Small Steps for Cambodia's 'Jungle Girl'

Cambodia's long-lost "jungle girl" makes progress in small steps after 18 years in the forest.
2008-07-09
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RATTANAKIRI PROVINCE, Cambodia: Rochom P'ngieng, shortly after she was returned to her family following 18 years in the jungle. Photo from Jan. 2007.
RATTANAKIRI PROVINCE, Cambodia: Rochom P'ngieng, shortly after she was returned to her family following 18 years in the jungle. Photo from Jan. 2007.
PHOTO: AFP
PHNOM PENH—Cambodia’s “jungle girl,” who lived alone in the forest for 18 years after vanishing at age nine, has learned to dress herself, bathe, and laugh in the year-and-a-half since she returned to her family. But she remains unable to speak, her father and a local police officer say.
 
“She knows how to do a lot of things. She just doesn’t speak,” her father, Sal Lou, said in an interview. “She mostly stays alone, laughing, singing, and talking to herself in her animal-jungle language that we cannot understand.”

“I would like to appeal to the U.S. government to help bring my daughter to the States where she can have an opportunity to receive treatment, rehabilitation, and learn to speak from medical doctors and other specialists.”

He also said he hopes for assistance from the Cambodian government and other countries.
 
Sal Lou, 43 and a retired police officer, identified his oldest child, Rochom P’ngieng, by a scar on her arm after villagers reported seeing a naked woman stealing food in January 2007. She has lived with Sal Lou, his wife, six other children, and six grandchildren since then.

"Her body is transformed. Her complexion is changing. And she is charming."
Police detective Ma Vichit
“I think she is different now. She seems to know or be aware more of things around her. We can see that she can eat, can dress by herself... Now she is happy. She looks very fresh, her face is brightening... I do not mean to praise my own child, but everyone who comes to see her loves her.”

She now dresses, bathes, and feeds herself, as well as playing and laughing with her nieces and nephews, he said. She now also walks almost upright, according to Sal Lou and district police detective Ma Vichit.

‘Animal-jungle language’

Rochom P’ngieng, now 29, vanished in 1989 while tending buffalo near the jungle in Cambodia’s remote northern Rattanakiri province.

Her plight came to light when a villager noticed some of his food had been taken and staked out the area, 350 kms (220 miles) northeast of Phnom Penh.

Sal Lou said he knows Rochom P’ngieng understands spoken language because “when we tell her to eat or take a bath, she does accordingly. She also takes a bath and rubs herself clean by herself, but we have to fetch the water for her. But she never takes anything without people give it to her directly...”

No doctors or aid workers have visited her since January 2007, he said. Nor has her DNA been tested to ascertain that she is Sal Lou’s daughter. She ran back to the jungle for nine days in April 2007, but her mother retrieved her after village children reported seeing her.
"She mostly stays alone, laughing, singing, and talking to herself in her animal-jungle language that we cannot understand."
Sal Lou, father

“When she feels hungry she would go and look for food to eat, and she eats by herself.  She can understand what we say to her, but she does not speak,” he said, adding that her routine consists of washing, eating two meals a day, and little more.

Asked if she understands who she is, he replied, “I cannot say anything about this, because she hasn’t spoken yet. But I believe she knows and understands everything.”

“The spirits haven’t allowed her to talk—it’s not the right time yet. Also we don’t have money to make an offering to the spirits who have been taking care of her... We need one buffalo to do the offering.”

Small steps

Ma Vichit, the police detective, cited “15 percent progress” over the last 18 months. Her family is trying to teach her both Khmer and their own minority Pnong language, he said.

“She tries to use a spoon now,” he said in an interview. “She tries to help in the kitchen. And she can alert someone when she needs to be taken to urinate. Her activity is a little inconsistent, though—she can concentrate only for short periods.”

“But her body is transformed. Her complexion is changing. And she is charming,” Ma Vichit said.

Sal Lou also said his daughter prefers vegetables at meals.

“She takes any food we would normally eat, but she prefers vegetables and fruits to meat. As you know, in the jungle there are only fruits and vegetables that she used to eat. She eats some meat, but mostly she picks the vegetables,” he said.

“We bring new clothes and tell her to get changed. She changes into the clean clothes by herself. But she does not know how to wash and clean the dirty clothes, so we have to wash for her,” he said.

“She plays and laughs with her nieces and nephews, holding, carrying, hugging, and kissing them. I can see that she does love her nieces and nephews, six of them. I have six grandchildren. We live together though we are very poor.”

Original reporting by Yanny Hin for RFA’s Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.
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