CAMBODIA’S JUNGLE WOMAN

JUNGLE WOMAN FOUND IN CAMBODIA

In January 2007, Associated Press reported: “A woman who disappeared in the jungles of northeastern Cambodia as a child has been found 19 years later, police and a man claiming to be her father said. The woman -- identified as Rochom P'ngieng, 27 -- does not speak any intelligible language, according to Sal Lou, a village policeman who said he is her father. Sal Lou said he recognized his daughter by a scar on her right arm. Rochom P'ngieng, then 8, disappeared in 1988 while herding buffalo in a remote area, said Chea Bunthoeun, a deputy provincial police chief in Rattanakiri province some 200 miles northeast of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. [Source: Associated Press, January 19, 2007 *]

The woman was found after a villager noticed that food had disappeared from a lunch box he left near his farm, Chea Bunthoeun said. "She was shaking and picking up grains of rice from the ground to eat," Sal Lou, 45, told The Associated Press by telephone from the province's Oyadao district, where the woman was found. When she is hungry, she pats her stomach as a signal, he said. "If she is not sleeping, she just sits and glances left and right, left and right," Sal Lou said. He said his family was closely watching the woman, who he said took off her clothes and acted as if she was going back into the jungle. Many questions remain about the circumstances of the girl's disappearance and what happened to her, said Mao San, police chief of Oyadao district. Officials want to take DNA samples from the parents and the woman to see if they match, and the parents have agreed, he said. *

Her family says she was found on Jan. 13 walking like a "monkey" out of the jungle near Oyadao town, about 70km east of the provincial capital. Villagers in Oyadao, a town of 100 people, have simply dubbed her "jungle woman" and turned the family's hut into the must-see attraction, with dozens of locals and journalists stopping by to peer inside for a look at her. [Source: Associated Press, January 22, 2007]

Reporting from Oyadao, about 660 kilometers north east of Phnom Penh, Ke Munthit of AP wrote: “A woman who emerged from the jungles of Cambodia a week ago, burbling, grunting and walking bent over, is still giving up none of her secrets, even to the family that has taken her in as their presumed long-lost daughter. Dubbed a "jungle woman" by residents of this remote district in the northeastern province of Rattanakiri, she is claimed by a local family to be 27-year-old Rochom P'ngieng, who went missing at the age of eight when herding buffalo in 1988.As he watched her gobble down her food, the father of Rochom P'ngieng looked on with amazement. "Maybe that's the way she was used to in the jungle," Sal Lou told The Associated Press. [Source: Ker Munthit, AP, January 20, 2007 **]

“She was captured, naked, on Jan. 13 after a villager caught her taking food from a lunch box he left at a site near his farm, said local police. Village policeman Sal Lou described his first glimpse of the woman: "She was naked and walking in a bending-forward position like a monkey, exactly like a monkey. She was bare-bones skinny." Her eyes were red like a tiger's, he said, and he felt fear. But he checked her right arm. There he found a scar, just as his daughter had from an accident with a knife before she disappeared. "She looked terrible, but despite all of that, she is my child," he said. **

“Despite being taken into Sal Lou's extended family, the woman's heart may remain in the jungle. On Thursday she took off her clothes and acted as if she was about to go back into the wild, Sal Lou said. Restraining her, the family took her to a nearby Buddhist pagoda for a monk to give her a holy water blessing to expel any evil spirits that may have possessed her, he said. **

“For members of the Pnong minority—who normally are not members of any organized religion, but instead are animists who revere nature —the move was unusual. "We worship no religion but we took the advice of some elderly Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) people to have the holy water blessing done to chase the evils souls from her body," said Sal Lou, as his presumed daughter sat next to him, motionless as a stone. **

So far, Sal Lou's family says she mostly uses sign language to indicate her basic needs. She pats her stomach when she is hungry or needs to go the toilet and has taken a liking to the family's collection of karaoke videos. "She just stared at that video without blinking. She liked it very much," Sal Lou said. “She spends her days sitting or lying on the floor, sleeping or staring glassy-eyed at the scores of visitors who come to gawk at her in the dirty, ramshackle house she now shares with 12 other people. The element of wildness is evident as well to a neighbor, Cheat Ki, and it frightens her. "I was so scared, scared of evil spirits that might have come with her," she said. "At night before we went to sleep, after seeing her, I told my children to lock the door for fear that some evil might come and strangle us." **

Mysteries and Questions Surrounding Jungle Woman Found in Cambodia

AP and AFP reported: “Many have begun to question Sal Lou's story.How, they ask, could a woman from the jungle have such smooth hands? If she had been truly wild, they ask, why are her fingernails neatly trimmed and her hair not a matted tangle? "I am doubtful that she went missing 19 years ago. I came here to see what she looked like, and she looks normal like us," said Dub Thol, who travelled from a neighbouring district to see the woman. [Source: AP, AFP, January 23, 2007]

