The Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri
Cambodia’s ‘Wild East’ is many things; it’s the leafy thwack of a machete over thundering waterfalls; it’s the pounding of tribal drums as a shaman slits the throat of a buffalo; it’s the scent of frangipani and the swish of a tiger’s tail; it’s the seduction of Apocalypse Now adventure floating in the steamy jungle heat. Some people come here to find a forgotten way of life governed by animism, spirits, and magic. Others come to trek the jungles in search of rare primates and exotic birds.
I came here to find a little girl.
On a cool October morning in 1988, eight year-old Pnieng Rochum and her younger cousin vanished near the remote village of O’Yadao in Rattanakiri province. While small footprints were discovered at a nearby stream, no investigation was made. The parents blamed the disappearance on jungle spirits and focused their energy on sacrificing buffalo.
Nineteen years later, a “half-woman, half-animal” stumbled out of the dense jungle near the village of Ten. She was naked, covered in dirt, and walking with an ape-like stoop. The villagers described terrifying, bloodshot red eyes, skeletal arms, and extended fingernails, which she hungrily used to pick rice out of the dirt.
When the story reached O’Yadao, Pnieng’s parents rejoiced—apparently this description matched their little girl.
“It was the happiest moment of my life,” recalled Pnieng’s mother, Rochom Choy. “I looked into her eyes and knew this was my long lost daughter.” Pnieng’s parents were even able to identify a scar on her arm, where her sister had accidentally cut her as a child.
On January 14, 2007, Pnieng and her family were reunited and the world media descended like bees, hungry to uncover a tale of hope, perseverance, and inspiring triumph.
Unfortunately such heartwarming tales don’t exist in Cambodia, and every time Pnieng’s parents tried to touch the girl, she’d begin screaming like a mental patient, ripping off her clothes, and fleeing towards the jungle. This led some journalists to suggest that Pnieng was balls-out fucking crazy.
“Deeply traumatized,” clarified one psychologist, “She is still coping from unknown events that unfolded in the jungle.”
As new developments emerged, the story grew stranger.
An early witness reported that when Pnieng was discovered, she was with a naked man holding a sword. Pnieng’s parents insisted the man was a jungle spirit. More likely, argued a British journalist, Pnieng had been kidnapped by a crazy naked guy in the woods. There were deep scars around her wrists and ankles that suggested she had been tied up. Perhaps her secret past was less like The Jungle Book and more like Deliverance.
The truth remained a mystery: Pnieng didn’t speak, nor would she make eye contact. She almost seemed catatonic, only muttering soft whimpers and animal squeaks.
Her parents feared that the jungle spirit was trying to reclaim her.
And then one morning, Pnieng disappeared again.
This is where the story gets weird.
Pnieng returned nine days later… But as a changed woman. She was now smiling, singing songs, and acknowledging visitors. One psychologist reported that she “uttered something that sounded like words,” in response to a game involving toy animals. In an even stranger development, she seemed to understand a few words of Vietnamese and Jarai, suggesting she’d spent time across the border.
Pnieng was starting to recover, but her doctors assessed it was too early for answers. Only in time would Pnieng Rochum reveal her mysterious past.
A few days later, Lindsay Lohan exposed her crotch at a nightclub and the Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri was forgotten by the world. The journalists flew home and many mysteries were left unsolved. How did Pnieng survive for nineteen years in the jungle? Why wasn’t she killed by tigers, snakes, or malaria? Did the Jungle Man really exist? What is it like to see an eight year-old little girl slaughter a monkey with her bare fists? What happened to Pnieng’s missing cousin? What does monkey taste like? How did she end up in Vietnam? Can people really swing on vines? Why does the media think anyone cares about Lindsey Lohan?
My ramshackle bus rumbled out of Phnom Penh and into the verdant countryside, kicking up clouds of red dust on the rugged road to Rattanakiri. I was going to find answers. I was going to connect the dots of The Jungle Girl’s secret past, to finally bring closure to one of the greatest Wild Child cases ever reported. I was going to try to find Pnieng Rochum.
“Do you have her cell phone number?”
“I don’t think she has a cell phone,” I muttered. I tore a page out of my notebook and handed it to my fixer. “Here’s her name and the name of her parents. That’s all I’ve got.”
“Good,” Mr. Smiley nodded, “That’s all I’ll need to find her.”
To facilitate my research and interviews, Mr. Smiley booked me a translator for three days.
My translator’s name was Ponleak and he was a good-humored, friendly and highly likeable Khmer guy. He was twenty-four and his hobbies included yelling, abruptly laughing at nothing, and asking me to inspect a photo of his newborn baby every thirty minutes. He would have made the perfect translator, except I had to ride on the back of his motorbike all day and he smelled like poo. Also, he didn’t speak English. At least not with any proficiency.
“She lived in the jungle for nineteen years,” I slowly explained for the fiftieth time.
“She was in the jungle. She lived in the jungle. Trees. Trees! For nineteen years!”
“OOOH! Yes, yes!” Ponleak grinned.
I could tell when Ponleak didn’t understand me, because his voice would shoot up an octave and he’d go: “OOOH! Yes, yes!”
