Forests have always had a hold and held an allure over humankind since the very beginning. The woods have played an important role in countless myths, legends, and tales across pretty much every corner of the earth, harboring mysteries and secrets that have always held us in thrall. These are places of myth, magic, and monsters, and one place where there have long been tales of mysterious forest spirits are the lands of Malaysia, Borneo, and Indonesia, where there has long been said to exist a race of inter-dimensional, ghostly entities that may or may not be strictly confined to myth.
Deep within the jungles of the Malay Peninsula and in Borneo and Indonesia has long been said to dwell a clan of supernatural beings variously called “The Hidden People,” “The People of Light,” and “The Whistle People,” with the native Malays calling them the Orang Bunian, which comes from the word bunyi, meaning “sound.” The name springs from their most notable feature, being that they are often heard but not seen, their presence known from an eerie whistling noise, or sometimes mysterious shouting or singing that echoes through the forest. They are found throughout the tales of the Malaysians, as well as in Bruneian and Indonesian folklore, and if they are seen at all are usually described as ghostly pale, slender, and often incredibly beautiful humanoids, their faces without a philtrum line, having pointed ears, and they are dressed in traditional garb, a sort of eastern counterpart to the legends of elves.
The Orang Bunian are often attributed with myriad supernatural powers, such as teleportation, flight, mind reading, and others, and it is said that they are typically invisible to all but those who have some sort of spiritual sight or sense. They supposedly live within the trees of the most uncharted jungles and high mountains, sleeping upon suspended platforms fashioned of wood and accessed through ropes and ladders. Their society has a very specific royal social order, with the kings and queens, princes and princesses at the top, all the way down to the peasants, and they are said to live between our dimension and another, a very ethereal presence between two worlds.
They are mostly seen as indifferent to the affairs of humans, but can be quite hostile if their remote territory is intruded upon, necessitating special rituals and offerings to appease them if anyone expects to make it through without vanishing. Indeed, when someone gets lost or goes missing in the wilderness it is often said that this was the doing of vengeful Orang Bunian, their spectral whistling likely the last thing these people ever heard. Conversely, they are also known to help people who are lost, or to even fall in love with and marry humans, even having babies that are supposedly born invisible. They will also sometimes allow access to great hidden treasures if they are appeased and pleased by those who ask, although anyone who tries to steal these treasures is traditionally in for a lot of pain.
This may all sound like pure folklore and legend, but to the native peoples of these regions these creatures are very real and there are many reports of sightings and encounters with the mysterious entities. One witness on the site Hungzai tells of an encounter his grandfather had with the Orang Bunian back in the 1970s. The grandfather allegedly had just bought a plantation just south of Lake Toba, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and his strange experiences started not long after he settles in. It began with mysterious drumming noises from the surrounding countryside, which would herald his introduction to the world of the Orang Bunian, and the commenter says:
He noted that there was some sort of celebration or prayer meeting every Wednesday evening straight opposite his home. Although he saw no one, he concluded that this must be the case, as precisely at half past six, he heard the sound of metal drums. This sound went on for about half an hour or one hour, and then stopped as suddenly as it began. When he asked his house help as to what was going on there, she just shrugged her shoulders and did not reply. He thought it was impolite or improper to ask about such matters, and did not bother to question her about it anymore.
As he got to know the plantation better, his curiosity about this drumming became deeper. He knew that there were no houses or buildings in the valley in front of his home. On the hill beyond the valley too there were no homes or other buildings. Yet every Wednesday, the drumming appeared to be coming from somewhere very close- almost as if from the valley! Finally, as tactfully as possible, he asked some of his assistants as to what the sound was and from where it was coming. They just smiled at him and said, ‘ Itu orang Bunian ‘ ( It’s the Bunian people ). He did not wish to look silly by asking them what the Bunian people were, and so he just said, ‘ Oh ‘ and nodded in agreement.
There was an assistant (Jamal) there who was particularly close to him. My grandfather asked him in confidence as to what these Bunian people were. Jamal replied that they were invisible people, somewhat similar to the gnomes and fairies of Western folklore. They liked living near humans and sometimes got friendly with some of them. There were stories about how some human males married Bunian females and went on to be accepted in the Bunian community. They however became invisible to other humans as soon as they entered the Bunian community. Humans could ask for help from the Bunians. If a person was having a feast and did not have enough cutleries for the occasion, plates could be borrowed from the Bunian people. Great care however must be taken that not a single plate is broken.
He asked Jamal as to how he could prove that the drumming was made by the Orang Bunian. He replied that on one Wednesday, two other assistants determined to find out once and for all from where the sound issued. Armed with torchlights and long knives, they proceeded to look for the source of the sound as soon as it started. They descend all the way into the valley and traveled up quite a distance on the hill on the other side, and still the sound appeared to be coming from just a short distance in front of them. As it had already gotten dark by then, they abandoned their quest and hurried back home. We can find out more for ‘ orang bunian ‘ and read something more about these folks. I’m convinced that they exist, as I’ve heard their stories everywhere and how my late grandfather told the story of his to me.
