The International Steam Pages


Penang Hills and Trails
Penang Buses for Hikers

This is part of a series of pages on walking the hills of Penang.


This page was updated on 28th November 2016 with confirmation of bus times in the south-west of the island. Although marginal for hikers, the arrival of double deckers on the island marks another step change upward in the quality of service.


Rapid Penang (http://www.rapidpg.com.my) provides modern air-conditioned buses which cover virtually all the parts of the island which are accessible by road. The service is not perfect, overcrowding is a hazard the 101 service but it represents the best Penangites have ever experienced. In the early years, published service intervals were frequently exceeded, sometimes because of the traffic, sometimes because there were insufficient drivers willing to work overtime to maintain them and increasingly rarely because of good old fashioned incompetent management. The situation now (November 2016) is much improved. Fares are MYR 1.40, 2.00, 2.70, 3.40 and 4.00 according to distance and no change is given. Revenue protection is poor, particularly between Tanjung Bunga and Batu Ferringhi where tickets are often recycled and foreign tourists and some locals known to the drivers are often not given tickets at all. Given the wages paid, this is not really very surprising; I suspect that if the rules were enforced there would be very few buses in the evenings and weekends (when of course the ticket inspectors are off duty).

To avoid the need to keep a pocketful of 'shrapnel', consider buying a bus card at the Rapid Penang kiosks at Komtar or the Jetty (the facility at some beach hotels has now been withdrawn). These cost MYR 30 for 7 days unlimited travel (on the spot, just show your passport) or MYR 110 for a calendar month (requires a passport photocopy plus passport photo and a one off MYR 5 registration fee). They are exceptionally good value for hikers who need never consider taking overpriced taxis whose venal drivers are almost universally despised by the locals.

The bus drivers are friendly and patient with tourists who are unfamiliar with Penang and its buses, although some could do with some intensive training on actually driving one. All speak sufficient English for their needs although first time non-native English speakers sometimes struggle to communicate. The buses are GPS fitted although very little practical use is made of this, Rapid Penang desperately needs a proper smart card system like that used in Hong Kong, Beijing, London etc. This would not only speed up boarding which can take minutes at times, especially where tourists are involved but it would have a very short pay back time as it would dramatically cut down revenue loss. They might even be able to afford to pay their drivers a decent wage...


The vast majority of bus services are radial, running to/from the Jetty (for the Butterworth Ferry) and passing by 'Komtar', this is the case for the destinations below unless otherwise stated.  There are almost no non-radial buses in the north-east of the island, those that exist are irregular and of no practical use for hikers.

Note that the 104, 20x series and 401E buses tend to wander away from the direct routes to serve areas of low income housing. The 30x series buses serve the developed east side of the island south of George Town and are of little use for hikers, save the 302 and 308 which serve Sungai Ara, 302 also serving the base of Bukit Gambir. As stated below the times for the 403, 404 and 501 were believed correct for November 2016, the 501 having changed significantly in October 2013 but are subject to change and should be checked before travelling if possible - at Balik Pulau Bus Station. This page lists the bus routes and has links to maps of them (something Rapid's own website does not) - http://www.penang-traveltips.com/rapid-penang-bus-routes.htm. Rapid Penang's website has not been significantly updated for a very long time and most importantly does not reflect changes brought about by the modifications to the one way system in the Pulau Tikus area, these affected primarily buses 10, 103 and 104 but also 101 and 102 in that area. This suggests other routes may have suffered unreported changes too...

North Coast

  • The frequent 101 and infrequent 102 services take you to Tanjung Bunga, Batu Ferringhi and Teluk Bahang.
  • The infrequent 104 (which now starts at Komtar)  is only useful for reaching the Pump House in Vale of Tempe, Tanjung Bunga.

Kebun Bunga / Waterfall Gardens / Botanical Gardens

  • The infrequent 10 is the only bus which reaches here and it follows a circuitous route.

Hill Railway (Road)

  • The 204 is the only bus that goes the whole way, but the 201 and (direct) 502 pass by the end of Hill Railway Road (Jalan Stesen Bukit Bendera) - get off just before the roundabout by the war memorial. The 203 also reaches the end of the road but goes a very long way around via Paya Terubong to get there.

Air Itam (= Air Hitam, Ayer Hitam)

  • The 201 and (direct) 502 go here. The 203 and 204 services also reach here, but follow very and quite indirect routes respectively.

Paya Terubong

  • The 201 and (direct) 502 go here. The 202 goes past the site of the former Lee rubber factory (being cleared by January 2015) and the 203 passes the north gate of the United Hokkien Cemeteries, both follow indirect routes and are best described as acquired tastes - interesting to ride once! The 202 and 203 pass Jalan Bukit Kukus off Jalan Thean Teik for Bukit Kukus.

Glugor (Bukit Gambir)

  • The 302 follows Jalan Bukit Gambir which runs along the bottom of Bukit Gambir.

