The International Steam Pages
Penang Hills and Trails
This is part of a series of pages on walking the hills of Penang.
This page was updated on 1st March 2018 with observations made during our 2017-8 visit.
We have broken with tradition by hiring a car throughout our 4 month stay. Although far more expensive than using the buses - the petrol alone is more than the fares - the time saving on travelling is huge, especially as we have historically used the 501 service between Teluk Bahang and Balik Pulau several times a week and our activities had to be arranged to match its infrequent (5 times a day) operation.
We have used buses occasionally in the course of hiking where the start and finish points were different and the excellent service is unchanged as are the timetables as far as we can see.
The much heralded fleet of double deckers has failed to appear and the first three have vanished without trace. Additionally, it seems there have been no new single deckers delivered for a while, the newest buses are all PLx registrations (the latest vehicle registrations are well into PNx). While Rapid Penang maintain their buses well, this does not bode well for the long term. The (controlled) fares have not changed since we started coming here regularly and I guess that returns have diminished to the point where further investment cannot be justified, shades of the situation when the previous private operators walked away from the island some 10 years ago.
The state government has announced that free key 'commuter' bus services will be introduced in April 2018 (ahead of the general election) but the number of buses allocated will be insufficient to offer a good service, my estimate is that it will be no better than once every 30 minutes which isn't going to do much to get Penangites out of their cars. Only congestion charging and the introduction of bus lanes would do that and it would probably be electoral suicide.
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 paticularly on the 101 service at weekends and holidays 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...
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. (Sadly they had disappeared a year later and there was no sign there had been any new buses at all for some time.)
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson