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Of dragons and demons – Pulau Tioman #2



As I wrote in an earlier post, Malaysia’s Pulau Tioman is a magical place. In more ways than one.

An emerald paradise rising from the turquoise waters of the South China Sea, Tioman Island is consistently rated as one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the world.

colugomouse deer

Crystal waterfalls tumble down jungle-choked crags onto golden beaches. Ghostly figures flit through the forest canopy. Diminutive deer peer from the undergrowth. Needle-toothed hunters patrol offshore reefs.Fish walk, snakes fly and giant reptiles fight epic battles across a primeval landscape, sometimes slithering into resort buildings to prey upon unattended children.

Although the Tiomanese are mostly devout Muslims many have also retained older beliefs and practices more in keeping with the extraordinary nature of their home. A relatively recent tribe called Geologists (their name means “Those Who Know the Earth”, though their worship of Big Oil belies it) relate an unlikely story of how Tioman Island was originally part of Borneo until powerful plutonic forces drove it hundreds of kilometres to its current location. The dragon princess of Pulau TiomanBut those who live there know it’s really a Chinese dragon princess who was returning from a visit to her lover in Singapore when she was caught by the rays of the rising sun. Apparently she wasn’t licenced for daytime flight and was compelled to land in the ocean, whereupon she assumed the form of a mist-shrouded mountain. To this day otherworldly feminine beings inhabit the island and surrounding waters. Some of them aren’t nice.

Wreckage littering the reefs around Tioman attests to the fact that a fisherman’s life isn’t always an easy one. Hazards include waterspouts that can appear out of nowhere and destroy their small boats within minutes. Fortunately the fishermen of Pulau Tioman know how to avoid being sent to a whirling watery grave.

Apparently the spirit of the waterspout is that of a shy young woman, so when she approaches they strip off and dance naked around the deck. To retain her modesty the embarrassed neried must avert her eyes and move quickly away from her harassers. It works without fail. Or so I’m assured by those who lived to tell the tale.

But not all Tioman’s supernatural creatures are so easy to deter.

During my time on the island my Malay friends would tell me I was very brave to venture alone out to the reefs or into the jungle at night. Well, their lips said “brave”. Their eyes said “stupid”.

Not long after my arrival I decided to make the short, scenic trek across the spine of the dragon from the main settlement, Kampung Tekek, to the smaller west coast village of Juara. I hoped to see some of the green sea turtles that nest there.

The path begins behind Tekek mosque, rising gently as it winds through fruit and rubber plantations before ascending steeply into the old growth jungle flanking the ancient volcano that dominates the island. In the 1980s Juara received relatively few foreign visitors and accommodation options were limited. Not to worry. I forked over the outrageous sum of ten ringgit for a decrepit hut where I left my gear and set off torch in hand to spend the night searching for turtles on nearby beaches. Without luck. Maybe because the nesting season had ended more than a month earlier.

I’d intended to sleep late the next day but the morning heat drove me from my bed. So after a leisurely brunch I set off blearily up the Tekek track a couple of hours earlier than planned. Fortunately.

Although the path is well marked and I’d navigated it without problems the previous day I soon found myself in unfamiliar territory following increasingly overgrown trails. I finally came upon a clifftop that offered a good view of the coastline hundreds of metres below and realised I’d wandered south into steeper and wilder terrain. The pass I was looking for must be to the northeast, so whenever I came to a fork I took the path heading northeasterly and upwards. But despite the conviction I was steadily climbing I kept seeing the same rocks and trees. I was going in circles, it was getting late and a nearby bird or animal had an unsettling call that sounded like a baby crying. So I decided to change my strategy.

I took what seemed to be a little used trail that headed downwards instead of up. After a few hundred metres I realised it wasn’t a trail at all but a dry watercourse that was becoming steeper and more choked with vegetation the further I went. But I pushed on. I didn’t have any other ideas and the crying sounds had unnerved me.

Suddenly I stepped onto thin air and was plummeting through branches and creepers. A vine whipped around my throat and I momentarily thought I’d be found hanging there until it slipped over my chin, taking a layer of skin with it. Branches scraped and stabbed at me as I slid down the damp precipice, clawing at my day-pack, ripping my t-shirt and tearing at my limbs and torso. But they broke a fall that might otherwise have broken my legs. I was left bruised, bleeding and stunned beside a stagnant pond. After gathering my few remaining wits I saw I’d landed at the base of a steep rock I recognised from the day before. I was back on the Tekek-Juara path.

It was after 10pm when I staggered into Kampung Tekek by fading torchlight. I stripped off my ruined clothes and bathed my wounds in tepid, stinging sea water, applying iodine to the worst of them. Then I collapsed into bed without eating. I had seen no-one since leaving Juara.

At breakfast I dealt flippantly with questions from concerned bungalow staff. “I got into a fight with a forest. You think I look bad? You should see the plants.”

I was soon at Mango Grove relating my latest misadventure to my friend Din-Don. As the tale progressed his demeanor changed from amusement to dread. When I’d finished he was very quiet for several minutes. Then he told me about the pontianak.

During World War II the Japanese commander of the Tioman garrison was of the opinion that local people were stealing supplies. In particular he blamed them for the regular disappearance of IJA cattle that were meant to provide beef for the troops. He brought in several men for questioning but apparently their answers failed to satisfy. So they were taken to a nearby clearing and summarily executed.

“Right there”, Din-Don said, indicating a small stand of coconut trees not a hundred metres from where we sat.

pontianakOne of the men was a widower, his beautiful wife having died during childbirth. Maybe she returned to seek revenge. Maybe the killings attracted something else. Maybe it was all just coincidence. But soon men out alone at night – both Japanese and Malays – began disappearing, lured into the jungle by the apparition of a beautiful woman. Sometimes their eyeless, eviscerated bodies were discovered dumped on the outskirts of Tekek or Ayer Batang. More often they were never seen again.

