Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Driving in Malaysia for Expats (and how to get around)

Humming to the music and enjoying the wide roads of Malaysia, I was driving and on my way to yoga class. Then I realized how well-settled I am ... imagine enjoying driving without all that nervousness (which I had in the beginning).

After 4 months of living in Malaysia, me and my husband finally adjusted to driving on the "right side". Where we came from (Manila and France), people drive on the left side of the car. I remember my first thought: it is impossible! Well, after a few weeks of driving, believe me, you will get the hang of it! The power of the human brain is wonderful -- you can actually program it to learn new things (especially if you are forced to).

I really never thought I will get this good, I am even driving like the "locals" now (swerving from time to time, ha ha). I also learned to look twice before swerving because there are motorbikes that will come out of nowhere from time to time. So be careful!

To help out my possible readers out there, I want to share how we began our journey and reached our enjoying-driving-around-KL status.

The first week after our arrival, we lived in a hotel. But that was short-term, because we have already arranged for accomodation in Damansara Perdana. After our stuff were shipped from Singapore to our new home, we unpacked and tried to settle in. Part of that settling-in will mean you need to figure out how to get around. Where to do grocery? How will hubby get to work? Am I stuck here at home? How will we ever get around this place???

Since our bank accounts were not yet opened, no money can be transferred, and we have no checkbooks. Which means, you cannot buy a car -- yet. The next best thing to do is to RENT A CAR. The most important things to remember when renting: rent from a credible company but not the "too credible" ones because that will cost you too much! It took me 2 hours to research (online and the handy yellow pages) and called every credible looking car rental company I could find. The prices range from RM2,000 per month or more, depending on the type of car you rent. My suggestion, rent it for a month, like us. Try to get the hang of driving. One month can pass by so quickly, and you get a better rate if you rent for a month.

Afer calls and calls, the cheapest rental you can find will be a Malaysian car called Proton. They have a suite of models, and the cheapest is the Proton Wira. It's a sedan, which served us well. I have no regrets nor complaints, it was a good car to us for 1 month. The average price of that 1 month rental for Proton Wira was around RM2,200. I called and called, some offered at RM2,000. And would you believe, I finally found one who rented to me at RM1,400! I was ecstatic (the charm worked over the phone!). That's probably the best price anyone can ever get for 1 month. So after we closed the deal, he sent the car over thru his driver. They took a credit card imprint (which was of course my Philippines HSBC Visa card, as we didn't have any Malaysian credit card yet). That imprint is for security purposes only (in case you run off with the car or something like that). We had to pay the RM1,400 in cash upon delivery of the car to our house. And then, we were off to our driving experience!

It was both exciting and tense driving for the first time. Roads that look alien to you. Signs will confuse you. Drivers may even honk at you if you slow down at all to figure out where you are! Do not worry. That is all part of the birth pains. But to ease the pain, I suggest you go visit the nearest bookstore and buy yourself a KL STREET DIRECTORY which cost RM45.00. That thick book map saved us from getting lost. If you have the budget, you can opt for a GPS system which will cost you around RM2,000.

After 1 month is up, the guy called my husband. They were so nice, and even picked up the car from my husband's office. They tore up my credit card imprinted receipt and didn't charge us for anything.

While we were enjoying our drive around KL with our Proton Wira, we were already shopping around for cars. Some friends have warned me about buying local cars like Proton (like quality of windows, engine, etc). Prices are definitely more attractive for the local cars as the imported ones are highly taxed. Imagine ... my Honda CRV back in Manila is the same price as a Honda City here in Malaysia. Talk about big difference!

Since me and hubby agreed reliability is important, we opted for Honda. The nice agent we talked to came to visit us at our house to discuss options. And he escorted us to the Honda in KL. The whole purchasing a car went smoothly, only because we did our pre-work ... we had our HSBC account opened already by the time we were buying the car. So we had an account to wire transfer money to, and issue a check to Honda.

The transaction was all taken cared of in that Honda office. The lady from EON bank happened to be there in Honda, so she talked to us about the car loan options and steps. Even the lady who was selling the car tint was there, so she arranged for the tint to be installed even before the car will be released to us. Suggest you get car tint because it is so hot in Malaysia! At least try to protect yourself from too much sun. Though Malaysia has rules against dark car tint. Back in Manila I could get tint so dark you cannot see who is inside. Here, they allow you tint to a certain degree, as long as you can see the person inside. Oh well, nothing much to argue there. I just want tint in my car to have some privacy and some kind of protection from heat.

Just to give you an idea of car prices, these were the prices when I was scouting for a car (see below). All cars prices are "automatic transmission". In Asia, most people drive automatic cars (which was a different case for my French hubby who used to drive a manual transmission).
Honda City : RM 77,252
Honda Civic: RM110,003
Honda Accord: RM132,335
Honda CRV: RM135,187

Suggest you check out the Honda Malaysia website for updated prices.

The transaction we had was complete with the insurance and 2 years maintenance. Yes, that means for the price you pay, your 2 years worth of tune-up and change oil are FREE! That's the good thing which is different from Manila. We had our first 1,000km check up done already. You can go to any Honda shop to have your servicing done.

In case you are interested, the agent who can probably serve you well (if you want to buy Honda), you can call Andrew Tan at 016-2927323. He gave us very, very good service.

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On another note, before you come to Malaysia, I suggest you do like we did -- we applied for an International Driving license in our country of residence. That way, when you get here, you can rent a car and drive immediately. I read recently in an article in Epxat Magazine KL, a British guy was caught and given a ticket as he was driving with his British license, thinking that it is valid here. The only thing valid is the international driving license. Other than that, you can go line up and pay for a local Malaysian driver's license.

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Still on the driving topic, parking fees will vary where you go. If you go to KLCC, which is the heart of the city, do not be surprised to find that you will need to pay around RM20.00 for a day's parking. While opposite that, if you go to the Curve (shopping mall at Mutiara Damansara), you only pay RM1.00 even if you park the whole day. So it really depends where you go or where you work.

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For the faint-hearted who will not dare to drive immediately (like me, haha)... there is an option! While my husband drove to work and I was stuck at home, I realized I am not really "stuck" and have a way-out of this! You can always call a cab. The taxi fare are quite reasonable here. Do not attempt to ride the bus, as I think you will surely get lost and waste a lot of time. Instead, there are many taxi operators you can call. The initial flag-down price (the minute you enter the cab) is RM2.50. The meter seems to be running based on minutes and kilometers. But I promise you will not find it that expensive.. and it's even more convenient (esp for newcomers). I mean, I know I want to go to KLCC, but I don't know the way ... so call a cab, tell them you want to go KLCC and voila! Taxi from my home to KLCC is about RM20.00.

If you hail a cab from outside, your meter starts at RM2.50. But if you "call a cab" via the phone, they impose a RM2.00 surcharge bec the cab actually goes to your area to pick you up. So when my mom came for a 1-month visit, we wanted to shop in all the malls... and as we discovered to the must-see places, we were able to get around thanks to the taxi availability. From time to time you will find rude drivers who do not want to flag down the meter, and instead will want to just charge you a standard price (usually a rip-off). Unless it's a really important matter, you can always find another cab. The world is a fair place. There are good cab drivers, and there are bad-lazy ones. Don't be scared off by the bad ones. I usually had a good chat with the drivers. So the whole taxi-phase was a pleasant one.

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I guess the next thing that might be in your mind is how much will your expenses be for petrol/ unleaded gas for your car. Well, just to give you an idea, a full tank on a 1.5 liter car will cost you roughly RM65.00. Quite cheap compared to prices my hubby used to pay in France. So gas is not that expensive.
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