My hunt for answers began near Ten village, where Ponleak guided me into the jungle. In the weeks preceding Pnieng’s capture, several villagers reported food going missing, suggesting she was living here for some time.
It wasn’t particularly cozy.
The dense foliage was suffocating. It felt like walking through a broken carwash. I found no gamboling elephants or happy butterflies like I imagined, but instead an angry gauntlet of leeches and spiders. To survive these conditions for even a month seemed inconceivable. To survive it for nineteen years, Pnieng must have been a Jedi. She must have been strong, cunning, and vicious, a pigtailed, eight year-old She-Rambo.
An evocative, tribal rooftop soared out of the greenery. We emerged at a clearing, into a scene from Heart of Darkness. Standing before us were several deserted tribal structures adorned in blood-red patterns, buffalo horns, and the sculls of animal sacrifices. Stern totems stood sentinel, depicting beasts, soldiers, and one pregnant woman with her hands bound and throat cut. At her feet were strewn broken pots, woven baskets, dirty rice bowls, and beer cans.
If I were a crazy, sword-wielding naked man in the woods, I imagined this would be my real estate. “The jungle spirit!” I celebrated.
“No. Chunchiette,” Ponleak corrected; it was a graveyard of the Jarai tribe; these were animist spirit-houses where the dead received offerings.
I asked Ponleak to inquire with the local villagers as to whether they’d seen any naked militant lunatics about.
They had not.
Perhaps there wasn’t a “Jungle Man,” but one detail was haunting me: when Pnieng emerged from the jungle, her hair wasn’t long and wild, but short and straight.
Who helped cut her hair? Who was she with in the jungle?
I awoke early the next morning to a phone call.
“I can’t find her,” muttered Mr. Smiley. “I called many friends.”
“Did you check in O’Yadao?”
“Her family is Pnong minority!” he cried. “Pnong move around a lot. All the time.”
“Well then I’ll go to O’Yadao and ask.”
“O’Yadao is a very big, big district!” Mr. Smiley scoffed. “So many people. What are you going to do? Walk around with her picture asking people if they’ve seen her?”
“No. I don’t have a picture.”
I sat up in bed. “The girl walks around like a baboon and makes creepy noises. It can’t be that difficult.”
Ponleak parked the motorbike outside a noodle shack in O’Yadao.
“O’Yadao!” he announced, before screaming at the noodle-lady in Khmer.
The noodle-lady replied something and pointed to a stilted hut three doors away.
“The girl lives there.”
Pnieng’s sister ushered us into the hut’s main room—a modest space furnished with reed mats and a rickety table, on which an ancient television blasted cartoons.
Ponleak rapped against the timber walls, nodding with envy. “Very, very nice house.”
Next to the television, Pnieng sat on the floor, idly examining her fingers. She was now thirty-three.
Upon noticing me she smiled and gave a slight nod.
“Hello,” I waved. “Are you Pnieng?”
She looked at me for a long moment, before returning to the intrigue of her fingers.
We were informed that she was tired; she’d spent the entire afternoon ripping out her own hair.
Oh yeah, Pnieng was bald.
A woman appeared out of the kitchen, carrying metal bowls and hollering like an Italian mother. She placed the food on the floor in front of Pnieng—a bowl of flaccid, boiled kale and a mound of rice. She pointed to the dishes and bellowed.
Pnieng inspected her fingers.
The mother hollered again, taking Pnieng’s chin and guiding her head in the direction of the food.
Pnieng immediately descended on her meal, picking up fistfuls of rice and leaves, stuffing her face.
The mother sat on the floor across from us. She looked exhausted. Ponleak provided introductions and Pnieng’s mother, Choy, agreed to field my questions.
I opened my notebook. “Can you ask her what they’ve uncovered about Pnieng’s history in the past six years?”
Ponleak stared at me. “Why do you care?”
“What?… I don’t know! Because it’s interesting.”
Ponleak cocked his head.
I huffed. “Because Wild Child stories are important. They afford us a glimpse into our own primal, uncorrupted humanity. They reveal to us–”
“OOOH! Yes, yes!” Ponleak nodded, before yelling something at Choy.
Choy nodded and explained.
“Wow!” Ponleak turned to me. “She says girl was in jungle very, very long time!”
I put down my pen and took a deep breath. “Can you ask her how does she think her daughter survived in the jungle for so long?”
Ponleak shouted at the woman.
Choy launched into an epic story.
“Oh, wow!” cried Ponleak.
Her voice grew louder and she started gesticulating.
When she finally finished, Ponleak turned to me. “She doesn’t know.”
“She just talked for three minutes!”
“I don’t know how to say in English.”
I groaned loudly.
Ponleak’s face crumpled like he was about to cry. “I’m so sorry, sir!” he pressed his hands together in a sompiah. “I only speak little, little English, sir! I’m very, very sorry!”
“It’s okay! It’s okay!” I gushed. “You’re doing very good. So good! Can you ask her how old Pnieng was when she disappeared?”
I knew the interview was doomed, but I already had the answers I came for. Simply looking into Pnieng’s eyes, her story was disturbingly obvious.
