Driving in (Eastern) Malaysia

Driving in Malaysian Borneo is quite the adventure!

Driving Malaysia

It’s always exciting to think of visiting a new country. What sights will we see? What’s the food going to be like? How do the people live? And I like to take it a little further. What is the country’s infrastructure like? Transportation, agriculture, communication, bureaucracy; all shape the nation and the way people live. For me, one of the best ways to experience a country’s infrastructure is through driving. In many countries, the typical tourists are shuttled around from sight to sight in a carefully managed itinerary that rarely exposes them to the realities of life in the country. Driving yourself, on the other hand, lets you feel the country by the seat of your pants. You are free to stop and explore on your own, choose your own restaurants, turn left instead of right if the deviation strikes your fancy.

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So it should come as no surprise that on a recent trip to Borneo I found myself once again behind the wheel of a small rental car. Renting a car in some countries can be challenging. I was having difficulties finding a decent rental from the major international companies so went to the rental car link off the official Kota Kinabalu Airport website. I filled out a form and a few hours later received a bid for a rental contract that would be just fine. Arriving at the airport, contract in hand, I was dismayed when our company man was nowhere to be found. I was wary of scams but not too worried. I had a phone number and a name and realized, as a I was rereading the contract in growing panic, I had failed to provide my exact arrival information. Kota Kinabalu has two terminals that are on opposite sides of the runway.  Sure enough, when I asked a friendly tour operator for help, we learned our car was waiting for us on the other side. No problems, we waited a few minutes (closer to 30 perhaps) and were soon wheeling down the road in a small but comfortable silver car with flashy decals covering the windshield.

Driving Malaysia

KK, as it’s affectionately referred to by those in the know, is a small semi-modern city. All the regular franchise food chains and gas stations abound. Driving there is a bit like driving in a slightly rundown corner of England if that corner could be found in a tropical rain forest. The roads are decent, traffic round-abouts abound, and everyone drives on the wrong side of the road (though rightly so if you get me). We didn’t spend much time there; our adventures lay on the other side of the island. After a comfortable night and a nice cup of coffee we hit the road for the Mt. Kinabalu National Park; stopping for a tank of gas at a flashy new Shell station on the edge of town.

Up into the mountains we drove through lush jungle and past a variety of plantations. The road grew steepest just as the rain came on. Oh, didn’t I mention this is the tropics? And you know all that tropical rainforest we’ve been clearing away helter skelter? Well, that’s Borneo. And when the rain came down it came in sheets, torrents, waterfalls, rivers, all down on that little silver car with 10 inch wheels. When the media tells you about the danger of clearing jungles they almost always mention erosion. Mud was everywhere in those areas; roadside was washing away, trucks slid off the road; but we kept our cool and our traction and drove slowly through it all. We arrived at Mount Kinabalu as the rain was stopping, but it never cleared enough to give a good view of the craggy mountain top. And we were nearly washed away trying to visit Poring hot springs. The guard at the gate just laughed with us as we marveled at the rain starting back up as we were walking into the jungle.

Back in the car we slipped on down the road to our stop for the night at Sabah Tea Plantation. Our cottage was nestled at the top of a hill covered in tea plants. Cozy and dry for the night we settled in hoping the mud road would still be there for us to drive out the next day.   We stayed in the mountains for a couple days and then took off for the north coast and Sandakan. Driving through the small town at the edge of the park I scoffed at the drivers queued up for gas at the Esso station. We had over half a tank and there were at least two other towns on the map well within our expected fuel range.

Driving Malaysia

The road grew narrower and the trucks came fearlessly faster. More wreckage on the side of the road and at least one fatal accident behind us when we came to a small town on the map as the gas gauge was reading 1/8th of a tank left. That’s right, just above E. I had been watching for signs of a station for about 60 kilometers but hadn’t seen one. When we pulled into Telupid there was little of modern international business to be found. This was just another village. No Esso, Shell or anything! I stopped and asked a moped rider where to get petrol. He pointed further up the road and said two kilometers. Three kilometers later the only thing we had seen was a closed down station that looked like all it had been selling for the past few years was gravel. Stopping at the next roadside eatery (shack really), I was told go back 1 kilometer.  Back we went. Triangulating through yet another stop for directions we finally bounced off the road to a small, covered cinder block hut that had “Petrol” spray painted in 3 inch letters on one side and “Diesel” on the other. Yes, we had found it. The 55 gallon drums inside the hut said Petronus so I’m guessing that was the flavor of the week. And the young girl in flip flops and shorts was happy enough to hand-pump 3 liters of gas into a can which she then poured through a funnel into the car. Repeating this three times gave us about a half tank and more than enough to make it to Sandakan.

The remaining ride was the worst stretch of road. The rain came back and we were now driving through acre after acre of Palm Oil plantations. The trucks that move the oil palm fruits to the factories are really tearing up this highway making it even more dangerous than just watching out for speeding vehicles. There are sections of road construction that are poorly signed and subject to further erosion during the rainy season. Be warned, driving in this area is treacherous and should be avoided after dark.

Driving Malaysia

Once we were past the plantations and into Sandakan, driving became more normal again. This was another fairly modern town with modern infrastructure and conveniences. Parking for the hotel was in a nearby park house that cost only 2 ringgit per day–safe, secure, and cheap. Overall, driving in Maylasia was enjoyable. We had roadside stops for a variety of wildlife and scenic vistas that would have been blurs through the window on a bus. We stopped at roadside fruit stands, barbecues (mmm chicken wings!!!), and markets that we’d never have found with a tour–overall a great experience.

The final hitch at the airport for the car drop-off was a minor irritant. Our company man didn’t show up on time (this time I knew for a fact that he had all of the pertinent information). A friendly taxi driver called them for me and sure enough he was there with plenty of time for us to check in for our flight.

I’ve been told driving in western Malaysia is a completely different experience. They say the traffic around Kuala Lumpur is some of the worst in the world. I don’t know about that, I haven’t driven there yet, but when we go I’ll let you know.

Driving Malaysia

What are your experiences driving in Malaysia? Do you hit the open road on your travels or shun it? We’d love to hear about it…

Driving Malaysia

12 Comments

  1. Hi Corinne, interesting post! Looks like a very scenic road trip. I love the photos, espeicially the second one and the gassing up in Borneo! Who would think that a gassing up experience is somethig to write home about. Definitely an adventure. I would be interested to hear about your driving experience in Kuala Lumpur.

  2. I had never considered renting a car in Borneo (or really anywhere in Asia… we tend to stick to motorbikes over here), but this sounds like a great idea. We found that one of the most difficult things about traveling in Borneo was getting from place to place, so it would be wonderful to have the luxury and freedom afforded by having your own set of wheels!

  3. You seem like adventurous people driving in the hinterlands of a foreign country. I get a sick feeling when the gas gauge goes too low when I’m on the highway in North America so I can only imagine how you felt. Nice though to have the flexibility of your own wheels.

    1. Leigh, I’m not gonna lie. We were a little worried. Of course, everyone is driving around there, so we figured there must be some way to get gas. How could there not be? Whew! It was a close one.

  4. We have driven in Italy on tiny mountain roads in Liguria with crumbling edges that had me gripping the door handle and closing my eyes, with crazy oncoming cyclists zooming around the corner on our side of the road. After a week I became a bit more relaxed. We found the best way to experience Turkey was by driving although we did our fair share of bus travel too. I have not considered driving in Asia before but I liked what I saw of your experience (minus the petrol drama).

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