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In February 2011 we travelled to Malaysia.  I was surprised to see modern housing estates in substantial numbers during our first cab ride from the Airport to Kuala Lumpur.  It seemed more reminiscent of the United Arab Emirates than of the poorer Middle East or of other developing countries in SE Asia.  Our hotel was similarly well appointed.

 

 

 

Getting About

 

After a few days in Kuala Lumpur we flew north to Penang and then drove down the peninsula to Malacca, with a side trip to the Cameron Highlands overnight, then back to Kuala Lumpur.  

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Because they drive on the same side travelling on Malaysia's roads is very similar to driving in Australia.  And the road engineering is very similar in terms of the road surface and hardware like guard rails and signage.  It is easy sitting in a car on the expressway to think that you are driving in some tropical part of Australia. 

You immediately realise you are not in Australia when you stop to refuel, rest or eat.  There are no giant air conditioned cafeterias.  Instead there are several, or many, small food stalls and a large roofed over area with seating; as well as basins for hand washing.  At some there may be an alternative small air conditioned café, typically a food franchise such as McDonald's or Dunk'n Doughnuts.  Notably absent are the many very large trucks we have on Australian roads.  But there are many familiar names on billboards and on the few English speaking stations on the car radio, including Harvey Norman and the usual American franchises.

For most of the road trip we travelled on a six lane highway with a nominal speed limit of 110 kilometres per hour.  But at this speed almost all the traffic overtakes the law abiding.  I quickly applied my rule that I should not be overtaken by more than one or two cars a minute.  I found that the speed of between 120 and 140 kilometres an hour was about right.  Nevertheless we were still frequently pulling over to allow faster traffic past.  On one occasion a BMW travelling at at least 180 kilometres an hour overtook the bunch of traffic that we were travelling in by driving along the near-side shoulder; this is sealed but not a traffic lane and obviously intended for breakdowns or roadside maintenance; not for swerving onto at over 100 miles an hour.

On two or three occasions we saw police radar traps but they seem to have little effect on the speed of traffic.  The Malaysians may subscribe to the theory that allowing traffic to travel faster than the nominal limit in fine weather increases vehicle volume per hour and optimises the road infrastructure.  But they haven't taken this to the extent of the police in Germany who pursue slow cars with megaphones and tell them to get over; out of the way of those who want to travel faster.

Even on secondary or tertiary roads in the Highlands I was amazed to see the level of sophisticated engineering with elaborate terracing and hillside stabilisation and substantial drainage works.  These roads were extremely winding often with linked s-bends but correctly cambered.  Once off the expressway, Malaysian driving skill seems to vary dramatically, between appalling, hesitant at 20 kilometres per hour; to amazing.

On several occasions I was overtaken between hairpin bends that would challenge The Stig from Top Gear, by expensive German cars that generally disappeared into the distance as quickly as they had appeared. 

Although statistically the chances of being killed in a car accident in Malaysia are about three times higher than they are in Australia we didn't see any car accidents over the four days that we had the car; or at any other time.  Malaysia's road accident record has improved dramatically over the past few years as road conditions have improved and drivers have become more skilled.

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