OYADAO, Cambodia – A woman who emerged from the jungles of Cambodia a week ago, burbling, grunting, and walking like an animal, has revealed little about the last two decades allegedly spent in the wilderness, even to the family that claims her as their long-lost daughter.
Dubbed "jungle woman" by residents of this remote northeastern district, the woman is unable to speak intelligible words and spends her days sitting or lying on the floor, sleeping or staring glassy-eyed at the scores of visitors who come to gawk at her in the ramshackle house that has become her home.
A local policeman, Sal Lou, 45, has claimed the woman as his daughter, Rochom P'ngien, who went missing in 1988 at the age of eight while herding buffalo, but some of the villagers are not so sure.
She was discovered earlier this month by a villager who had gone into hiding hoping to catch the thief stealing food from his lunch box, local police said.
After the shock of seeing a naked girl sneak out of the jungle, he called in a few other villagers to help him catch her, they said.
Word of the capture quickly spread, and Sal Lou, as the village policeman, was summoned.
Sal Lou, 45, recalled his first impression of the woman.
"She was naked and walking bent-over like a monkey, exactly like a monkey. She was bare-bones skinny."
Her eyes were red "like a tiger's," he said, and he felt afraid.
But then he saw a scar on her right arm, exactly the same as one his daughter had received due to an accident with a knife before she disappeared.
"She looked terrible, but despite all of that, she is my child," he told The Associated Press.
Sal Lou isn't the only family member claiming Rochom P'ngien has returned.
Rochom Khamphi, 25, said he was convinced the jungle woman was his sister.
"I saw the scar right away and I knew that she is my sister," he said Friday. "Then tears just fell from my eyes. That's the proof. I remember it very clearly — I'm not making it up, because I was the one who caused the injury."
Despite being welcomed into Sal Lou's extended family — 12 people living in a tiny, wooden house — there is concern that her heart remains in the jungle.
While on Friday she appeared content, dressed in a long-sleeved, white turtleneck blouse and a blue, floral-print skirt, Sal Lou said the previous day she had stripped off all her clothes and appeared ready to return to the wild.
He said the family managed to restrain her and took her to a nearby Buddhist temple where a monk blessed her with holy water, in an attempt to expel any evil spirits that may have possessed her.
For members of the Pnong minority — who traditionally are animists who revere nature over organized religion — the move was unusual.
"We worship no religion, but we took the advice of some elderly Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) people to have the holy water blessing done to chase the evil souls from her body," Sal Lou said, his daughter by his side, as motionless as a stone.
Others in the village are not so welcoming.
"I swear to you ... that when she looked at me, I dared not look at her and I had to turn my face away," neighbor, Cheat Ki said.
"I was so scared, scared of evil spirits that might have come with her. At night before we went to sleep, after seeing her, I told my children to lock the door for fear that some evil might come and strangle us."
Cheat Ki said that some of the villagers were already questioning some of the details of the girl's discovery, saying she was found with hair already trimmed short.
"If she was in the jungle for 19 years, why was her hair short?" wondered the 39-year-old shopkeeper. "It should have been long unless someone cut her hair for her in the jungle."