30 October 2015

Driving in Malaysia

A while ago I posted about driving in Sarawak and the unique frustrations of the passive driving style favoured by the residents of Miri. The driving style here on the Peninsula is a little different.  For a start we have motorways and the towns are heaving with traffic.

Signs are all in Bahasa Malay (of course) but are fairly standard and easy to understand.  Rules of the road are (mostly followed) but while the driving test is enforced standards of driving are pretty poor meaning that they make funny decisions and it can be difficult to anticipate what other drivers will do in any given situation.
Driving In Malaysia Busy Road
Roads are busy ...

Having driven in many countries I can safely say that Malaysian motorways rival the French as being some of the best in the world.  The intercity motorways are excellent, they are tolled and the rates are affordable for occasional use.  Remedial work is organised in such a way that it has the minimum possible impact.  Within KL the roads including the motorways are almost at capacity leading to crazy jams.  Motorway tolls are an expensive addition to the daily cost of living for people who need to use them two or more times a day on their commute.  Nevertheless the surfaces are well maintained, lighting is good, the traffic (outside of KL) is not too dense and there are high quality, clean service stations at regular intervals.  Just be aware when fuelling your car that yellow handles here denote petrol not diesel (not all pumps have diesel and they are black with a metal cover over the pump handle).  The only thing that lets them down is the driving! 

Driving In Malaysia Motorway Service Stop
As well as petrol service stations provide food courts,
bathrooms, prayer rooms, fruit stalls and fast food outlets.
Malaysian motorway driving is a lethal cocktail of passive slowcoaches, bumbling along at 50kph, boy racers who power up behind you as you are passing the passives and try to push you out of the way (similar to German driving) and motorbikes playing games.  Some riders are sensible but I have seen a club or group fooling around trying to nudge each other at very high speeds.  Although people in the front have to be secured by a belt there are no rules about the back and children are often seen playing loose in the car or babies cuddled on their mother’s lap.  I have even seen air mattresses designed to fit across the back seat and foot well so that the children can ‘sleep’ on a journey.  People think I am very strange to insist on restraining our children at all times.   Lane discipline is pretty decent but people do undertake and some even use the hard shoulder to do it. 

Non Motorways

The in city roads, at least in Ipoh, Taiping, Georgetown and the other places we have visited are fairly decent.  One or two suffer from pot holes, particularly in the wet season but the council does seem to try to fill them in (not always very effectively).  There is one pot hole on the way to Master and Miss EE’s school that has now grown so wide that I cannot fit my (broad) wheelbase over it.  I have changed my route for the time being!

While the roads are typically ok the lay out leaves something to be desired.  It is not uncommon for lanes to just peter out with no warning, not necessarily moving from two to one but for the outer lane to just stop, the inner lane become the outer and a new inner lane start up.  Cars end up having to filter into the other lane and it creates log jams. 

Motorbikes and scooters are my biggest bugbear.  There are a lot of them on the roads and they have a tendency to sit in blind spots.  Many people who drive them may have no experience of driving cars and therefore have no concept of how vulnerable they are which leads them to take stupid risks.  The other day I was waiting to turn left.  I had checked my nearside as I positioned the car but as I was waiting a motorbike came in.  I always, always make a final check before turning and did this time but this chap was slap bang in my (rather large) blindspot and I was turning hard left.  I managed to stop the turn with millimetres to spare.  The man saw absolutely nothing wrong with not only trying to undertake but to give me no notification of his presence at all.  I have also had a motorbike undertake me while I was overtaking a car on the Ipoh Bypass.  He squeezed between two cars with millimetres to spare just to speed off at about 40kph over the limit.  The few extra seconds to allow me to complete my overtake would have cost him absolutely nothing. 

Driving In Malaysia motorbikes
There are lots of motorbikes...
Challenging Driving

Malaysia does have a pretty well defined rainy season where heavy downpours lasting up to 3 hours are not uncommon.  The motorways are set up for it with motorbike shelters under bridges or at regular intervals.  Knowing how to drive through water is a pretty essential skill and I have learned how to put a baby in the car and collapse a pushchair while holding an umbrella.

Driving In Malaysia Cows
You can just see a cow on the grass in the bend of the road.
Some roam free and sometimes onto the carriageway.
Other than rain you may have to deal with the odd stray cow or goat.  They tend to be pretty road savvy though and rather more sensible than the aggressive pedestrians that like to launch themselves in front of the car from time to time.  

A little light rain and in all seriousness it does get much worse.
Although a significant proportion of the population do not drink, drunken driving is still a problem in larger towns.  Police in KL do breathalyser tests on those they think are driving erratically and the permitted blood alcohol limits are low.  Mr EE and I come from a generation that were brought up never to drink and drive but some of the older expats do try to get away with it particularly in the smaller towns.  If we are at any expat gatherings we try to be either first away or last!


While malls, stations and commercial centres have enough parking for off peak times it is not unknown for them to appear to be completely over capacity.  We have found the best bet is to go to the roof or the parking as far from the entrance/centre as possible.  People seem to be obsessed with proximity and we have seen tailbacks of cars trying to get onto a covered floor or convenient spot while there are a raft of empty spaces a little further away.  While I would prefer the car to be in the shade or protected from torrential rain I do have an umbrella and can turn on the AC so it is not enough of a problem to make me want to wait. 

Driving In Malaysia Parking Problems
A typical commerical centre.  The Cars on the left are parked
in official bays as are the cars on the far right.  The ones to the right
are just 'hovering' and making life difficult for everyone else.
In commercial centres it is not uncommon to see cars double parked with the drivers mobile telephone details left on the windscreen.  If the person blocked in has to get somewhere in a hurry they better hope that the other driver answers his ‘phone.  It drives me up the wall, not just because of the risk of getting stuck but because it cuts down on manoeuvring and driving space on the road.   In Kazakhstan they had a website dedicated to bad parking (I park like an ass.kz) which was so successful at shaming people that the police used it to issue tickets.  I wonder if there is a similar one for Malaysia, I have never heard of it but it is surely much needed!


Malaysian addresses can be impossible to find.  This is because there is a tendency to name every street in the same area with the same name.  Near our house we have a Jalan Tawas Baru 1, Jalan Tawas Baru 2 etc etc up to about 14.  Next to those roads there is a Lorong Tawas 1, 2 3, etc , Perisarian  Tawas Jaya 1, 2, 3, etc, Perisarian Tawas Permai 1, 2, 3, etc.  Housing developments have snappy names such as Uplands, Uplands II, the Enclave, Enclave II, Lakeview Villas, Lakeview Mansions.  You get the idea… Malaysians just do not seem to like unique or new names.  A few weeks ago we joined Mr EE on a business trip to Seremban as we were going to drive on for a holiday in Malacca.  We noticed that they were building a new town (where the school he was speaking at was located), this town was given the imaginative name of Seremban II. The net effect of this is that directions  can get rather confusing and you could, very easily, end up in the wrong town. 

This was the reason we finally succumbed, after years of relying on maps, to a lazy reliance on a GPS system.  We downloaded an app called Waze which brings us turn by turn to our destination.  It is certainly very handy but I feel like a complete fraud every time I use it as we have managed to live our lives without this for 15 years and I worry about the example we are giving to the children.  

When all is said and done, however, driving here is not at all bad and certainly much better than many other places we have lived and visited.  

Click the picture below for more posts on life in Malaysia

Ersatz Expat

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