We’re back from a three week trip in Malaysia, during which we visited cat obsessed Kuching, saw wild orang utans in the Danum valley conservation area, river dolphins, proboscis monkeys in Bako national park, chilled on beaches and swam in the South China sea, and visited historical Georgetown in Penang.
But this isn’t a travel blog.
Before we went we found conflicting advice about these bugbears of 21st century travel, wifi and phone access, electricity, and how best to get around. This is our take on what we learned.
Malaysia, like Singapore, uses British style Type G clunky square pin power sockets. Most hotels also offer one of these multinational universal sockets in hotel room, but bear in mind what comes out of the wall is standard 230v 50Hz electricity – plugging in a device from a 110v 60Hz country will only work if it incorporates a suitable transformer – most USB and computer chargers will be fine, but if you have something idiosyncratic you might be in for an explosive experience.
As always Australian plugs don’t fit terribly well in these ‘international’ sockets, with some brute force required to both plug them in and extract them, so it’s best to take a single type G converter and a powerboard if you want to plug in multiple devices at the same time.
Despite what some older guides say, most international hotels have pretty zippy free wifi, and many public places, shopping malls, cafes, even hawker centres, have wifi, though it can be of variable quality. Some cities, eg Kota Kinabalu, have a free public network as well. Airports almost always have decent wifi.
Phone data and calling is cheap. Take an unlocked phone and buy a SIM at the airport. I bought a Maxis SIM with 8Gb of data and unlimited calls for MYR80 – a bit under AUD30 – and that did us for our whole time there. Maxis also had deals that gave you free data to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, and I guess the other companies have similar deals.
By comparison Telstra’s roaming charges are AUD 10 per day for unlimited calls and texts and a pretty measly 300MB of data – as always check with you provider – you may get a better deal.
I took my old unlocked Galaxy S2 with me for the Maxis sim – a mistake it was too old and too slow for most purposes, I should have picked up something rather more recent from one of the discount and refurbished phone suppliers such as Mobicity.
Why this is important will be revealed below …
Some taxis have meters, some don’t. In fact most don’t which means you need to agree a price with the driver in advance, which can be difficult if you don’t speak Bahasa Malaysia, as many taxi drivers only have fairly basic English.
Your choices used to be either use a taxi booking service, such as the coupon taxi system at most airports, where you pay a fixed price set in advance for your ride, or you try and find a taxi with a meter.
Well there’s now a third alternative – Grab, a local ride hailing app that’s been so successful, they’ve chased Uber out Malaysia and Singapore.
Unlike Uber, Grab offers you not only ride sharing like Uber, but also has a lot of taxis – both the standard red and black taxis and the bigger blue Teksi Eksekutif vehicles – signed up to it meaning you can agree the price in advance via the app, which of course you can configure to use English.
When you book a ride, Grab gives you a picture of the driver, the license plate, make and colour of the vehicle so you can be sure you’re getting into the right vehicle.
When booking a ride with luggage to the airport, it’s probably best to go for at least a standard taxi – I doubt if two Europeans with a couple of normal size 20kg cases could fit into a Perodua Myvi.
That said for a ride across town to a museum or a restaurant, a ride share in a Myvi or similar small car is fine, we paid a mere MYR8 for a 15minute ride across Georgetown.
To get the best out of Grab you really need a local phone number, so that the driver can call you if he’s having difficulty finding you.
If you fly into Kuala Lumpur International – universally known as KLIA – and there’s more than one of you, ignore the KLIA Ekspres – the fast train to the central train station in KL. A one way ride will cost you MYR 55 each, plus when you get to KL Sentral, you’ll need a cab to your hotel, which will add about MYR40 to the cost. By comparison a Teksi Eksekutif booked via the taxi coupon office will cost around MYR150 from the airport to a city centre hotel. Sure, it’ll take longer, but it’s less hassle, especially when you are tired and jet lagged
Air Asia is a Malaysian phenomenon – a cheap point to point airline that’s reliable and while it’s not always on time, efficient. Flights are often busy, so book in advance using their website, and remember everything is extra, you need to pay for your baggage separately, and if you want something to eat on the flight you need to order in advance.
You can print your boarding pass up to fifteen days in advance, but you can also print it from one of the selfservice machines in the airport, and you will also have to print your baggage tags from one of the self service machines before dropping off your bags.
By comparison, Malaysian Airlines is more old school, and while they like you to check in over the web in advance it’s not essential. You do need to pay separately for baggage on some flights, but most come with a 20kg baggage allowance, and they’ll usually feed you on a longer flight.
Peninsular Malaysia now has some fast trains, and we’d orginally planned to take the train from Butterworth to KL, but KTM changed the schedule which meant either leaving Georgetown at sparrow’s or getting to to KL much later than we wanted, so we ended up on yet another Air Asia flight …
Guardian and Watson’s chemists are big retail pharmacy chains, and while the brands might not be exactly the same, sell feminine hygene products, toothpaste, panadol, disinfectant for cuts from jungle trekking and just about everything else you need.
Sports shops sell a lot of the stuff you might need for a jungle trek, so foreggting something is not a disaster and there’s a number of specialist outdoor shops in KL.
Take a fleece – airports and shopping centres are often airconditioned to arctic levels, even though it’s over 30C outside.
Wine is expensive and usually not worth the money, even in expensive restaurants, with a (usually generous) glass of mediocre Chardonnay coming in at around MYR 50. By comparison a bottle of Tiger or locally brewed Carlsberg will usually cost between MYR 15 and MYR 20 in a restaurant, less in a hawker centre, with locally brewed Heineken a little more, say MYR 17-22. While these are average prices, some places charge less, with a beer in the James Brooke restaurant on the waterfront in Kuching costing about the same as in a hawker centre.
Imported beers are about 50%more than local products. There’s a small craft beer scene in Penang, but I’m afraid I missed out on that. Next time perhaps …