A file photo from 2005 shows a team of rescuers searching for four missing Singaporean boys who went missing while walking along Bishop's Trail in Fraser's Hill. The man on the left is reciting a prayer aloud to acknowledge the presence of spirits – known in Malay as orang bunian – in the forest. The boys were eventually found by orang asli who lived in the area.
The mysterious disappearance of hiker Teo Kim Lean during a running event on June 16 in the forests of Ah Pek Hill in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, has sparked questions about the supernatural. Despite intensive search efforts by over 150 volunteers and more then 30 official search and rescue personnel with tracker dogs, nothing came up.
After 10 days, the authorities called off their search. Search party coordinator Lt-Kol Hardial Singh said the group then sought the help of Hindu and Buddhist mediums to “point the right direction” after search efforts had “exhausted every possible means of finding” Teo.
After prayers at the hill, the mediums reportedly asked volunteers to look “north-west from the foot of the hill”. The last search by volunteers was conducted on June 30 but still: nothing.
Many regular hikers believe there are spirits in the jungles, known in Malay as orang bunian, who can whisk unsuspecting victims off to “other worlds” or an “unseen dimension” as well as having the power to “cover the vision” of hikers. For what reason? We don't know.
What we do know is that Teo's disappearance is not the first.
These are not fairy tales
In May 2002, Mohd Khairi Abdul Ghani, 15, went missing on Gunung Tebu, Terengganu. A search and rescue operation involving more than 100 people combed the area repeatedly over five days but failed to find him.
Finally, the boy was found unharmed, a mere 8m from where he was last seen in a popular picnic area. He was reported to have been found wearing a towel and gazing out over the river rapids.
When asked about what had happened, Mohd Khairi told rescuers, including his own mother, how he was surprised that they could not see him even though he was merely “hanging around the area”. He heard the helicopter and even his mother’s calls. But somehow, he testified that he “couldn’t do anything”.
In June 2005, four Singaporean boys went missing on Fraser’s Hill, along Bishop’s Trail, a 1.5km path that's well-defined and regularly used for “self-guided” nature walks.
A 160-strong search and rescue team, including police, resident volunteers, tracker dogs and helicopters, could not find them for three days.
In the end, the authorities turned to the orang asli, for help. With their deep knowledge of the forest and supernatural forces, the orang asli found the boys.
Meanwhile, the earthquake on Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, on June 5, which took 18 lives, had been attributed by locals to spirits angered or disturbed by several tourists who had stripped naked and indiscriminately urinated atop the mountain several days earlier.
Do you believe? Do you have a choice?
Hiker William Lee says people should not dismiss the claims of those who believe in the existence of jungle spirits or the supernatural.
“Why do some believe people in God when they can’t see ‘proof’ of its existence? So please don’t judge. If you think supernatural spirits don’t exist in this world and such beliefs are stupid, then you are also (indirectly) condemning those who believe in God too.
“Similarly, some may scoff at those who believe in jungle spirits but still pray to their ancestors during Ching Ming and dare not walk through a cemetery at night. Don’t you think this is hypocrisy?”
“Some years ago, when I was trekking down from Gunung Nuang (in Selangor), the four of us just could not seem to get out of the jungle,” recalls Nor Muzammil, a technician and avid hiker. “Normally, from where we were, it would take about an hour to emerge. But for us, even after three hours, we seemed to be trapped inside.
“We were walking along the old muddy logging trail, which most trekkers at Nuang know about. But suddenly, the trail became straight and full of gravel. We knew something was very wrong because there was no such trail on Gunung Nuang.”
That’s when he decided to say a silent prayer, “Please, we want to go home, if we have offended anything in this jungle, please forgive us.” It was only after that, Nor Muzammil says, the “trail opened up” and they could see the familiar landmark of a dam again.
“For me, I believe that the jungles have their own inhabitants which we may not be able to see,” he says. “When we visit their place, we must not be cocky. Instead, we have to enter with respect for their house rules.”
Yap Peik Lean says she “doesn’t believe” in jungle spirits and tries to “rationalise away” what she sees and feels. “But twice in my life, I got lost in the jungle. I walked in circles and was not able to find my way out. When rescue came, the path was just right there, in front of my eyes.
“Can I explain how I could have missed that? Hell, no! So whether these spirits are real or not, I’m not going to flout jungle rules just to put that to the test. Besides, it doesn’t take much effort to respect them.”
She has had friends whom she has hiked and camped with who have experienced or felt strange things in one way or another. “Not everything can be explained away by science. Perhaps there is a greater being out there,” she says. “I think the point is not about the nudists causing the quake. The point is about respecting the culture and beliefs of the people and the place one visits.”
Naughty spirits, jungle music
K. Subathra shared a jungle chalet for 17 days with five other women when she was training to become a part-time nature guide at the Puchong Ayer Itam forest reserve in Selangor.
“I believe there were a few spirits lingering around. Firstly, my towel on the rack kept falling on the floor daily. Without fail,” says Subathra, a teacher.
Then, things kept rolling off the top of the bunk beds, and they had to keep putting them back.
“Until my botanist friend put it back up for the fifth time and scolded loudly ‘Boleh tak jangan kacau!’ (Can you stop disturbing us!). And it stopped.”
Subathra also experienced a nightmare. “I felt like ‘kena tekan’ (being pressed down upon). I was alone that night in the room, and I felt the presence of ‘residents’. They were screaming as they had been visited by ‘Pak Belang’ (a tiger).
“I do believe in jungle and nature spirits. I always feel that someone or something is watching over me when I’m in the jungle. Somehow, I always feel safe and calm.”
Once, while descending a hill with a newbie after hike, Seelan Govindan heard beautiful music from the jungle.
“It was such an awesome and smooth tune and I was sure it was not a bird or any animal,” he recalls. “Yet the newbie had no reaction and could hear nothing. But the music was very attractive, and it seemed to come closer.
Seelan forced himself to control his mind: “In my heart, I said a silent prayer that I needed to focus on completing the hike and getting the newbie out and home safely. After that, and as soon as I stepped in the direction of the music, everything just stopped and went back to normal.”
Check out part two of this story: Lost hiker mystery: What the forest wants, the forest takes