Malaysia offers two countries for that price of one – cosmopolitan Peninsular Malaysia, using its historic cities, tea plantations, offshore islands and rich multicultural heritage, and rugged Sabah and Sarawak around the island of Borneo, where the travel gets less comfortable but more thrilling when you leave Kota Kinabalu and Kuching.
The great news is the fact that getting around both parts of Malaysia is easy, though the speed, frequency, and comfort of travel can fall off once you reach Borneo. For easy connections and painless journey times, keep to the peninsula.
Here's a guide to the best methods for getting around each side of Malaysia.
Tips for crossing between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo
There aren't any direct ferry services between your Malaysian Peninsula and Borneo. You can island-hop through Indonesia by boat and bus, crossing from Java to Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and traveling overland to achieve Sabah and Sarawak, but in practice, almost everyone flies.
Fly to prevent slow, uncomfortable road journeys in Malaysia
While many travelers prefer to skip internal flights for environmental reasons, there are some journeys on Borneo where the option is between a 45-minute flight along with a 12-hour dirt road trip by jeep. To reach remote areas such as Gunung Mulu National Park and the Kelabit Highlands, a domestic flight with MASwings is definitely the most practical option.
Flying can also be the best way to travel between your Malaysian Peninsula and East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak). Frequent flights link the cities from the peninsula, even though Malaysia's airlines possess a questionable safety record, discount fares on Air Asia and Malindo Air – or perhaps around the national carrier, Malaysia Airlines – could be tempting.
Take the train in Malaysia for calm comfort
Regular, inexpensive trains allow it to be simple to zip between the towns of the Malaysian Peninsula, with easy connections to Thailand and Singapore. The West Coast runs from Padang Besar around the Thai border to Johor Bahru, just over the causeway from Singapore, while the New england or “Jungle” Line branches off at Gemas and traces the new england towards Kota Bharu in Kelantan.
Trains are more uncommon than buses and price a little more, however they provide a calm, gentle ride through Malaysia's lush tropical scenery, and pull right into a string of historic British-built train stations in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Butterworth. Services are operated by KTM utilizing a mixture of electric and diesel trains; second-class seats are perfectly comfortable for daytime hops.
Buses offer cheap, convenient travel at just about any time
Dozens of non-public bus companies jostle for exchange Malaysia, keeping fares low and services frequent. Konsortium Transnasional Berhad may be the largest operator, but there are plenty of competitors. At any bus station, wander around the ticket hall to check prices and destinations between companies.
Buses are usually fast and comfortable, with airline-style seats and air-conditioning so cold it may almost turn your mango juice into a frozen dessert (bring long sleeves or shiver). They're also remarkably cheap, even on long routes, and then leave to major destinations day and night – on the peninsula, it is possible to rock up and get a seat on the bus leaving within the hour to major destinations.
Longer trips on Borneo require more planning – there might be just one or two buses each day, so book ahead of time with travel agencies, online or directly using the bus drivers a couple of days before you decide to wish to travel.
Go by boat to reach island resorts and jungle outposts
Plenty of ferries buzz from coastal ports to islands such as Penang, Pulau Langkawi and myriad islands off the coast of Borneo. There's also international routes connecting Sabah and Sarawak via Brunei, but no direct services between Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia. On any sea crossing, look into the location of life vests and emergency exits, and avoid travel in stormy weather (particularly throughout the monsoon).
Traveling by river in Borneo is one of Malaysia's great adventures, though journeys here tend to be organized cruises rather than no-frills passenger-boat rides from the kind present in Kalimantan. Journeys in the Sungai Kinabatangan in Sabah are still hard to beat, with ample opportunities to spot wildlife on the way. The three-hour river visit to Taman Negara National Park from Kuala Tembeling is yet another evocative jungle journey.
Rent a car for local sightseeing
Peninsular Malaysia is one of the few places in Asia in which you might want to rent a self-drive car. Roads are well-maintained, road signs are evident and drivers broadly follow the rules (though you'll want to cave in to speeding buses and trucks). Avoid Kuala Lumpur's tangled traffic system – stay with renting a car in smaller towns for local exploring.
A license from home is usually enough to employ a car but many hire firms only rent to drivers aged 23 or higher. Avis, Hertz and native companies have offices at airports and in popular tourist hubs. Expect to pay from RM190 (US$45) per day, including insurance. Parking lots and metered on-street parking are easy to find, sometimes with payment with an app.
Rent a moped for easy island exploring
Mopeds and small motorcycles can be hired inexpensively in popular hangouts such as the Cameron Highlands, Penang and Pulau Langkawi, and therefore are great for local exploring. Bigger bikes could be hired in Kota Kinabalu, Kuching and Miri for tackling the tougher roads on Borneo.
A standard home driving license should be sufficient to employ a moped, but you may require a motorbike license for larger bikes. Look into the hire terms to ensure that you have adequate insurance; most firms ask you to leave your passport like a deposit.
Local transport is convenient and inexpensive
Colorful rickshaws trundle around Melaka and Penang but many locals circumvent by city bus, taxi or rideshare. Malaysia's taxi drivers have no need for much persuading to use the meter, but it can be difficult to find a taxi from departmental stores and transport hubs; summoning a rideshare through the Grab app is almost always the simplest option after dark.
Most big cities have cheap local bus services, and Kl has an extensive (though poorly integrated) system of overland trains, elevated trains, and a monorail. Out on the hawaiian islands, it's usually a choice from a taxi or a rented moped. On Borneo, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu other large towns have local buses and taxis.
Accessible transportation in Malaysia
For those with mobility issues, Malaysia could be a tricky place to travel. Where footpaths can be found, curbs are high, routes in many cases are blocked by construction work and crossings are few and far between, often involving climbing an overpass via stairs.
KL is probably easier than other cities, with wheelchair-accessible trains and stations, including the KLIA Ekspres train to the airport. Some buses are also wheelchair friendly, or you can make use of the door-to-door Rapid Mobiliti minivan service.
Elsewhere, use trains and planes for longer hops and taxis for local trips, or contact specialist tour operator Ace Altair Travels. For more information on accessible travel, see Lonely Planet's Accessible Travel Resources page.
Why boats are my personal favorite way to travel in Malaysia
Sure, the trains are stress-free and buses go everywhere, but boats are the most evocative way to travel in Malaysia, whether which means riding the ferry from Butterworth to Penang or chugging just like a latter-day jungle explorer up a turgid river in Borneo.
If I had to select one trip, it might be a cruise in the Sungai Kinabatangan in Sabah. This vast cocoa-brown, crocodile-infested river coils inland from the coast near Sandakan, and each python turn provides a chance of spotting orangutans, proboscis monkeys, hornbills along with other big-ticket Borneo wildlife.