The Survivor’s Guide to Driving in Penang

…if you want to live to tell the tale. 

Automologist LING’s recent trip to the northern state of Malaysia put her driving (and cursing) skill to the test. 

If I thought that driving in Kuala Lumpur was like navigating a real-life car video game, requiring you to dodge other motorists and unexpected dangers, with very little rules to govern the game, then driving in Penang is all that, but with more motorists, more dangers, even fewer rules, and it takes place in ACTUAL HELL ON EARTH where ALL BAD MOTORISTS GO.

It is definitely not my first time in Penang, but in the past, I had a chauffeur (my mild-mannered brother who never complains about other drivers). And although I have heard of and seen the notorious Penang drivers, I never experienced it until my trip up there last weekend when I actually took the wheel. A quick Google search on “Driving in Penang” came up with the number one suggested related search “Penang drivers are the worst” and the following excerpt from an expat’s blog:



One British tourist wrote on Tripadvisor rather apocalyptically that “It’s every man (or woman) for himself”.

Now, Penang is far from a real-life The Walking Dead scenario – especially with numerous mouth-watering street foods on offer and exquisite Asian and British colonial architectures – but you do need to forget everything they taught you in driving school, and learn the rules of driving afresh. Here are my tips for driving in Penang…if you want to live to tell the tale:-


Expect other vehicles to cut into your lane, SUDDENLY

Penang drivers are FICKLE, or they simply enjoy cutting across lanes in very short distances. Telling you that you have to be alert is not enough. Vehicles can cut into your lane, not just ahead, but into the very space your vehicle is occupying, so you’d have to be ready to hit the brakes or SPEED UP to avoid a collision.


Don’t expect other vehicles to signal when changing lane

Drivers across Malaysia have an aversion to signalling when they want to change lane, but drivers in Penang seem to not know that these signals even exist.


Don’t expect other vehicles to give way

You could have stopped at a STOP sign, waiting for a car in the perpendicular road to slow down for you, but you would wait FOREVER. Your only hope is to pray for an out-of-towner car, like – I never expected to say this – one with a number plate registered from Kuala Lumpur or better, from Perak, where all angelic drivers dwell, to give way. Otherwise, if you have good acceleration on your car, just press the pedal to the metal when there is a tiny break in traffic.


Always assume that there are motorcycles around you

Although Penang in no way rivals the likes of Ho Chi Minh or Jakarta in the number of motorcycles that ply the roads of the city, the two-wheeler is also a preferred way of getting around. In 2014, about 1 million private cars were registered in the state of Penang, and almost 1.3 million motorcycles too. And the two-wheelers move like they are biker gangs surrounding a hapless car. You know how your car has blind spots? Yes, there’s probably a motorcycle or two skulking there.


Expect to go a big loop if you miss your turn

The city centre is not laid out in a perfect grid, which is part of the city’s charm. But that also means that there are many one-way streets that meander throughout the city centre, and there isn’t always an easy U-turn up ahead if you miss your turning. If this happens during peak hours, it could add many many minutes to your journey. But, take a deep breath and hopefully your new route takes you pass sceneries of quaint local life, prewar buildings or one of the city’s famed roadside hawker stalls where you can stop and indulge in a bit of emotional eating.


Expect unexpected forks in the road

As you can infer from above, few roads in Penang keep going straight for very long. You could be travelling on a two or three lane road that suddenly forks without warning (road signs are vague anywhere in Malaysia). If you’re using a GPS navigator, pay attention to which fork to take, because – trust me – they each take you to destinations far far apart.


Take the road surface markings as a suggestion, not a rule

When I asked my travel companion what advice she would chip in, she said “Single lanes are actually DOUBLE lanes!” Expect to share your lane with another car, and one or THREE motorcycles thrown in there, just because it’s not crowded enough already.


Don’t drive your favourite car

Sometime during the trip, while behind the wheel, I had muttered to myself “It’s okay. This is not even my car.” My friend in the passenger seat, to whom the car did belong, exclaimed “Oi!”

But if you have more than one car to choose from for the trip, I’d choose the less precious one that wouldn’t hurt you so much if it survives Penang with a few dents and dints…if it survives at all.



Drive like (somewhat) a maniac

Be aggressive. YES. AGGRESSIVE. If you don’t drive a little bit like a maniac, you would not be able to enter roads, change lanes or move ahead very fast or very far. If you’re not willing to, then you’re much better off just walking, grabbing a taxi or hiring a local driver.

All that being said, Penang is an absolutely wonderful place! Heck, even driving there is part of the adventure. If you’re heading there soon, my last suggestion is that you brush up on your Hokkien curse words…because you’ll need them.

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