10.00) and Medan Kidd local bus station (RM11.00). The journey is 1.5 hours at 2-3 hours interval.
6. From Taiping to Kuala Lumpur
Same, the easiest way to get to Kuala Lumpur from Taiping is by ETS trains (ETS Platinum: RM62.00 and ETS Gold: RM47.00), passing through Ipoh. The journey is 3 hours.
If you are heading to Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, alight at Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and walk over. If you alight at KL Sentral, you will need to switch to the monorail to Pasar Seni LRT Station — cost you more money and time.
If you are not stopping over at Kuala Lumpur but getting to TBS for buses to some other destinations, check the schedule of the trains that stop in Taiping and get the ticket to Bandar Tasik Selatan Station (ETS Platinum: RM64.00 and ETS Gold: RM49.00). Or get to KL Sentral and switch to other means to reach TBS (see No. 2).
7. From Kuala Lumpur to Muar
There is no train service to Muar town, so the only option left is to take bus from TBS to Sungai Bentayan Bus Terminal in Muar. The journey takes 3 hours at RM17.60. The bus terminal is right beside the town centre. Just walk to anywhere from here.
Noticed that if I were to go to Muar and Malacca in the early part of the journey, it will take 5-6 hours on the return trip to travel from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. For this reason, Muar was inserted into the return journey.
What to do in Muar town?
See: Muar Street Arts
8. From Muar to Singapore
From Muar, take bus from Sungai Bentayan Bus Terminal to Larkin Sentral. The journey will take 2.5 hours and costs RM16.70 (30-seaters). From Larkin, take Bus 170, Singapore-Johore Express bus or Causeway Link bus to Singapore.
More on getting from Larkin to Singapore: From Singapore to Larkin Terminal, Johor
And that's it! We are back in Singapore.
There are several ways to get from cities to cities, what is more important are the travel considerations (or your preferences) and whether you are familiar with Malaysia's public transport network (which is not possible if it is to be your first time in Malaysia). Once you learnt the tricks, travelling in West Malaysia will be a lot easier.