The Ratanakiri “Wild” Woman: A Cambodian Jungle Mystery.
Indigenous Hilltribes of Ratanakri Province, North Eastern Cambodia (© catalinamestre.blogspot.com)
Part of my novel, BACK, is set in Ratanakiri province in Cambodia, in the tri-border region of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was the scene of heavy bombing and regular cross-border incursions during the Vietnam War and is now a remote place to where Adventure Backpackers travel. Hence its role in BACK.
Usually the only press Ratanakiri Province gets is when corrupt Cambodian officials murder forestry welfare advocates who try to stop them illegally razing the jungle. So it was with some interest and not a little sorrow, when I was doing my book research, that I came across an odd story of a Cambodian woman, Rochom P’ngieng, who emerged filthy, naked and scarred from the dense jungle of Ratanakiri province in remote northeastern Cambodia on January 13, 2007.
After a villager noticed food missing from a lunch box, he staked out the area, spotted the woman, gathered some friends and caught her.
Speculation was rife that the girl had lived in the jungle all her life, although some believed she’d been held in captivity. Then a nearby family claimed her as their own daughter, who’d disappeared eighteen years previously.
Her alleged father, a 45-year-old village policeman, claimed that he last saw his daughter when she was eight years old, in 1988, just before she was lost in the jungle while tending water buffalo near the Cambodian border with Vietnam.
Her six-year-old sister was lost on the same day and has never been found. He 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,
Though DNA testing was once scheduled, the family later withdrew consent and DNA tests never took place.
A visiting newspaper 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, although she was able to use a spoon without instruction.
He called the claim that she was a feral child “almost certainly nonsense”, stating 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.”
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,” it said.
One week after being discovered, she experienced difficulties adjusting to civilized life. Local police reported that she was only able to use three expressions: “father”, “mother” and “stomach ache”.
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 had to watch Rochom P’ngieng around the clock to make sure she didn’t run off back to the jungle, as she’d tried to do several times. Her mother constantly had to pull back on the girl’s clothes when she tried to take them off.
A visiting reporter described the family as genuinely caring for her and the woman as listless and sad, but restless at night. An NGO feared the woman was enduring trauma after returning to society, believing the constant flow of visitors was adding to the stress on her.
Throughout the period 2007-2010 the woman had great difficulty adjusting to her surroundings, was admitted to hospital and fled back into the jungle a few more times, before being caught and returned to her village.
On 25 May 2010, Rochom P’ngieng escaped into the jungle again.
A month later she was discovered in a 10 metre deep toilet near the village, having spent 11 days there, standing in 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, a villager 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 Psicólogos 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.
And that’s the last clear information I could find of her.
It’s clear that the Ratanakiri jungle may contain more mysteries than just this poor woman who was living, lost or enslaved in it. I’m thinking in particular about what happened to the missing American POWs and MIAs after the Vietnam War, which is something I explore further in in my novel BACK.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
Location of Ratanakiri Province, in the tri-border area of Cambodia, marked in red.
© Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2:
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