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Riding in Malaysia

Discussion in 'Roads, Touring, Journeys, and Travel' at netrider.net.au started by jd, Dec 20, 2010.

  1. Never got around to writing up my experiences at the time but the last two times I've visited the Penang region I've opted to spend some time exploring the area on the back of a rental motorcycle and thought I'd share my experiences with those who might be interested.

    The Bikes:
    First time I rented a bike over there was quite a few years ago now so I don't remember much (not helped by the fact I didn't take a camera so have no photos to jog my memory). I do remember however that I wanted to avoid the myriad of step-thrus and automatic scooters and find something closer to a true motorcycle (or as close as was possible in a country which effectively has a 175cc limit). Eventually I settled on a local copy of a Kawasaki Vulcan, a reasonably large bike in comparison with other local offerings (so just barely adequate for Westerners), but with all the awesome power of an air-cooled 175cc single. In terms of performance I don't know what the bike was capable of, as the speedo didn't work. High speeds were also discouraged by the fact the front brake rotor was so badly warped as to be totally unuseable, and with my right leg frequently coming into contact with the cylinder head/exhaust it was preferable not to get the engine too hot. Of course the bike's many problems were also part of what made it so interesting, and it was at least capable of easily keeping up with traffic in a country where <1000cc cars are common.

    On my more recent trip I found that the locally made cruisers were nowhere to be found, the model having apparently suffered from the fact that it was considered overpriced (at about AU$2,500) and was only ever popular with dumb Western tourists (a fair call given I paid more to rent one than I would have paid for a more modern scooter - or a car!). Still wanting to avoid step-thrus and scooters however I finally came across something I didn't recognise but like the look of - an 80's styled naked Yamaha. Not bothering to find out more I grabbed it at a rate of something like AU$20 a day (not that I really cared about the cost). First thing I did notice about the bike was that it was a single, and that it was kick-start only, although in the tropics cold starting is hardly a problem so I didn't mind.

    Showing some discretion I pulled away from the rental place somewhat cautiously into traffic, though only a few metres down the road found myself stopped at a red light at the head of a long line of traffic. Not wanting to suffer the indignity of being run down or beeped at by a tiny 900cc shopping trolley I thought I'd see what my little rental could do - at this stage thinking that at only 110-125cc what was the worst that could happen. As the lights turned green I grabbed a handful of throttle and dumped the clutch, to be rewarded by a beautifully uninterrupted view of the sky as I shot through the busy intersection on the rear wheel. To say this was a surprise is an understatement, but after returning the front wheel to its rightful place on terra firma, to the cheers and applause of a few locals on the side of the street, I realised that I was in for some fun times ahead. As I later discovered the bike I had rented was in fact a modern successor to the RZ125, now with a 135cc 2-stroke. Although not insanely powerful the bike's light weight and small size (which meant I was pretty much riding from the pillion seat) created a tendency for the front wheel to head skywards virtually everytime the throttle was opened, or whenever the engine hit its powerband (even at 100+kph). Of course speeding, wheelies and other such anti-social behaviour are certainly illegal, but with Police bribes generally costing less than the average Australian parking ticket I was prepared to take my chances.

    The Roads
    Most of my riding has been around the island of Penang simply because it's pretty much impossible to get lost on such a small island. The island itself is a strange mix with the Eastern side being mostly dense industrial and residential all connected by a wide multi-laned highway. In many parts bikes are supposed to use their own separate motorcycle lane, but I usually felt safer moving amongst cars than trying to pass bikes on a separate strip of tarmac which was no wider than most footpaths. The motorcycle lane is made more worrying by the fact it is a mix of slow-moving (20-30kph) bikes, often heavily loaded with all manner of items or entire families, with most other bikes passing them at 60kph or more. The densely populated areas around the main city of Georgetown are their own form of chaos, with seemingly no road laws in place (or observed) other than the fact that larger vehicles do whatever they please, with motorcycles definitely at the bottom of the pecking order. Strangely I found the chaos of peak hour to be quite manageable once I realised that every vehicle on the road was simply doing exactly what I would do here in Australia if we didn't have such strict road laws. Knowing that every car is doing whatever it can to get ahead of everyone else actually seems to make the roads safer than when you have people panic braking for lights that just turned yellow or driving well below the speed limit in the right hand lane.

    On the western side of the island things are considerably different as it consists of mostly small villages connected by sealed single-lane roads which either wind their way along the cost or up through the mountains. The sharp bends and/or steep gradients make these quite fun on a bike, although you do have to keep in mind that any corner could hide loose material across the road (run off from the jungle or even just fruit dropped by trees), or a car/truck blocking the road (trucks/buses move slowly up steep hills and the narrow shoulders on many sections means parked vehicles still take up much of the lane). As some of these roads don't get much traffic you also need to keep in the back of your mind that if you crash it could be a long time before anyone finds you, and even longer before that person phones for an ambulance (and even then you still need to add the several hours it might take for an ambulance to reach you and transport you back to the hospital). So a relatively relaxed pace is definitely the order of the day, especially if you choose to copy the locals and ride in shorts and/or a t-shirt.

