Have you ever gotten on a bus and told the driver or ticket collector where you’re headed, and then gotten off at the wrong stop? Or, because the bus sign isn’t in English or doesn’t even have a sign, you end up in the back end of nowhere, completely lost and realise your mistake only once it’s too late and the bus has pulled away? Then you are like me.
I feel a certain amount of anxiety around using public transport when I go abroad because, frankly, the majority of the time I don’t believe in myself enough to get from point A to B without a glitch.
By the time I’ve worked up the courage to open my mouth and ask “Excuse me, does this bus go to x destination”?
“No you want Number 21, it’s down this way” replies someone who doesn’t have a uniform and I hope knows what they are talking about. He points in the general direction down the line of identical buses all brimming with passengers milling about them.
“Oh, okay, thank you”, I smile, and head off in that direction looking bewildered and blatantly clueless.
After 5 minutes of pushing my way through queues to find the right bus number I find my bus, and it’s either fit to bursting with no good seats left, or the driver is nowhere to be seen and the doors remain closed for too long after it was supposed to have left, creating rising anxiety.
All of this instils panic in the traveller, especially if you don’t know the bus route, or what the stop looks like at your destination so when the ticket collector yells “Galle Fort Galle Fort Galle Fort Galle Fort” but you can’t see it anywhere, you have this argument with yourself in your head about whether to get off or not and just risk it.
Or maybe this is just me?
In some countries, they don’t even tell you where the next stop is, it’s our job to press the bell and tell them. Agh! Either way, you won't have this problem in Penang.
RapidPenang is a comprehensive bus network with plenty of well-linked routes and maps that are clear to understand. The prices are clearly displayed online and on the bus tickets too, making life that little bit easier for the lost traveller. I found out about RapidPenang through the tourism leaflets found all over the island’s hostels, however, their website gives far more information with handy features such as the Trip Planner ETA and Zones, and how to use their free bus (more on this later).
But first, pull up Penang on Google maps, and then get reading. I’m a visual learner, so if I can see the maps and relate that to the names I keep reading about, it makes life a lot more logical, and me a lot more confident once I’m there (Thanks Google for your distance calculator).
Rapid Penang << CLICK ME
Born in 2007, the buses have expanded from the island to connect you to a few locations on the mainland, those including Butterwork and Perai. Penang is covered with 56 routes, each route having a couple of stops at varying points along the length of each town (for example Batu Ferringhi has 4 stops) and you can catch a bus every 15 minutes.
Along each stop (on the main coastal road) you can find a clear-cut map of each stop with names along this route so that when you get on the bus you simply say the stop name, and pay a few cents. Along the 101 and 102 routes which ply the main road from Georgetown’s Weld Quay (Bus Terminal) all the way up to the National Park next to Teluk Bahang you can expect to pay no more than RM2.70. See here.
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus
Sadly the first time around I didn’t know that this existed until it had passed me on the day when I was due to fly out. Originally, I thought this was the FREE bus I had heard whispers of, it's not.
Don’t lose hope yet all my frugal friends –this bus has its own sweet treats, all very good deals. Part of the RapidPenang fleet, they offer 3 tickets that span a single journey, up to 48 hours of hopping on and off all along the streets of Georgetown and Gurney Drive, or for those seeking sand and sea a beach route that spans from the Quays (the jut of coast above Georgetown – get your map out) up to the beaches of the National Park.
The rules are simple – get on or off at any of the designated stops along the route during the operating hours of 9 am – 8 pm, where the bus will stop for 20 – 30 minutes at each attraction.
This is the best option if your time is limited in Penang and you want an ‘organised tour’ that visits all of the major sights around the island. A 48-hour pass is the best value at RM74 (£13.50), a 24-hour pass is RM40 (£7.30), or if you just want a lazy way to see Georgetown and the coastal road without having to move, go for the Single Stop Pass at RM20 (£3.65) and ride from end to end.
CAT Bus - The Free Bus
OK, here is what you all came for, the free one. Let's get down to business; The CAT (or Central Area Transit) plies the roads all over Georgetown’s core and buffer zones (again, map). The service runs from 6 am-midnight daily and includes 19 stops, all next to attractions and interesting historical sights. Thankfully you won’t be getting on the wrong bus here because all designated stops are signposted with "FREE SHUTTLE" you won’t miss a thing. Each bus has CAT written on its front, side and rear display screens.
The first stop/ pick up location is Weld Quay, passing the clan jetties, Fort Cornwallis, Little India and up to Jalan Penang before coming back to the Quay. This really is the bus to use if you are set on getting around for free; the stops are frequent and always close to an attraction, popular street or restaurant, as well as servicing those lesser known roads and sights. Thank you Penang, you do know how to spoil the traveller in the best way possible – by keeping our bank balance intact!
*Although not a bus, it is worth a mention for being the second best way to move around Penang. I surprised myself with how frequently I ended up using it. Note – It’s faster than the buses when you are in the evening rush hour and just want to get home quickly – with strong air con.
The app originally launched as My Teksi in Malaysia, later expanding into Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines when it renamed as Grab. It is the Asian version of Uber, who in March 2018 sold to Grab in Penang. There are similar apps in play in Sri Lanka, namely PickMe, which like Grab has vehicles ranging from Tuk Tuks to Private cars. This I used on all of my stays in SL, and for good reason too as I quickly realised why apps like these were beginning to take off all over the world.
If you aren’t familiar with how Grab works, it's all a very simple premise; the app will find the closest available car to your current location, estimate your fare and the time your taxi will arrive to you, as well as the journey time. The app will find a nearby driver who will accept or decline the ride (I have had drivers decline because they don’t know the destination, or purely because they don’t want to travel as far as you are going) and hey presto you have yourself a taxi on its way to you. The driver’s name and/ or photo will become available to view, along with the vehicle registration number so you know who to look out for.
Because the buses are so well connected island wide It makes sense to use these wherever possible. Use Grab for when you are going to a location you can't find on a bus route, or just want to get from point A to B quicker without the stops.
Fares are reasonable; they start at RM1 (18p) with it rising to RM1.30 (23p) per Km. A couple of standard prices I was getting were: Bayan Baru – Batta Ferringhi RM33, Tanjung Tokong – Bayan Baru RM25, Bayan Baru – Airport RM6, and Love Lane (Georgetown) – Bayan Baru - RM15. Alongside the single passenger ride Grab also offers Chauffeured cars (GrabCar) or carpooling (GrabShare).
I hope this gives you some insight into easy ways of moving around Penang, you really are spoiled for choice!
*All prices correct as of August 2018.