Those venturing into the jungle must be cautious as there are unseen beings dwelling among those that can be seen, writes CASEY NG.

SOME people say cowards live longer. After years of winging it in the wild frontier, I can agree to that.

I always believe that fear is healthy, especially when one is venturing into unfamiliar ground.

Not long ago, a gung-ho friend went mountain biking on a hidden path. You know, the kind who never lets a dare go by without a match. He got lost for two days and was never the same person since.

Apparently, after finding his way out of the jungle, he contracted a mysterious fever that baffled doctors.

Some believed that he caught a strange disease from drinking unboiled stream water. Animals are known to taint water source when leaving territorial markings with urine and dung, usually around streams. Others believed it was a case of “kena sampuk”, or disturbed by unknown beings.

For me, well, being Western-educated, I´d like to think there´s a logical explanation. But I have also seen a hefty dose of illogical incidents that make me believe in the presence of unknown forces.

As an environment planner who often works in the jungle, I always make it a point to get to know the hotspots frequented by mortals and immortals.

Call me chicken if you like, but I have work to do. And avoiding spooky spots is clearly part of the job if I want to stay out of trouble and complete assignments in the shortest period.

The Malaysian rainforest is a primordial one. It has watched how a small band of Stone Age sapiens evolved into modern humans, not to mention the countless flora and fauna that still thrive in it.

I say there is a good possibility things we “cannot see” are part of the Darwinism parcel, too. So, a healthy respect for “them” goes without saying.

Hiking, mountain biking and trekking are gaining popularity as Malaysians become more health-conscious. So, getting to know some dos and don´ts is rather sensible.

If you are one of those who scoff at supernatural stories, take it from me: The jungle is not the place to prove me wrong. Let these tips steer you out of trouble.

On the rocks

Those who climb mountains will know what I mean. Almost on every occasion, one never fails to find a strange boulder perched on a hillside trail.

These are normally big, sometimes three storeys high, granite rocks and are usually found in the middle of nowhere. How they manage to remain firmly grounded on steep slopes is a wonder.

If you cross path with these monuments, take a deep breath and softly say, “Tumpang lalu tok”, as you pass by them. Saying that means you are asking for “permission” from the unseen “caretaker” to walk through the path.

Never talk or laugh loudly with fellow trekkers around it. Most importantly, if you need to take a leak, do it somewhere far away.

Army personnel are always told to observe the taboos and never set camp around these rocks and big trees.

Basic instinct

When your jungle guide mentions, “Tak sedap hati”, don´t push it. It´s best to turn back and call it a day. It´s not a matter of how much you have paid him to do the job. Given a choice, I´m sure he would rather return your money and quit.

People who make a living in the jungle develop a keen sense for lurking danger. They can sense when something is not right.

To put it into perspective, you would know if something is amiss in your room.

It may be an open window, which you know you have shut before leaving for work. Or the blind corner in the neighbourhood that always causes accidents. You learn to look out for clues of oncoming vehicles while taking the tight spot.

Likewise, a jungle guide is sensitive to his surroundings.

His friends and those living nearby may have used the same trail and they have stories to share about risky spots. He can feel it in his skin if the air movement is unnatural, or when there is a sudden silence in the forest.

He also takes hints from peculiar animal behaviours.

The best guides are the ones who have extra sensory for the paranormal. So, don´t be stingy on guide fees. He is your best bet for a trouble-free jungle jaunt.

Sight and smell can tell

If you stumble on a place that´s too beautiful to be true, it´s time to say your prayers. It is a sure sign of supernatural presence.

A place where the air is hauntingly still and lacks bird chirpings is also a no-no.

Except for a handful of genera, for example, rafflesias and etlingeras, most plants don´t display colourful flowers in the shady jungle floor. A big blooming flower is a very bad omen. Never, ever pluck, touch or take a whiff at it.

Don´t go all oohs and ahhs thinking you have discovered a rare species. An attractive flower is usually a “bait” used by the supernatural.

When the air is sweetly scented or terribly foul, it´s also a cue to back off. Inhabitants of the jungle are fair. They leave scents all over the place to warn or invite. Tigers and bears smell musky while the binturongs emit a pandan-like scent.

Good or evil spirits are no different. Orang bunian is said to smell perfumery while jin and jembalang smell bad.

I once had the experience of being engulfed by a fragrance so strong it made me dizzy. Berawan natives who came along were unusually quiet but calm. The scent that lingered for hours along the trail suddenly vanished. We all knew then that the “uninvited guest” had left us.

Bed on the wrong side

Although choosing a good spot to set camp is no rocket science, one should also heed some traditional taboos.

Never put up tent in the middle of a trail. If you must, pitch your tent at least 6m from the trail.

You see, for those who believe in the supernatural, a trail is a highway of sorts where all inhabitants of the jungle use – seen and unseen ones. To obstruct it can cause “accidents”.

An Orang Asli friend once reasoned that wildlife have uncanny ways of paving a new trail that augurs well with local geological features. They will choose the easiest paths to move around.

When animals frequent the same route, the trail widens up. Eventually, humans will take notice of the unvegetated trail and start to use it, too.

Leeches learn to wait along the sides for feeding, and so do predators, and if you believe, spirits, too. So, a trail isn´t just a trail.

If one looks deeper, it´s an evolution of how things fall into place in the jungle.

An army commander once swore that one of his platoons woke up two maps away in the morning from where they set the overnight camp, all because they slept on a trail.

The Orang Asli also never build homes near waterfalls. At night, these places are said to be a favourite for penunggus (supernatural beings that guard a place).

I usually hide by the waterfall at night to spot nocturnal animals taking a drink. They say penunggus can come in the form of animals, too. I´d like to think what I saw were animals, and not anything else.

Don´t do it the hard way

The Malays have a word for spook. They call it “keras”.

If a place is regarded as keras, it means stay 100 paces away from it because strange events have happened in the past.

Rural communities share oral tradition and they always make sure their family members, relatives and visiting friends know.

A kampung and its vicinity usually have a few spots that are touted as keras. If you´re new in the village, get elders to point out these places.

Twilight hours are also considered keras and one should hurriedly get out of the jungle as soon as possible. It´s always best to start your trek early in the morning and end by 4pm or 5pm.

Beyond that, very few jungle guides are willing to push on.

Some species of trees are customarily regarded as keras. Folk tales are a riot with stories of langsuir (vampires) looking out for prey from kekabu tree. Many villagers I know would rather take the long way home at night than to pass a kekabu tree.

In Borneo, felling a tualang tree is a terrible thing to do. Its trunk is unusually pale and locals believe that it is home for spirits.

Although vast tracts of forest are cleared for timber to make way for plantations, yet no one dares to touch these trees.

So, it is common to see leftover tualangs jut out amid oil palm and rubber plantations in Sabah, Sarawak and many parts of Indonesia.

Do it anyway

So, there you have it, all the dos and don´ts to stay out of paranormal trouble. If you like to throw in some mantras, a talisman or two for spiritual protection, be my guest.

For deep treks, I still bring along a kayu raja staff given to me by a Tok Batin friend, just in case. To the Orang Asli, it is the single most powerful tool to ward off spooks.

Despite all that I have seen and experienced, it has not deterred me from enjoying the rainforest.

Like everything else in life, be it urban or wilderness, perils are everywhere. One just has to learn to adapt and heed advice.

So, go ahead and have fun, so long as you remember the No. 1 rule of staying alive: It´s okay to be a chicken.