Of pirates and phantoms

TUMPAT, Malaysia - It reads like the perfect setting for a horror story - a murder in Bunohan, strange sightings in Pulau Tengkorak - all located close to Pengkalan Kubor.

While the etymology of these places remains murky, conversations with kampong folk will unearth both chilling and unique narrations of how such places came to be named.

Take for example Pulau Tengkorak (Skull Island) situated close to Pengkalan Kubor town.

Not to be confused with the home of King Kong, Pulau Tengkorak is not technically an island but a plot of land that juts out to sea on the north-eastern point of Kelantan.

While the place is easily reachable by boat, visitors can access Pulau Tengkorak via a small, quiet road. However, that journey is not encouraged.

"According to ancestral history, there used to be pirates in Pulau Tengkorak. During World War II, people were robbed and killed there. What was left were their skulls," said Ali, a fisherman in the area.

Although there were many whispers of hauntings in Pulau Tengkorak, there is no proof to the old-wives tales, said Ali, who nevertheless shared some of the stories he came across.

The 42-year-old explained that in order to go out to sea from the estuary, fishermen would pass by Pulau Tengkorak.

"After dawn prayers, as fishermen go out to sea, they reported seeing phantom shapes diving into the water," he said.

Even today, people are hesitant to go to the area for fear that 'strange things' may happen to them such catching mysterious illnesses.

"Back then there were orang jahat (bad people) there," said fisherman Nik Yusof Nik Hassan, who is in his seventies.

"During the Japanese era, the place was uninhabited and still a jungle so when people were killed, their bodies would be dumped there," he said.

"Previously, I was afraid to venture there alone or even if I had a friend with me. People would go to Pulau Tengkorak but then they wouldn't find their way back until morning," he said.

"Now things are better but I still wouldn't go there alone at night because I know the history of the place," said Nik Yusof.

Close by Pulau Tengkorak is Bunohan (murder), which also has its own unique history.

Even though the locals themselves seem to have conflicting accounts behind the area's unique name, travellers can be assured of an interesting tale whomever they ask.

"The stories we get are passed down from generation to generation. Because it is an old tale, we cannot be too sure about its authenticity. From what I know, the name Bunohan (murder) has its origins from World War II," said housewife Siti Nurizan, 39.

She explained that Bunohan may have gotten its eerie title from the mass murders that took place there.

"At the time, the Japanese army came to Malaya from Thailand, crossing this area. When they came, they would behead those who opposed them," said Siti Nurizan of the villages in Bunohan, some of which have been around for generations.

"There were bodies which were buried, but there were also those which were just tossed away. It could be that some bodies were buried in Pengkalan Kubor (which itself means cemetary fort), which is about four kilometres away" she said.

"The Japanese also threw some heads into the river. Back then, people were afraid to go near the place as there were ghost stories about it. But today, you will find homes there," she said.

Although there is talk of specters, concrete evidence of paranormal activity has yet to be found.

"I'm not sure if the stories are true because I've never come across a ghost!" Siti Nurizan said.

While a bloody name may account for a good story, there is another possible origin to Bunohan's curious moniker.

"No, there have never been any murders here," said shopkeeper Romli Daud, 60.

"Close to police station in Bunohan there is a river. Back in the day, someone created a bamboo fish trap called a 'bunohan'. The trap became popular and that's how the area came to be called. At least, that's the story I heard when I was a little boy growing up here," he explained.

Whatever its origin may be, Bunohan's unique name has given it quite a bit of attention - a Malaysian thriller, directed by Dain Iskandar Said and which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival is also named after the village.

Once known as Tumpat Barat, and then as Simpangan, the one thing that visitors many be sure of is that the many graves found close to the shore and along the Golok river have given Pengkalan Kubor its name.