Did this young woman really survive alone in the Cambodian jungle for 18 years? Jonathan Watts travels to a remote village in Oyadao to find out
The Guardian January 23, 2007
Rochom P'ngieng was eight years old in 1989 when she went missing from her village in north-west Cambodia. Her family remember her as a bright, cheerful girl who was skilled at trimming banana skins into the shape of flowers, animals and people. One October morning, she went out as usual to tend the buffalos, but never returned.
Eighteen years later, a woman emerged from the jungle, naked, dirty and with matted hair. According to one report, she was clambering along on all fours like an ape and foraging for food when she was discovered. The story made headlines around the world. The headline in the Daily Star was: "Ape Girl of the Jungle." The Sun simply called her "the Mowgli girl"; a Daily Telegraph headline stated: "Jungle girl 'lived like animal for 20 years'".
Today, the woman from the jungle sits and stares vacantly before her in the noisy, crowded home of the lost girl, Rochom P'ngieng. Since emerging from the forest, the woman, now supposedly 27, has been claimed twice: first by Sal Lou and his family as their long-lost daughter; second, by the world's media as the latest object of its timeless fascination with the "feral child".
The stories that have emerged about this "half-human, half-animal" woman from the jungle have largely been fantastic. She is variously said to have been accompanied by a wild naked man with a sword, to have been cared for by nomadic hill tribes while away from home, and to have been preserved by the spirit of the jungle. But what all the world's media appeared to be agreed upon, last week, was that somehow a little girl had survived out there in the wilderness for 18 years before finally returning to civilisation.
Which is almost certainly nonsense. Facts are rather harder to come by than stories, though, in this corner of Cambodia. The woman herself has not uttered a word in any known language since she returned to civilisation, and beyond the family's ardent claims to recognise her, there is no evidence that she is the missing girl. The irony is that this tale of a child growing up in the wild, far from civilisation, may prove to be quite the opposite: the story of a girl brought up in captivity, who somehow escaped, and then found her way to a father who desperately wanted to recover something he had loved and lost.
What is beyond doubt is that within the space of little more than a week, the woman at the centre of this story has been taken from the depths of the jungle to become arguably the most famous Cambodian woman in the world. Feral child stories - with their ancient echoes of Moses, abandoned by the river, and Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, raised by wolves - crop up every few years or so, and tend to create huge excitement. Generally, if they turn out to be rooted in truth, they prove rather less romantic than the old myths. Studies of feral children suggest that many are abandoned because of their severe learning difficulties or physical disabilities. Their return to civilisation is often anything but smooth - they struggle to use a toilet, walk upright, and usually fail to master the language of their carers. It is certainly hard to equate the figure lolling listlessly against the wall of the Sals' wooden shack with the bright, normal young girl that was Rochom in her youth. The dots between their two stories, 18 years apart, may never be joined up, but to try to unravel part of the mystery, I have tried to trace the past week of the woman's life.
This is a region that lends itself easily to those seeking myth and mystery. Rattanakiri is one of the world's great wildernesses. Located in a remote corner of north-eastern Cambodia close to the border with Vietnam and Laos, it is home to a plethora of ethnic minorities, languages, cultures and animistic beliefs. Until around 1950, contact with the capital, Phnom Penh, was so scarce that bureaucrats had little influence here. In the late 1960s, it was part of the Ho Chi Minh trail - the secret supply route for North Vietnamese troops. It was repeatedly bombed by American B52s, stirring up an animosity that would soon manifest itself in the Khmer Rouge, a revolutionary movement that overthrew the government and later embarked upon one of the late 20th century's most appalling reigns of terror.
Even today, amid a new surge of development, the provincial capital of Ban Long is a hard 12-hour drive from Phnom Penh, much of it along deeply rutted jungle roads. From there, it takes another two hours along a dust track - orange clouds billow out in the wake of each car - to reach the Sal family home. It is a small wooden shack, split into three rooms, illuminated by shafts of sunlight that pierce the holes in the thatched roof.
Since news of the woman started to spread, the family has welcomed a steady stream of visitors and journalists. There is money in this story. In this area some locals are prepared to pay money - a homage, they say - to a woman blessed by the spirit of the jungle. Reporters are, more prosaically, simply asked for cash in return for interviews. Instead, I offered a gift of noodles, cigarettes and soft drinks.
But this is not a money-spinning scam. It seems unlikely that the family could have predicted the attention they would get. The father, Sal Lou, must genuinely believe that the woman is his daughter or he would not take a woman who appears to have profound problems into his home, when he already has 15 mouths to feed on an income of $25 per month. The missing girl's mother also refutes any suggestion that this is a case of mistaken identity. Poor but neatly dressed, they both seem completely genuine. There's a pig in the backyard, the house is full of children and there is a feeling of warm domesticity.
"Of course she is my daughter," says the mother, Rochom Soy. "I recognise her face. She looks like her sister. Now that she is back home, I sleep better and I have regained my appetite."
