Archive for August, 2009

The Girl from the Jungle

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

In 1988, nine-year old Pnieng Rochum disappeared in a remote corner of Cambodia. Two weeks ago she emerged from the jungle to be reunited with her family. Here her mother and father tell their incredible story…

Ma Pa GirlFor eighteen years, her mother Rochom Choy prayed for the safe return of her daughter. She communicated with the spirits day and night to bring her back and on 13th January her prayers were answered. “It was the happiest moment of my life,” she says. “I looked into her eyes and knew this was my long lost daughter.”

Her father. Lou Sal, a local policeman, was certain it was his daughter. Filthy, naked and silent, instinct told him this was the little girl he had last seen during Cambodia’s civil war. Back at the village, her mother bathed her. As the layers of dirt cascaded off, she looked for telltale marks that this was her little girl. “As I washed her, I saw a scar on her forearm,” she says animatedly. “I knew it was her because her sister accidentally cut her with a knife just before she disappeared. She is my daughter.”

She also has a burn on her calf which her parents say was caused by a cooking pot when she was young. Finally, as if to vanquish all doubts, they pull back her hair to reveal a large mole on her ear. Still, there are doubters and some people have called for a DNA test to confirm her identity. “I am happy to take any tests,” says her mother, “I just want everyone to know this is my daughter.”

Oyadao village is in Ratanakiri province in the remote northeast of Cambodia. This mountainous region is home to minority people and a world away from the rest of Cambodia. Pnieng Rochum is Pnong and her family are animists. They believe in spirits. Spirits of the forest, spirits of the earth, spirits everywhere.

Out of the Jungle

Early reports claimed she was with a wild man wielding a sword. “She was alone. She came out of the jungle and I was afraid”, says Cher Tam, the first person to set eyes on her for 18 years. A woodcutter from the nearby village of Ten, he heard that one month ago near O Tang village, local Jarai people saw a young woman with a jungle man.

“She was naked and dirty and moving with a stoop,” continues Cher. “She ripped open my rice and began to eat as if she was starving.” He tried to talk to her but she only uttered strange, soft sounds like a small animal from the jungle.

Cher, like all the villagers in the area, knew the story of Pnieng Rochum’s disappearance. He returned to his village to seek the counsel of elders who contacted Lou Sal to let him know of this amazing discovery. The next day they returned to the same spot to lie in wait.

Pnieng Rochum and her young cousin vanished in 1988 when her mother had gone to collect some drinking water for the two girls. The parents searched everywhere, wandering through the jungle and travelling from village to village. “Some villagers saw some small footprints on the banks of a jungle stream near their ricefields,” says Rochom Chey. “I thought we might find her but the jungle spirits did not want to let her go.” Rochom Chey went crazy and could not eat for months.

Making a Sacrifice

The family made sacrifices to ask the spirits for her safe return. Her father visited the local sorcerer to ask for advice. “We sacrificed pigs many times but she never came back. The sorcerer told us to hold a bigger ceremony with a black buffalo, but still we could not find her.”   

More ceremonies were held and the family sacrificed a brown buffalo and a cow. Sacrifices are a genuine sacrifice for poor families in the Cambodian countryside. “Money was no object to bring back my daughter,” says her father. “I asked the spirits of the jungle to give back my daughter every night. We never gave up hope that she might still be alive and eventually the spirits delivered her back to us.” Tellingly, the parents never held a ceremony for her death. They went on believing that she was alive, even when others were sure she was dead.

The Media Circus

The incredible circumstances of her return have not gone unnoticed by the media. Hordes of visitors have descended on this remote outpost and it has not made adjustment easy for Pnieng Rochum. “She doesn’t like crowds, she becomes restless, even afraid,” says her mother. “If it becomes too noisy or too many people come and stare, she tries to take her clothes off and escape to the jungle.” Living in the jungle for 18 years, adjustment was always going to be a challenge, but this has turned it into an ordeal.

It’s not only the media that see her as a local celebrity. The Jarai people in the region hold her in reverence. She was claimed by the jungle as a child and has returned as an adult. She has been anointed by the spirits of the forest and long after the media scrum evaporates, the Jarai people will come to pay homage.

Pnieng Rochum sits and stare for most of the day. She stares back at those staring at her, she looks lonely and lost. She doesn’t yet fit into her family, but there is nowhere else for her to go. She talks to herself at night, muttering noises that the family cannot understand. “She makes strange sounds like a small animal,” explains her mother. “I try to understand, I want to understand, but I don’t know what she is trying to say.”

Even though she cannot speak, she communicates with basic gestures and signs. When she is hungry, she pats her stomach and the family feeds her. “Her favourite food is fruit,” says her mother. “She likes papaya and watermelon, but she will eat anything. She eats like she is ravenous, but we are trying to teach her to use chopsticks or a spoon.”