“But Din-Don, if no-one saw them alive again how do you know they followed a beautiful woman?”

He shot me a wry look. “Why else would they go alone into the jungle at night? They were not fools.”

Point taken.

When the war ended a call went out for an experienced raaqi who could perform ruqya necessary to drive the evil spirit from the island. But the pontianak was powerful, well-fed and quite happy where she was. Quranic recitations forced her away from Tekek but she found a new residence in a jungle cave a few kilometres from Juara. Apparently her powers include the ability to make paths fold back onto themselves so that her hapless victims wander in circles until nightfall. Then she has them. Local people know to avoid the area late in the day, especially when they’re alone.

Thirty years have passed since I was lost near Juara. The tourist industry has grown and many westerners now visit the village and surrounding jungle. Not all of them return.

In 2011 a French woman disappeared after having dinner in a Juara restaurant. Three months later her dessicated corpse was discovered in a cave a few kilometres away. Although forensic testing was inconclusive a local man was sentenced to death after confessing to her rape and murder. Malaysian police are good at extracting confessions.

In 2014 a British backpacker working at the Juara Turtle Project vanished while hiking to a nearby waterfall. An extensive search failed to find him yet his unrecognisable remains clad in bright red clothing were discovered eight days later next to a stagnant pond at the base of a steep rock a few metres from the Tekek-Juara trail. DNA testing confirmed his identity but no cause of death was ever determined. Nor is it clear how his body got there.

I’m sure there’s reasonable, rational explanations for everything I’ve just told you. I’m sure there’s unreasonable, irrational ones too. Who knows which are true? Maybe none of them. Maybe all of them. All I know is that Pulau Tioman is a magical place. And that ‘magical’ – like ‘natural’ – doesn’t always mean ‘good’.

From → autobiography

  1. Pretty scary experience, tumbling down and down through these jungle plants having this fierce quality. The demons, I wonder how they compare with the Thai pee and whether anyone has done any interesting research on the subject – a commonality of demons in neighbouring countries…


    • What I noticed in Malaysia was an almost seamless continuum of myths and horror stories incorporating elements from a multitude of cultures that have influenced the region. Naturally some of those influences are transnational – such as the Chinese dragon story – and would doubtless have near equivalents throughout East Asia. (Maybe it’s also worth noting that Western death metal with it’s schlock horror imagery is big in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Muslim areas of Thailand).

      I’m not really sure of the origin of pontianaks. They’re often called the Malay vampires but I don’t think there’s too many similarities between them and Dracula or the moroi or strigoi. They seem to manifest fairly homogeneously across areas settled by Malays and I’m not aware of near equivalents in Thai mythology or in the wider Islamic legends of djinn, ghul and qarin. The Phi Tai Hong seem more similar to the vengeful ghosts of Europe than to the pontianak. So it’s probably reasonable to suppose they’re an indigenous Malay demon as old as the original Malay or Proto-Malay migration into SE-Asia, even though the oldest extant stories of them are clearly contemporaneous with Islam (e.g. the tale of the founding of the Pontianak Sultanate).

      There’s one variety of demons that exist right across SE-Asia but seem to be almost absent in other parts of the world. They vary in detail from place to place but what they all have in common is that though they appear to be normal humans during the day they separate their bodies at night, with part of it flying around to hunt human beings. Sometimes it’s just the head that separates, sometimes it’s the whole body from the waist up and, perhaps most disconcertingly, sometimes it’s a flying head with dangling entrails. The key to killing them is usually to find the inert part of the body they have left behind and either destroy it or turn it into some kind of trap for the returning demon. An example would be to fill the empty abdomen of an entrails dangling demon with thorny plants or broken glass so it shreds itself trying to put itself back together.


  2. So what do you do if you’re judging Asia’s Got Talent, expecting a performance by a 25 year old Indonesian stage magician, and a pontianak walks into the studio?


  3. The story of the Pontianak Sultanate is pretty interesting too.

    At about the same time James Cook was claiming Australia for the British Crown by not noticing the people living there were people, the more interestingly monikered al-Sayyid Syarif Abdurrahman al-Kadrie and a group of well-armed friends realised there was nobody human living on the best strategic and agricultural land in Borneo. That’s because the place was crawling with pontianaks, which Abdu and his mates duly dispatched with appropriate tactical brilliance and derring-do. They would name their newly claimed kingdom The Pontianak Sultanate.

    At least that’s what the archives of the Pontianak Sultanate say. It isn’t recorded whether those who were so valiantly slaughtered felt the land was empty or that they were demons. Or is it possible the pontianaks defeated the princeling, appropriating his royal bloodline to legitimise their demonic domain?

    In any case, the Kingdom prospered – thanks in part to close relations with blood-suckers like the Dutch East India Company – until it was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. At about the same time IJA soldiers were executing the leaders of Pulau Tioman they were also massacring the Pontianak royal family; along with pretty much the entire Borneo political and business elite; in what would become known as the Pontianak Incidents.

    After the war a surviving relative would claim to be the legitimate heir to the Pontianak crown but the Indonesian independence movement disagreed, ultimately winning the argument and ending the sultanate in 1950. It’s primarily remembered in the name of the old capital, Pontianak, now a city of 600,000 and capital of Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province.

    But will the Pontianak Sultanate rise from the dead someday?
    I’m told if you pull the nail out of its neck …


  4. Philip Squire permalink

    Is Mango Grove still there? It’s MANY years since I was there and if I remember correctly the main building was an old colonial post office building. Even with street view on google maps offering surprisingly good coverage I cant place it.


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