I’m not qualified to draw any scientific, psychological, or experiential conclusions about Pnieng’s case. Nor am I entitled to make ungrounded, possibly disparaging public statements regarding her family and personal life. It’s not my job to do so.
So I’ll just do it as a hobby.
There is no evidence to suggest that this girl is Pnieng Rochum. Instead, there is only evidence to suggest the contrary. What doesn’t add up is the fact that this girl looked like she was in her forties.
That, and the fact that she was profoundly autistic.
This wasn’t PTSD. If everyone who suffered an unspeakably traumatic event transformed into a whimpering, finger-counting potato, then America wouldn’t have any opposition in Afghanistan.
This girl was born this way and grew up in a Jarai village. This would explain the scars on her wrists. Life is cheap in the jungles of Cambodia and children born with mental disabilities in poor minority villages aren’t given special attention or WalMart staff aprons. They get bamboo cages and rope restraints. It’s sad, but true. If Rain Man were born in the Wild East of Cambodia, he would have been chained to a post. Like several famous Wild Child cases, Pnieng was likely kept in solitary confinement, refused of any human contact and never trained in language, social skills, or upright walking. Children who aren’t properly acculturated in infancy usually never grasp these basic abilities. Instead, they behaved much like the Jungle Girl—walking with a stoop and uttering soft whimpers and squeaks.
About a month before Pnieng’s discovery, she escaped her restraints and fled into the jungle. But she couldn’t have survived long. You can’t take down a 300 lb. tapir by examining its fingers. She wasn’t a killer. To survive for any considerable length of time, she would have developed lean muscle. Instead she looked anorexic.
Another possibility is that a male family member was with Pnieng until her capture—the “Jungle Man.” The Jarai are often illegal refugees escaping religious persecution in Vietnam. Many of them live in hiding in the jungle and are keen to avoid exposure to authorities. Perhaps when the male family member saw the villagers, he abandoned the girl to save himself. This would explain the short hair, as well as why she understood Jarai and Vietnamese.
When Pnieng’s parents arrived, they hadn’t seen their daughter’s face in nineteen year. They didn’t have photographs to keep their memories fresh. Perhaps they could recall Pnieng’s face perfectly and this girl was a match—but probably not. I suspect the parents simply loved their child more than words could describe and were willing to do anything to get her back—even if it meant lying to themselves.
When the interview was finished, Choy helped up Pnieng and we followed them outside to a small wooden shed.
“What’s this?” I asked.
Choy opened the door to the empty wooden box, pushed Pnieng inside, and then locked the door behind her.
“She says the girl stays here so she not run away,” Ponleak nodded.
“Wait,” I muttered.
Choy smiled, reopened the door, and displayed the wooden cell, shining a flashlight in Pnieng’s frowning face.
“She keeps her daughter locked in a cage?!” I blurted.
The mother closed the door, waved us goodbye, and wandered back into the warm house.
“That’s totally fucked!” I said. “That’s… I don’t even…”
“Yes, yes,” agreed Ponleak.
He stared for a minute, then suddenly leapt forward. “Oh no! She forget!” he cried and locked the door of the shed. “Okay, we go?”
“The girl is deaf,” Pnieng’s doctor said, leaning back in his chair.
My jaw dropped.
“Whether or not she’s Pnieng is another question,” he continued. “Your theory seems very likely; I think this girl was probably abused or tortured.”
When I arrived at the doctor’s office, he was reluctant to talk to me, but irritating persistence won the day.
“I don’t want further media attention,” he frowned. “It distresses her. Her parents exploited her to get money from journalists. Then when the journalists left, they started asking us for money. They wanted Psychologists Without Borders to support Pnieng, but…” the doctor shifted in his chair. “We stopped researching her two years ago. Nothing was happening. We can’t honestly say who she is. The journalists tried to give her a DNA test, but we stopped them.”
“The parent’s still say it’s their daughter, but they stopped believing the words a long time ago. I think they’re starting to reject her. It’s very sad. If the test proves it’s really their daughter, then nothing changes. But if she’s not and the parents throw her out, then what happens to this girl?”
A long, black silence followed. The doctor opened a drawer and fished out a business card. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Please contact Mr. Hector, he was the primary researcher. He’s in Spain now.”
I thanked the doctor and we shook hands.
“I hope you’ve found what you’re looking for,” he offered.
“I don’t know,” I muttered.
I never contacted Mr. Hector.
I still don’t know for sure what happened to Pnieng Rochum. I think we’d all like to believe the story that this little girl survived for nineteen years in the jungle. It reassures us that the human spirit is powerful enough to tame the forces of nature, that the things we’ve loved and lost may one day be returned, that hope is never truly dead. But deep down we all know it’s only a story. And for the Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri, this story ends where it most likely began—not with swinging vines, growling tigers, and swashbuckling courage, but with a poor little girl betrayed by fate and family, whimpering and alone in a wooden cage, somewhere in the forgotten Wild East of Cambodia.
If you’re not depressed enough already, check out “The Human Zoo” in Burma
For another (funnier) jungle misadventure in Laos, watch me torture my intern with landmines in “Intern Lydia vs. LaLa & His Hippie Goons”