Despite their warmth, this also feels like a freakshow. It's discomforting to be asked for money upfront, and then to be allowed in to look at the woman.
The father says he is willing to do a DNA test, to prove the woman is his daughter, but when I offer to take back samples of hair to the capital, he is reluctant. The family point to the woman's right arm, saying that it is scarred with a knife wound that their daughter suffered during her youth in a fight with siblings. But this blemish is tiny compared with the deep scars on her left wrist and ankle. Two deep scars circle her left wrist. They appear to have healed some time ago. The father believes they were caused by a trap while the girl was wandering on all fours through the jungle. He shows me a wire snare of the type used by local hunters to trap deer and tigers.
But the scars could as easily indicate that the woman has spent time tied up, either because she was kidnapped for use as a slave, or because she was disabled. With almost non-existent medical facilities, it is not unknown for families here to keep people with mental illnesses on a leash.
The woman's listlessness has so far been attributed to her confusion at re-entering society. She strikes me as someone who is far away, and who could possibly be traumatised, in a state of shock; it's been known for people who have grown up without proper human contact to react like this when they're brought back to civilisation. Then again, this could as easily be a permanent condition. For long periods, she appears to switch off completely, gazing into the distance and ignoring attempts to get her attention. But at other times, she holds her gaze on people and moves her head towards the sound of a baby crying or a motorbike revving. I notice that her feet do not look like the feet of someone who has been walking for years in the jungle.
Her only clear communication is when she rubs her stomach to indicate hunger. Although she cannot brush her teeth, wash or use chopsticks by herself, she can use a spoon. "We hand-fed her at first, but one day we were a bit slow so she grabbed the spoon out of my hand and did it herself," says her supposed sibling Chanthy, 19.
The family are affectionate toward her, but she does not reciprocate. When hugged, she is limp. When she is not hungry, she covers her mouth when they offer her food. My overwhelming reaction to her is one of immense pity.
"I feel sad," says Chanthy. "She is my sister, but she doesn't reply to me."
After dark, the woman starts to talk to herself in a language that no one understands. The father has recorded what he describes as "animal noises". Listening on a small cassette player it sounds more as if she is muttering in some exotic tongue. I speculate that she may have come from across the nearby border, but I am told it is not Vietnamese. So where is she from? No one seems to have an answer. "There is no way a young girl could survive alone all that time. As well as the difficulty of finding food and drink, there are the dangers of malaria and cobras, tigers and alligators," one expat scoffed back in Phnom Penh.
"Just look at her short hair and soft skin," says a shopkeeper in the Oyadao village where the family live. "Who would cut her hair in the jungle?" The family agree that the woman's hair was short when she was found, but simply say they have no idea who cut it.
Not every element of the story as widely told is nonsense: the woman does appear to have spent at least some time in the jungle. The father takes me to the place where he found her, after hearing reports of a woman seen in the forest. It is about two days' walk from where his daughter went missing. He re-enacts how he laid in wait for four hours in a woodcutter's clearing and then gave her clothes and food when she came to scavenge. The tinned fish and rice wrapped in banana leaves are still evident on the ground.
However, his reenactment contains contradictions. He tells me that the day before he arrived, the girl had asked a forester to see her mother - but he can't explain why she hasn't uttered a single intelligible word since. And when he demonstrates the way she walked towards him, it is less like an ape on all fours than a weak and tired woman shaking and holding herself.
Beyond his certainty that she is his daughter, he admits that the woman is a mystery. "I don't know how she got there. How can we know?"
Part of the mystery could soon be cleared up - a doctor is due in the village today to do tests. Whatever the results, the family are committed to making her feel a part of their society again. The mother hopes, however naively, that the woman will one day marry and have children.
If she does end up living her life here, she will do so in an area that is fast becoming less wild. Rattanakiri has been marked for development; local people are losing their land and huge swaths of forest are being cleared for industrial crops such as cashews and rubber.
The provincial capital now has hotels offering BBC, CNN, NHK and a live broadcast of Arsenal v Manchester United. Restaurants offer Heineken beer along with the local Angkor brew and a menu of monitor lizard, wild boar and deer. The town's first internet cafe opened recently and a new road is being built that will speed travel times from here to Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Hanoi and southern China.
Whether she will ever enjoy a normal life, of course, depends on where she has really been, and what her problems really are. But if her problems have been caused by her being cut off from civilisation - either through being locked up, or out in the wild - previous stories of feral children suggest she is unlikely to be successfully acculturised. Some, like Ivan Mishukov, who became the leader of a pack of wild dogs on the streets of Moscow in 1996, never fully readapt. Others are treated as mentally ill and passed around from carer to carer. Most die younger than average. Even though she is evidently loved and looked after for now, the woman found in the jungles of Rattanakiri seems unhappy with where she has found herself.
On three occasions she has tried to escape, taking off her clothes and heading to the door; each time she has been prevented from leaving. "In the day, she is quiet, but at night she becomes restless," says the mother. "The rest of the family take it in turns to guard her and keep her in".
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