    The Island
    Although a small island there is still plenty to see and do, especially if you have your own means of transport and aren't locked in to the regular tourist places. The city of Georgetown is an interesting place to explore. There are plenty of sites which you'll find in any travel guide that are worth visiting but I've also found some of the older streets of the city to be interesting in their own right just for the design of the buildings and sights/smells you might find in them (riding a bike is a great way to sniff out good places to eat). To the north of the island is the tourist beach (Batu Ferenghi) which is where you'll find most of the hotels. It's also worth visiting for the night markets (though most also operate in Georgetown during the day), and is of course the easiest place to find a rental bike.

    The south west corner and centre of the island are the bits I find the most interesting though. Although there are no defined tourist spots, and most guidebooks seem to suggest there's nothing worth seeing, I've found that it has great scenery and there are some great eating places in some of the villages (if you're adventurous and don't mind having to order in Bhasa). All the locals seem quite friendly too, and there have been more than a few occasions where local riders have invited me to a friendly drag race or dash through the hills (usually through non-verbal hand-gestures and/or body language).

    Of course no description of Penang is complete without mentioning the food, as it is the place where Malaysians go for good cuisine. Of course if you're the sort of person that only eats in Hotels or Western-style restaurants then you'll probably be disappointed as most aren't that great and are often no cheaper than what you'll find here in Australia. Go where the locals eat however and you'll find truly stunning meals for very low prices, as an example a plate of fried rice loaded with fresh prawns can be found for only AU$2-3 (though the same thing in a Hotel restaurant might be AU$20-30). Only downside is that alcohol is expensive (AU$5 a stubby), so if you're only interested in travelling overseas to hang out in bars/nightclubs and get drunk cheap I'd suggest Bali instead (having been to both I much prefer Penang if only for the absence of drunk Aussie Bogans and locals trying to sell me crap every 30 seconds).

    I'm planning on heading back to Penang sometime next year though it remains to be seen whether I'll rent a bike again given that it'll be a work trip and I may not have the time (though if I do have time I may duck over to Langkawi and rent a bike there instead since I didn't the last time I was there). If you're thinking of travelling to SE Asia then I'd certainly recommend thinking about renting a bike if you're an experienced rider, though they will still rent them out even to people who've never ridden before which is where I think a lot of the horror stories come from. Just make sure to take out travel insurance, and check that it will cover motorcycle injuries (many will provided you have a valid Australian motorcycle licence). Feel free to ask any questions, or share your own experiences with rental bikes in Malaysia or SE Asia.


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  2. Nice review, jd.
    Two of us hired mopeds during our overnight stay in Penang (work trip). Not only did we almost get disorientated (spend lots of time in Asian cities - streets all look the same !) but we almost got wiped out several times !
    An interesting experience indeed, though had we been more aware, I would have much preferred to get out of the city centre and explore roads similar to pic #2.
  3. I found right hand turns to be the riskiest thing, even at a roundabout or with a green signal at lights there was still no gaurantee that cars would stop. Usually you had to wait until the number of bikes built up to an equivalent mass of a car, then they'd all just move at once (even if the light had by then turned red).

    The mountain roads are a lot more relaxing. If I remember correctly photo 2 was taken only a few minutes out of the tourist strip at Batu Ferenghi. Tried doing the same road on a rental bicycle one day but only made it about halfway up the mountain before giving up and heading back. Steep hills, tropical climate and a belly full of Sambal Ikan Bilis for breakfast are not a good combination.
  4. Mate, even here in Oz the drivers don't seem to stop at roundabouts - a lady driving in her navy blue BMW stopped almost halfway into the roundabout...no way it could be a near SMIDSY..where the hell was she looking to say she couldn't see a blue/white bike, with rider wearing a bright white 1 piece suit and glowing red helmet ???
    She didn't even wave a sorry etc, but more so looked away (in disgust ???) when I beamed at her whilst countersteering past her. Not the first time offenders have tried wiping me out on roundabouts mate, and this, here in our very own backyards !
  5. Difference is that here you don't know if a car is going to cut in front of you or not, in Malaysia you can assume they will and adjust your riding accordingly. Of course cars over there also seemed to only cut in front of you if they think you can stop, whereas Australian drivers seem far less concerned if they kill someone as long as it doesn't affect their insurance rating.
  6. Very true indeed (y)
  7. I quite like Penang, have spent about 4 months there in total over a couple of trips. Not sure I'd want to ride there though, crazy traffic!! (like anywhere in Asia).
  8. you're braver than me. We spent a week in Penang, and two days in KL back in August, and it was scary enough in the back of a taxi let alone on two wheels. While we were there 14 riders were killed in a single day nationally!
    the back-to-front jackets freaked me out too.