In another account from Nature Lover, the witness says his experience happened when he was just a baby, when one day he supposedly disappeared from his room, his clothes neatly folded on the edge of the bed. His parents then looked everywhere for him but could not find him anywhere, leading them to notify the authorities. He says of his experiences and the Orang Bunian in general:
My mother was crying. She had lost her first son. Then, at dusk, when my mom was taking her prayer’s ablution, a humanlike figure approached her. She braved herself and listened to what the figure was saying. “Take back your baby. He is not suitable…there is a birthmark on his left thigh…” The figure disappeared before she could ask where the baby was. She ran into the bedroom and there I was, sleeping peacefully on the bed, as if nothing great had happened!
According to my mother, the same thing happened to the brother of my grandfather very long time ago. He also disappeared into thin air, abducted by orang bunian. His family maintained close relationship with him when he was in the orang bunian world. They got his help whenever anyone fell sick. They borrowed plates and other cooking paraphernalia whenever a party was held. Whenever you borrow something from these orang bunian, the rule is return everything to them, be it broken pieces. Once things are not returned, the service stopped.
He was never again found and we lost contact with him after many many years of his disappearance. Many think that orang bunians are djinns. Djinns’ population is much more than ours. Some are good and some can be nasty, just like us humans. In the eighties, there are stories of people seeing beautiful bunian girls strolling in Chukai town at nights. At first nobody disturbed them and so they continue walking the town. Then came a group of rowdy teenagers. they whistled and disturbed the girls and since then they never appeared again. Once as Syafiq and I were on our home from Penang I saw a lady in white long dress by a bridge somewhere in Temerloh. What was she doing in the dead of the night alone? I quietly told Syafiq about her. He was all of a sudden very quiet. Scared perhaps. I continued driving without anything bad happening to us.
There are quite a few mysterious disappearances attributed to the doings of the Orang Bunian as well, with these entities using their mystical powers to confuse, befuddle, or even kidnap the unwary. One such case is that of 15-year-old Mohd Khairi Abdul Ghani, who went missing while out hiking at a place called Gunung Tebu, in Terengganu, Malaysia. For five days search and rescue parties scoured the area with aircraft and sniffer dogs without success, until finally one day he just showed up out of nowhere, wearing nothing but a towel and gazing out over a river in a daze. He would go on to explain that he had seen searchers looking for him, but no matter how much he had called out no one could hear or see him, that he “couldn’t do anything.” It was widely believed by locals that the Orang Bunian had kidnapped him.
In 1979 there was the case of a missing farmer named Azmi Ahmad, then 28, in Sungai Petani, Malaysia. He apparently woke one evening to tell his wife he was going to go out and bathe in the river, after which he went to step off the face of the earth. When he did not return for some time his wife and neighbors went to look for him and found his clothes neatly folded by the riverside, but no sign of the farmer. Some local shamans, called bomoh, were brought in to assist with the efforts, and they chanted and gave prayers to no effect. Azmi would come wandering back the next day in a daze, telling a story of having been brought to a magical hill by the Orang Bunian. In fact, he became obsessed with finding this place again, and his family had to actively implore him not to go out looking for them again.
These entities will purportedly use music and singing to lure the unsuspecting away down paths from which they will never return, welcoming these poor souls into another dimension in which they will become invisible and fade from reality as we know it. There have been some accounts of people experiencing this for themselves, only to manage to break free from the spell and live to tell the tale. One veteran hiker by the name of Seelan Govindan was in Selangor, Malaysia, with a new hiker when he heard this alluring music wafting through the trees, and says of his experience with this:
It was such an awesome and smooth tune and I was sure it was not a bird or any animal. Yet the newbie had no reaction and could hear nothing. But the music was very attractive, and it seemed to come closer. 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.
In anther instance, hiker and journalist A.R. Amiruddin was out climbing the 2,181m-high Gunung Yong Belar in Cameron Highlands, Pahang, when he fell under the spell of these mysterious spirits. He says:
Descending alone, I found myself going around in a circle. It was clear and clean within the circle which was surrounded by flowering plants. I could not see any other path to get out. My mind was blank. I lost track of time and I was trapped. There was pin-drop silence and the atmosphere was tranquil. Just then, two of our team members descended. We were on a five-day trip – three up and two days down.
They asked me what I was doing. I had the audacity to tell them to follow me. They knew something was wrong: my face was pale, my voice forceful and my body language was out of the norm. They dragged me by the hands from the circle. None of us spoke during the 90-minute descent from my newfound paradise. On reaching our base, they related what transpired. God bless, I had escaped from the clutches of these spirits. During this particular outing, a woman climber saw a beautiful lake when none of us did. Another woman hiker felt as if someone was following her. She heard footsteps but when she turned round, there was no one. Strange but true. I believe in these happenings because I went through this mysterious passage.
This is very interesting, as it mirrors some aspects of other disappearances in other areas of the world that follow the same pattern, and suggest some spiritual energy pulling people in. Is there a connection? Who is to say? As much as the tales of the Orang Bunian might seem to be myth and folklore, it is clear to see that the people of these regions truly believe it, and sightings and encounters continue on. What are these things? Are they ghosts, spirits, a lost civilization, magical beings, inter-dimensional travelers, or mere fairy tales? Whatever you may think, the stories of the Orang Bunian continue on, and perhaps always will.