“While few villagers will hazard a guess as to what the woman's true story is, many are skeptical she could survive on her own in the jungle. Nomadic people do live in small isolated groups in this part of Cambodia, avoiding contact with civilization, and the woman could be one of them or been taken care of by them. The possibility also exists that she could be a lost, traumatized refugee, since many members of hill tribe minorities facing religious persecution in Vietnam's nearby Central Highlands have fled through this area. "If she was in the jungle for 19 years, why was her hair short?" said Cheat Ki, a shopkeeper in the village. "It should have been long unless someone cut the hair for her in the jungle." [Source: Ker Munthit, AP, January 20, 2007 **]

“Many questions remain about the circumstances of her disappearance and what happened to her, said Mao San, police chief of Oyadao district. Objective evidence for the relationship, beyond a certain physical resemblance, is thin. But Sal Lou is not the only family member claiming Rochom P'ngieng has returned at last.Rochom Khamphi, 25, said that the moment she arrived at their house with Sal Lou he went to grab her right arm to check for the scar. "I saw the scar right away and I knew that she is my sister," he said. "Then tears just rolled down from my eyes. That's the proof. I remember it very clearly—I'm not making it up, because I was the one who caused the injury." **

AFP reported: “The jungles of Ratanakkiri -- some of the most isolated and wild in Cambodia -- are known to have held hidden groups of hill tribes in the recent past. In November 2004, 34 people from four hill tribe families emerged from the dense forest where they had fled in 1979 after the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which they supported. [Source: AFP, October 30, 2009]

Some reporters and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) questioned this explanation and suggested that she instead might be an unrelated woman who had been held in captivity. There have also been reports of a naked man who was seen with the woman and ran away when challenged. Some reports have him carrying a sword; some villagers believe he was a jungle spirit. [Source: Wikipedia ~~]

Sal Lou (or Sar Yo), who belongs to the Pnong ethnic minority and works as a village policeman in Oyadao village, identified the girl based on a scar on her arm, supposedly from a knife accident that occurred prior to the girl's disappearance, and by facial features similar to those of her mother, Rochom Soy. Though DNA testing was once scheduled, the family later withdrew consent and the DNA tests never took place. The Pnong follow no organized religion but the family took the woman to a Buddhist pagoda to have monks calm her spirit. ~~

A visiting Guardian reporter observed that the woman had deep scars on her left wrist and ankle, possibly from being held in captivity, as well as feet that did not look as if the woman had lived in the jungle for a long time. She was able to use a spoon without instruction. He called the claim that she was a feral child "almost certainly nonsense", stated that "beyond the family's ardent claims to recognise her, there is no evidence that she is the missing girl", and thought it more likely that she was "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.” Licadho, a human rights NGO, also believed she might have been a victim of abuse. The woman has marks on her arms that may have been caused by a restraint such as a rope. "We believe that this woman is a victim of some kind of torture, maybe sexual or physical," said Kek Galabru. ~~

Cambodian `Jungle Woman' Tries to Escape

One week after being discovered, she experienced difficulties adjusting to civilized life. Local police reported that she was only able to say three words: "father", "mother" and "stomachache". A Spanish psychologist who visited the woman reported that she "made some words and smiled in response to a game involving toy animals and a mirror" but did not speak any recognizable language. When she was thirsty or hungry, she pointed at her mouth. She preferred to crawl rather than walk upright. The family watched Rochom P'ngieng around the clock to make sure she did not run off back to the jungle, as she tried to do several times. Her mother constantly had to pull back on the clothes when she tried to take them off. A visiting Guardian reporter described the family as genuinely caring for her and the woman as listless and sad but restless at night. [Source: Wikipedia]

A few days after the first report of the “jungle woman” emerged, Associated Press reported: “Cambodia's "jungle woman" seemed to be tiring of civilization and has repeatedly tried to escape back into the wild, her presumed brother said yesterday. "Last night, she tried some tricks to run back to the jungle," said Rochom Khamphi, who has claimed Rochom P'ngieng as his long-lost older sister. He said his sister indicated she wanted to go outside to relieve herself and then made a break for freedom. "On the second visit to toilet, she removed her shirt ... and was about to make a move to run," he said. [Source: AP, January 22, 2007+]

He said his mother managed to grab her and called out for the rest of the family to help bring her back into the house. But inside the house, the woman refused to sleep and made several moves toward the front door, Rochom Khamphi, 25, said, adding that the entire family was "sleepless the whole night" because they had to guard her. "I suspect there may be a family or someone out there still alive that might have gotten hold of her the whole time," he said. "I still have many questions unanswered," he said. +

Rights Groups Offer to Help Oyadao's `Jungle Woman'

AP and AFP reported: “Rochom P'ngieng holds a wooden pole at her home. Human rights groups fear that the 27-year-old woman is suffering from the spotlight cast on her since she emerged from the wild and offered yesterday to provide any needed medical and psychiatric treatment. She sits for hours at a time, staring at the floor or at the throngs of villagers that have mobbed this small shack, her unsmiling face betraying nothing other than occasional fear flashing in her eyes.[Source: AP, AFP, January 23, 2007]

