Prai River and mangrove forests
Hiding ancient ecological treasures of mainland Penang
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.
Unbeknownst to many, its riverine forest till today houses thriving ecological diversity despite the surrounding sweep of urbanisation and industrialisation. There is a surprising variety of wildlife just waiting to be explored here.
One can find colonies of long-tailed macaques with their complex social structures existing among the dense growth of trees along both sides of the river. The dwindling size of the forests due to urban sprawl, however, often forces many of these monkeys to forage for food on the edge of nearby townships.
The mangrove trees also form a natural habitat for a range of other creatures, including squirrels, butterflies, molluscs, cockles, crabs and snakes. Migratory birds can also be spotted here. The sighting of a full-grown crocodile which was photographed basking on the banks of the river in August 2014 caused a stir in the surrounding communities and the media.
Interestingly, the river becomes known as Sungai Prai only where it emerges at the confluence of two other rivers at the Air Hitam Dalam forest. This point is about 30 kilometres northeast from where Sungai Prai ends at the Penang Channel.
The two streams that form Sungai Prai – Sungai Air Hitam and Sungai Jarak – are both significant as they are linked to virgin tropical rainforests that are crucial in supplying water for the Prai
Sungai Air Hitam connects Sungai Prai to the huge Sungai Muda in the north whose rainforests in Kedah are important natural water catchment zones. Sungai Jarak springs from the lush forests near Kulim in the east, some 30 kilometres from where it eventually merges with Sungai Air Hitam. It is said that the freshwater that flowed in Sungai Prai was once so pristine that it attracted people to settle and form villages along its banks long before the British landed on Penang island to establish George Town in 1786.
Sungai Prai also bears huge political significance. Its watercourse is referred to today in marking the geographical margin that distinguishes Seberang Prai Utara (northern Seberang Perai district) from Seberang Prai Tengah (central Seberang Perai district). Prai is located in the latter.
For the watercourse of Sungai Prai was used as the original boundary to demarcate Kedah in the north from Province Wellesley in the south. This was when the Kedah Sultanate ceded this Province Wellesley area to the British East India Company in 1798. It was only when the Siamese invaded Kedah in 1821 that the boundary was shifted further north along the Sungai Muda.
People traditionally used boats and rafts to cross the river before the present-day bridges were built. There was also a chain-ferry service near the mouth of the river that the public used to ply from one side of the waterway to the other. The service was very popular and busy, as many people preferred to take the ten-minute ferry ride rather than go onto a small boat to get across.
The road that led from Butterworth town to the chain-ferry jetty came to be called Chain Ferry Road. The name remains to this day.
The chain-ferry service was forced to come to an end with the emergence of a bridge for vehicles and pedestrians near the very same area in 1965. The bridge rendered the ferry service almost obsolete. This was the historic Tunku Abdul Rahman Bridge.
It was named after the then Prime Minister of Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman himself. In fact, Tunku officially opened the bridge during a special ceremony also attended by Datuk VT Sambanthan, who was the Minister of Works, Post and Telecommunications, and by Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee, then Chief Minister of Penang.
The bridge still stands firm today. It affords a refreshing view of the river and its green banks of rich mangroves. A scenic panorama of Sungai Prai and its riverine forests can be enjoyed from Taman Kimsar Park, near the eastern end of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Bridge. Here one can find boat rental services as well as good spots for photography of the riverscape.