She also likes television, especially karaoke. Next door to the family house is a small restaurant with a karaoke machine. Karaoke is the national pastime in Cambodia and 18 years in the jungle hasn’t diminished the draw.

The parents fawn over her like a newborn baby. Not exactly a newborn, she is reborn, unable to even take care of her most basic needs. She survived the forest, but will she survive life in the village? Her mother cleans her teeth in the morning and washes her face. She is supervised when she goes to the toilet. Pnieng Rochum has a new life, but it’s an alien life.

Back to life

Her parents are constantly afraid that she might go back to the jungle. She has trouble sleeping and they take it in turns to comfort her. “We must hold a ceremony in the jungle where we found her,” says her father Lou Sal. “We have to make the spirits happy so they do not take her back again.”

Her mother is worried that she will not speak again. She has not uttered a single word since her return to the village, although she appears to understand some of what is said to her in her native Pnong language. “I don’t know if anyone will want to marry her after she has lived so long in the jungle,” her mother despairs. “She likes to be alone and I am not sure if she can live with anyone else.”

There are more questions than answers. How does an eight-year old girl survive in the jungle for so many years? The Cambodian jungle is home to poisonous snakes, tigers, malaria and many other dangers. It is an unforgiving place for anyone, particularly a young, vulnerable girl. Was she kidnapped by a jungle man and forced to forage with him, a Cambodian version of Tarzan and Jane? Why did she have kempt hair if she had been living in the jungle for 18 years?

For now, nobody knows. Rumour is rife. What is certain is that a little girl disappeared 18 years ago. A traumatized adult has returned, reclaimed by her family. The only person who knows the truth is Pnieng Rochum. For now she is silent, stunned by her return to society, but in time she may reveal the secrets of her past.

The Sweeper of Ta Prohm

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

In memory of Nhiem Chun, the Sweeper of Ta Prohm, who sadly passed away earlier this year.

He is as much an icon of Angkor as the tangled roots that slowly choke the ancient stones of Ta Prohm. Man first conquered nature to create, nature slowly conquered man to destroy. But Nhiem Chun has dedicated his life to stemming the tide of nature, bent double, stooping low over the stones to sweep away the falling leaves each day.

The Sweeper of Ta Prohm

The Sweeper of Ta Prohm

I first met Nhiem back in 1995 when exploring Ta Prohm. He was more sprightly then, nimbly gliding over fallen pillars, tumbled stones and moss-clad lintels in search of his quarry, those ever-falling leaves. Nhiem’s face was every bit as chiselled and characterful as the beautiful devedas that still lined the galleries.

Years later he was immortalised by Lonely Planet when his iconic image was selected as the cover shot for the fourth edition of the Cambodia guidebook. It was a definitive shot, Nhiem standing in front of the ‘Tomb Raider tree’, the place where Angelina Jolie had plucked a jasmine bud and fallen through the earth into… Pinewood Studios. Nhiem soon became an A-list Angkor celebrity himself and crowds thronged around him wanting a photograph.

At 85, Nhiem Chun is about the same age as King Sihanouk, although their lives could hardly be more different. He grew up tending buffalo and helping with the harvest, but had a chance meeting with Angkor curator Henri Marchal in 1941 and began work as a labourer helping with temple restoration at Angkor. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with the temples and Nhiem was destined to spend the next 65 years of his life working amid the sacred stones.

Nhiem’s world crumbled around him when the Khmer Rouge came to power. “In the 1970s, our lives were turned upside down. I could not do my job, I had to work the land,” says Nhiem. “You had no choice. You would be killed.” More precious than his beloved temples, his two sons disappeared during the Khmer Rouge regime. “When the fighting was over, my two sons were still missing,” he recalls. “I was told they had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, their throats slit with sharpened sugar palm fronds.”

In 2006, the BBC came to Cambodia to film “Who Cares About Art?” and Nhiem Chun was our subject, the loyal guardian of Ta Prohm. We spent several days with him, learning about his life, his loves, and his loss. “The older I get the more I love this place. These temples are the spirit of the Cambodian nation,” muses Nhiem, wandering about Ta Prohm. “I could have built this temple in a past life. If I did not have any connection, I would not be here to take care of it today.”

Nhiem is not getting any younger and frets about the future: “I am old now. I can’t take care of these temples any more,” he opines wistfully. “But when I am gone, these stones will still be here. These temples are the symbols of our soul. We will not survive if we don’t look after our temples.”

Like the ancient stones of Ta Prohm, like his beloved monarch Sihanouk, Nhiem Chun has experienced light and dark. A life lived among beauty and brilliance, he has also experienced the ugly side of man. But life has gone on and the leaves continue to fall. “If I don’t sweep, the leaves will cover the temple. I must sweep,” he mutters. Nhiem Chun is a man for all seasons.