To a foreigner, the very idea of driving in Asia conjures up images of millions of motorbikes, cars coming from all directions, rickety trucks and buses, and speed, speed, speed!

Many tourists have seen the traffic (and experienced the fear of even crossing the road) in cities such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. So when travel experts suggest that hiring a car is the best way to get around Langkawi in Malaysia, many potential visitors become quite nervous even at the thought of it.

Langkawi is a beautiful archipelago of rainforest islands just off the northwestern coast of the Malaysian mainland. The main island, Pulau Langkawi, is about one hundred and eighty five square miles in size. This is where a tourist can become convinced to be brave, and to be initiated into Asian driving.

Hiring a car is very easy for a qualified driver, and surprisingly inexpensive, with no deposit required. There are reports that some of the wide range of rental outlets that welcome travellers at the airport can sometimes be less than professional. It is therefore advisable to use the car rental service located at a visitor’s hotel, if they have one.

Most available cars are comfortable, well maintained and reasonably new, with air-conditioning and automatic transmission. Customers can choose from a small range of makes and sizes.

The first challenge for a lot of tourists comes immediately upon leaving the parking lot, and that is to remember on which side of the road one should be driving. In Malaysia, traffic drives on the left side of the road. Often this is not a problem at first, but it can be easy to forget once the initial nervousness of driving in a new country wears off.

To the relief of many a visitor, driving a newly rented car around the island is not difficult at all. The roads are very well marked and in good repair, especially considering the heavy rainfall that Langkawi receives in monsoon season.

The traffic is consistent, but there is not much of it except in the capital city, Kuah. Even then, the traffic is manageable for any experienced driver. Some of the road rules are a little different, but nothing extraordinary, so as long as a driver keeps alert, it is easy to handle a car even in peak hours.

Watching out for monkeys and the occasional roaming cow or water buffalo is fun rather than stressful. It is okay to drive at a leisurely island pace, as any faster vehicle will just go around. There are still lots of motorbikes, but they are slower than cars, so the trick is only in getting around them, and there are plenty of opportunities.

Having a car gives visitors the chance to independently explore the lesser travelled corners of the island. There is an immense sense of freedom in being able to swim in the cool, clear pool under a waterfall, soak tired feet in natural hot springs, and stroll along deserted beaches. Driving is also an easy way to reach tourist attractions such as the spectacular Langkawi Cable Car, the fascinating Craft Complex, wildlife parks and the travelling night market.

At the end of the rental period, returning the car to a reputable agent is as simple as refilling the gas tank, parking in a prearranged spot, and dropping off the keys.

To rent a car on Langkawi, a current driver’s license and passport are all that is required in order to fill in the simple application form (which is in English). It is also worthwhile to invest in an international driver’s licence before leaving home. Car rental companies will not ask to see this, but it could be requested by police if the hired car were to be involved in an accident.

Insurance is usually included, but it is best to ask to make sure about the cover and any excess value. There is no option to fully insure against third party personal injury, so it really is important to drive safely.

Motorbikes are also available for hire for the more adventurous.

If seeing everything the island has to offer is a priority, having access to a car is a lot cheaper than getting taxis. It is the simplest way to see so much more, and to meet some of the most friendly, helpful, happy people in the world. Who wouldn’t be happy living in a paradise like Langkawi?

So while getting behind the wheel in an Asian major city might not be on the average tourist’s bucket list any time soon, driving in Asia (under the right circumstances, of course) can be a very attractive option.

By: Penny Robbins

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