Scores of people have come to watch her, milling around Sal Lou's ramshackle house, staring silently at the woman as she sleeps, sits squatting against the wall or is spoon-fed by Rochom Soy, Sal Lou's wife. "I dare anyone to wager 10,000 dollars if they think she is not my daughter," challenged Sal Lou. The hut of his family has drawn crowds of villagers and journalists, keen to see the woman whose family says she was found on Jan. 13 walking like a monkey out of the jungle. She pats her stomach when hungry and uses animal-like grunts to communicate. "Over the weekend she acted crazy -- she was scared of the crowds and the journalists trying to take pictures of her," said Rochom Ly, 27-year-old Rochom P'ngieng's younger brother.

Licadho, a non-governmental human rights group, fears the woman is enduring trauma after returning to society and could have been a victim of abuse, said Kek Galabru, the group's president. "We believe that this woman is a victim of some kind of torture, maybe sexual or physical," she said. Licadho has offered to pay travel expenses to bring the woman and the family to Phnom Penh, about 400km away, and to provide housing costs while she undergoes treatment in the capital. Penn Bunna, an official at Adhoc, another Cambodian human rights group, says the constant flock of visitors is likely causing new stress for the woman. Adhoc has also offered to help fund psychiatric treatment."She must have experienced traumatic events in the jungle that have affected her ability to speak," he said.

Life of the Cambodian `Jungle Woman' After Discovery

The NGO Licadho feared the woman was enduring trauma after returning to society. Penn Bunna, an official at Adhoc, another Cambodian human rights group, said the constant flow of visitors likely caused stress for the woman. "She must have experienced traumatic events in the jungle that have affected her ability to speak," he said. [Source: Wikipedia ~~]

On 25 September 2007, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported that the woman, who had never been able to adjust to village life, had vanished back into the jungle without leaving a trace. In February 2008, the Phnom Penh Post reported that the woman had disappeared for a couple of days but had then returned. The Spanish psychologist was still seeing her, and she had adjusted a bit better to her new surroundings, but still would not speak. The father was trying to raise money so that he could take his daughter to a spirit healer who could help exorcise the "jungle spirits" from his daughter. Radio Free Asia reported in July 2008 that the woman was able to feed, bathe and dress herself but still would not speak. She laughed while playing with her little nieces and nephews. ~~

In October 2009, Agence France Press reported that the woman had refused to eat rice for a month and was admitted to a hospital, where a nervous condition was diagnosed. Her father said that she had not adjusted, could not speak, and was always trying to remove her clothes and run away. He asked for charities to take over her care. In December 2009, her father reported that she was eating again, was generally improving, and had started to understand and use some words of their native language. ~~

“On 25 May 2010, Rochom P’ngieng fled back to the jungle. Her father said that she went to take a bath in the well behind their house and did not return.[13] In early June she was found in a latrine about 100m from her home after a neighbour heard her crying, Sal Lou, the man who claims to be her father, said.[14] "She was discovered in a 10m deep toilet. It's an unbelievable story. She spent 11 days there," he said, adding that her body was soaked with excrement up to her chest. "We are still wondering how she could get into the toilet" which has a small entrance hole covered in wood, he said, adding that she had been admitted to hospital following the incident.

In September 2010 it was reported that she was being taught health habits and social skills by members of the Spanish mental health organization Psicologos Sin Fronteras. A May 2011 report added that she was visited by the psychologists at least once a week. She preferred to live and sleep in a small chicken coop near the family's home, joining the family for meals every three or four days. She did not speak but had started to make eye contact with people.

Cambodian 'Jungle Woman' Hospitalised

in October 2009, AFP reported: “Cambodia's "jungle woman" was hospitalised after refusing food, her father and a doctor said. But the tale of Rochom P'ngieng, which has involved disputes over her real identity and how she spent her missing years, took a further twist when her father then removed her from the clinic against doctors' advice.[Source: AFP, October 30, 2009 ~]

“Sal Lou told AFP that Rochom P'ngieng was admitted to the provincial hospital. "She has refused to eat rice for about one month. She is skinny now... She still cannot speak. She acts totally like a monkey. Last night, she took off her clothes, and went to hide in the bathroom," Sal Lou said. "Her condition looks worse than the time we brought her from the jungle. She always wants to take off her clothes and crawl back to the jungle," he added. But he said in a later call that he had brought her home because it was too difficult to keep her from fleeing the hospital. "We have to hold her hand all the time (at the hospital). Otherwise she would take her clothes off and run away," he said, adding that he would now appeal to charities to take over her care. ~

“Doctor Hing Phan Sokunthea, director of Ratanakkiri provincial hospital, confirmed that Sal Lou had defied medical advice and checked her out of the hospital. "We wanted to monitor her situation more, but we don't know what to do because the father already took his daughter out of hospital," he said. ~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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