Prai

Discover reflections of a historic town’s heyday

Prai

Mention Prai to the average Malaysian and chances are it would evoke the image of a sleepy, lazy town with little excitement to offer for visitors. That may be true to a certain extent; but the generally insipid atmosphere today belies the great significance the town holds in its history, to the commerce and politics of the northern region.

This was the town where the nation’s historic railway line once culminated with its great locomotives, where a special and now-forgotten ferry service operated between Penang island and the mainland, and where a unique “chain-ferry” was built to take people and vehicles across the serene Prai River. Though such prominent features of the past are gone and memories of them fade away, one can still find remnants of such early glories in Prai. The railway depot, tracks, and remarkable swing bridge for trains exist till today. As do other intriguing landmarks like the temples, the factories, the industrial and residential enclaves, and the ever-important wharves and godowns. 

"The visage of the town has certainly changed over the past few decades. But Prai still perseveres, its landscape calmly transforming, as though waiting for us to explore and rediscover the secrets of its forgotten heyday.

A brief history of Prai

Legacy and impact of a once-significant hub of northern Malaya

old Prai Map

Prai emerged as a notable settlement at the mouth of the Prai River, or Sungai Prai as it is known in Malay, in the mid-1800s. It grew in prominence mainly because its location was strategic – where the river met the waters of the Penang Channel, just across from Penang island. 

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Prai railway depot and its surroundings

Silent echoes of a railway hub’s bustling heyday

Prai railway depot

It is perhaps ironic that one of Malaysia’s most historic and important centres for transportation, which once lifted the stature and powered the economy of Prai in the past, should now be among the least known and forgotten enclaves of the area.

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Prai River Bridge

An iconic modern infrastructure visible for miles 

Prai River Bridge

This is one of the few striking monuments in mainland Seberang Perai instantly noticeable from across the channel, all the way from Penang island. Flashing sleekly with its commanding pylons high above the remains of a century-old railway depot, a derelict historic post office building and the ruins of the old Prai Market, this flyover may well symbolise modern aspirations streaking over the residues of the past.

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Sri Selva Vinayagar Temple

Spectacular octagonal architecture’s modern tribute to traditions

Sri Selva Vinayagar Temple

This temple is a testament to the thousands of Indian labourers who worked in the wharves, railway and factories of Prai. It emerged more than a century ago as a wooden attap shed structure where proletariat Hindu settlers worshipped the god Ganesh, also known as Vinayagar. It was earlier maintained by the Prai railway and port labourers.

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Sri Muniswarar Temple

Where a sacred tree revered by Tamil pioneers still stands

Sri Muniswarar Temple

The temple is built near where the first Indian settlers of Prai began clearing mangrove forests after landing at the Prai River in the 1870s. It began as a small shrine and is dedicated to the Tamil folk god Muniswarar. 

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Prai Swing Bridge

A rare engineering novelty in Asia

KTM Swing Bridge

A marvel of engineering, this “swing bridge” is built over the Prai River specifically to allow trains to cross over, connecting the Butterworth Railway Terminal on the northern side to other rail destinations further south in Malaysia. The bridge also opens up occasionally for large barges, ships and ferries that need to pass through along the river.  It is operated by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM), the national railway company.

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Prai River and mangrove forests

Hiding ancient ecological treasures of mainland Penang

Prai River and mangrove forests © Adrian Cheah

One natural entity that is very closely linked to Prai, but whose importance is among the least recognised by local people in general, is the Prai River which is known in Malay as Sungai Prai. The lengthy serpentine river has been used since ancient times by traders and travellers to navigate to and fro between the Penang Channel where it ends and the inland areas of the Malay Peninsula further upstream. 

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Gurdwara Sahib Prai

Custodian of a rare century-old Sikh heirloom from Punjab

Gurdwara Sahib Prai

This temple keeps an antique treasure in the form of a century-old copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, which was brought to Malaya by pioneering migrants from Punjab, India. Written in ancient Gurmukhi script, the huge magnificent volume with 1,937 pages was printed and bound in 1904 in Lahore (present-day Pakistan). 

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Chai Leng Park market

A bustling hub for community needs

Chai Leng Park market © Adrian Cheah

Lively and bustling, this is the main hive in Prai where marketers, housewives and neighbourhood shoppers mingle and parley every morning over the prices of everyday wares and necessities. Located off Jalan Kurau, the spacious forty-year old complex features rows upon rows of shops and cubicles brimming with fresh vegetables, spices, seafood, frozen foodstuffs, tropical fruits and much more.

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Butterworth Guide

Butterworth Guide

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