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Forest spirits: Strange tales from the jungle

Locals believe nude tourists incident in Mount Kinabalu angered mountain spirits

Nobody can “scientifically” prove (or disprove) if mountain spirits really caused the earthquake at Mount Kinabalu after being angered by rude nudists who urinated in sacred areas there, just as nobody can “scientifically” prove what the “true path” to God is.

But those who often go jungle trekking in Malaysia have encountered situations right out of The Twilight Zone before, resulting in strong beliefs about spirits in the forests and mountains. Is there “something” in the forests?

A Bobohizan or traditional Kadazandusun priestess uses a bouquet of seven specially selected plants to bless delegates at an event in Sandakan, Sabah. The Star
A Bobohizan or traditional Kadazandusun priestess uses a bouquet of seven specially selected plants to bless delegates at an event in Sandakan, Sabah. The Star

When British administrator Sir Hugh Low first climbed Mount Kinabalu in 1851 (Low’s Peak is named after him), he wrote that his guide carried an assortment of charms, such as pieces of wood, human teeth and other items weighing seven pounds (3 kilograms).

Even nowadays, a sogit (healing ritual) is held every year at the mountain with seven chickens, seven village cigars and seven betel nuts to appease the spirits.

Those who are Western-educated may pooh-pooh all this as “primitive” superstitions. But ask yourself: Are all those tales of elves, gnomes and goblins just, um ― fairy tales? Or were the legends based on “something” in European forests (before they were largely chopped down)?

Malaysia too has similar tales in its jungles. And many have related how the breaking of certain taboos ― such as urinating without asking for “permission,” speaking arrogantly or taking “souvenirs” from the jungles ― have resulted in strange and surreal events.

But despite these tales, should we fear the forests? After all, there are many stories of ghosts in towns, too.

Besides, thousands have gone jungle trekking without any problems.

Any trip has inherent risks, just like driving. As long as you follow the “safety rules,” whether it’s observing the speed limit or saying your prayers before entering a jungle, all should be fine.

Sabahan spirits

In the late 1950s, along the foothills of Mount Kinabalu was virgin wilderness some 20 years before tourism took off there.

Adrian Lasimbang’s late father Benedict was erecting wires and towers for Sabah’s Telegraph Department.

“He was in the jungle for months. Every time the natives built something, they did certain mamason rituals to ask permission from the spirits,” Adrian says, recalling his father’s stories.

“But there was a Chinese engineer, from Singapore I think, who dismissed all this as primitive superstitions. He was advised not to simply pee anywhere, but he didn’t believe it.

“One day he kena rasuk (was possessed by a jungle spirit). He ran around the camp wildly so the other workers tied him onto a camp bed. But next day, he went missing.”

He was found dead three days later between some rocks, clad only in underwear.

“The natives believe his soul was taken by the mountain spirits.”

Adrian, who works with the Indigenous People’s Network of Malaysia (known by its Malay acronym JOAS) also didn’t believe all this “hocus-pocus” as a young boy ― until he learned the hard way.

A traditional taboo for his Kadazandusun people is that termite mounds are the abode of spirits and should not be “offended.”

“When I was eight years old, I saw some termites at a mound. To kacau (disturb) them, I urinated on them. That night, my private parts became painfully swollen,” he remembers.

“My mother took me to the doctor. But despite pills and creams, there was no cure. Then she took me to the Bobohizan (traditional healer or priest/priestess). She asked my mother, ‘Has your boy offended some spirits?’ Then I confessed what I had done.”

The Bobohizan then advised Adrian to sprinkle some salt and water, as a small “sogit” (healing or cooling) ritual to “apologize” to the spirits at the termite mound.

“That very night, the pain was gone,” he says.

He asked his mother, Rosina Sogondu, about the details of Kadazandusun cosmology.

She told him that humans are just one of seven dimensions of this realm.

There is an underworld with demons and higher realms with deities, called bambarayon, which are spirits honored during the Kaamatan Harvest Festival.

At the top is the Supreme Deity or God, called Kinoringan and the Creator, Minamangun.

Somewhere in between lies the realm of jungle spirits, such as sopok (something like dwarves or gnomes) and pampuvan (akin to leprechauns or fairies).

“I have heard many stories of people getting lost in the jungle mysteriously. The sopok or pampuvan can trick people to follow them, for example by adopting the look of pretty fairies, animals or even your friends.”

All this sounds similar to Indian or Chinese cosmologies of multiple layers of heavens (and hells).

The Kadazandusun believe that humans occupy the third level of existence, called rusot.

After death, the souls walk towards Mount Kinabalu, and into the afterlife realms of mong-ngohu and hibabau.

Adrian explains why the nudists caused so much offense: “The tourists may not believe, but these are cultural norms that should be respected. Sure, nudity can be a form of expression or art. But it was the location and intention of the nudists. To do it at a sacred site like Kinabalu is like stripping in a church or mosque.”

In addition, during war, natives would show their bare buttocks to enemies to intimidate them.

“Posting the nudity on Facebook was like showing the middle finger. Provoking people to attack you.” he adds.

“That’s what offended me as a Sabah native. If humans can get upset, imagine how our ancestors’ souls and forest beings would have felt. It was kurang ajarrr (uncouth)!”

But do the Kadazandusun still believe in these spirits, since most of them are now Christians?

Adrian believes that religion can coexist with adat, or customs: “My mom still does the sogit ritual using salt. But she will first take it to our priest in church to be blessed. So it becomes holy salt.”

White robes in the dark

Danny Ahmad from the group Moves Trekkers was with 10 other hikers inside the Royal Belum forest in Upper Perak.

They were camping at Sungai Sigor, a site in deep jungle, just two hours’ walk from the Thai border.

“At about 3 a.m., while all my friends were asleep, I woke up when I heard something. I tried looking in the direction of the sound,” he recalls.

“Suddenly, I saw a man in white robes shining brightly amidst the thick gloom of the forest. I was terrified and quickly closed my eyes while reciting what Quranic verses I could remember. Some time later, I opened my eyes again. The light had gone.

“I believe that I had seen a bunian (goblin) who wanted to pass through our camp. I continued sleeping and woke up again at 6 a.m., this time by the sound of someone calling out the dawn azan prayers.

“I immediately roused my friends from their sleep and we performed our prayers.

“Later, when we were safely outside the jungle, I recounted these stories to my friends. Strangely, they had not seen the light or heard the azan.”

The lights that walk

Tipok Michael is a skeptic but, because of her Bidayuh heritage, she is open to local beliefs.

Her mother, who used to live in Bung Bratak village in the Bau area of Sarawak, used to tell many stories of how she encountered “forest people” when she had to trek through jungles for two hours to get to school and back.

“My mother told me that the ‘forest people’ are tall but you can’t really see their faces. But they are usually kind and protective, so she said don’t make them angry.”

Tipok, who enjoys jungle trekking, has seen strange things, too.

“Once, during a Scouts and Girl Guides camping event in Santubong, a few juniors were laughing and making noise. Out of nowhere, a piece of wood flew in from the darkness and hit one of the girls right on the mouth.”

The second incident was while she was camping at Gunung Pueh, near Lundu, Sarawak.

That night, she was the “bodyguard” for her team so she had to stay awake.

“I saw fireflies in the jungle. At first, I thought they looked pretty. Then I thought to myself, why are there fireflies on top of a mountain? Then slowly, the fireflies congregated to form the shape of a man and started walking towards us!” she recalls.

“I was so scared. I turned on our only torchlight (flashlight) until the battery died out. I hardly slept that night.”

By Andrew Sia, The Star