Relau

  • The 301 runs up Jalan Relau from which you can access the upper Sungai Ara area. In theory, the 306 can be used too but this runs only hourly from the General Hospital to the Airport.

Sungai Ara

  • The 302 wiggles its way through the truly awful Bandar Bayan Baru before serving Sungai Ara which is next to the southern hills. The 308 also serves Sungai Ara but starts from Sungai Nibong (and finishes at Gertak Sanggul). Coming from Balik Pulau, get off in Bayan Lepas, walk back around the corner and there is a stop 50 metres down which is served by both of them.

Balik Pulau

  • The 401 and 401E go via Bayan Lepas and Teluk Kumbar and take forever, particularly the 401 which is best avoided. The direct 502 goes through Air Itam over the Relau Pass and then over the 'new' road in about half the time, it's a nice ride. None is very frequent, it's not unusual to wait 30 minutes for one.
  • The 501 service passes Titi Kerawang from where there are paths to the centre of the island including Air Itam / Balik Pulau and Bukit Laksamana / Western Hill / Tiger Hill. This is a lovely ride, the best on the island by far. In recent years, departures from Teluk Bahang have been at 07.50, 10.30, 13.10, 15.50 and 18.30, departures from Balik Pulau being at 06.30, 09.10, 11.50, 14.30 and 17.30. Since we first used the service the times have changed several times and the frequency reduced. In view of this history then best ask at the kiosk at either end on your arrival for current times, do NOT rely on any published times elsewhere. They are not on the Rapid Penang website but we met a couple of tourists who had found them on Google Maps. These buses may leave up to 15 minutes EARLY from the Teluk Bahang end. There is almost no local traffic and the service must be hopelessly uneconomic. Unless more tourists learn about it and use it, then its future must be uncertain. Known to be correct as above in November 2016.

Pulau Betong

  • There are irregular 403 services from Balik Pulau at 06.00, 07.30, 09.00, 10.30, 12.00, 13.30, 15.00, 17.00 and 19.00 (believed correct from observation and use in November 2015 but not officially confirmed). They go out and back on a slightly different route at the outer end.

Pantai Aceh - believed to be still correct in November 2016

  • There are irregular 404 services from Balik Pulau which, like the 501 also serve Sungai Pinang. These leave at 06.00, 07.45, 09.45, 11.30, 13.30, 15.15, 17.15 and 19.15 (believed correct from observation and use in November 2015 but not officially confirmed). They return from Pantai Aceh about half an hour later, the 13.30 service connects nicely with the 14.30 501 from Balik Pulau at Sungei Pinang, there's a 'safe' wait of 20-30 minutes, enough time for a snack if the 404 is on time. This service also pops into the Botanica development which is handy if you are going up the Sungai Air Puteh valley.

Gertak Sanggul

  • The 401 and 401E services (George Town - Balik Pulau via Bayan Lepas) pass the turn off at Teluk Kumbar, from here there are half hourly 308 buses (which start from Sungai Nibong on the airport road) which finish at the start of the path to / from Pulau Betong.

If you are into buses, then when Rapid Penang took over the services when the private companies walked away, the initial main fleet was formed of Chinese Higers (registrations in the PHx series), these proved themselves not fit for purpose very soon, not least they were underpowered and unreliable, and when further buses were ordered they came from Scania in Europe (registrations in the PJx and now (2014)  PKx and PLx series). By 2013, the Higers had been relegated to the marginal routes as noted in the hikes (308, 403, 404, 501 outside George Town, 10, 11 in George Town) although there were then not enough left on the island to cover every service. There were then rather more working on the mainland part of Penang State. There were very few in 2014 and by 2015 they were all gone. The Scanias are excellent buses although the original ones were definitely showing their age after intensive use and in 2014 I felt that maintenance was clearly not 100%. 

All buses are 'wheelchair friendly', although the way they are driven certainly is not! All bear a similar livery, the easiest ways to tell them apart from a distance is the presence of an emergency door on the driver's side of the Higer, of course there are all sorts of differences apparent close up particularly the headlights, the seating arrangement and windows. A trip to the mainland in early 2013 showed that at least some of the Scanias there were of an earlier vintage and slightly different from those on the island.

As of January 2015, my impression was that the new generation of Scanias (PLx) had removed the pressure to overuse the buses and that maintenance levels were much improved. There have seen minor improvements to the interior, larger route indicators and, I believe, newer engines. This is a good sign.

By November 2015, deliveries of new buses had continued and service intervals were approaching those advertised except during periods of traffic congestion. There are still a few drivers who are 'unfit for purpose' but the vast majority seemed to have worked out that long term survival requires a measured approach and we've had just one bad journey of many in our first 10 days here, a situation which pertained throughout our stay.

In November 2016, we found that high class Dennis double deckers (3) had entered service on the 101 route with more promised soon. This will herald a new era of comfort with less standing necessary. Excellent.


Rob and Yuehong Dickinson

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