S'porean on how he got lost for 6 days on Cambodian mountain

He thought it would be a simple day trek.

So Mr Sanjay Radakrishna, 26, decided to scale the highest peak in Cambodia on his own, taking only a 1.5 litre bottle of water, 20 pieces of biscuits - and a graduation gown.

He wanted to take a selfie of himself wearing the gown on the summit, which he managed to do after a five-hour trek up Phnom Aural. It stands 1,813m above sea level.

But the descent took a turn for the unexpected that caused the National Institute of Education undergraduate to end up lost for six days.

As Mr Sanjay was heading down in the afternoon, it started to rain and he decided to jog down the narrow trail. But he tripped and fell down a slope about 10m from the trail.

When he tried to get back to the trail, he realised that he had lost his bearings. And so began his adventure in the wild.

The Singaporean had arrived on June 26 in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where he met a friend.

He had been planning the trip since the beginning of the year with the aim of climbing the country's highest peak.

On June 28, he was pillioned on a motorcycle to Srae Kan 3, a village near the foot of the mountain.

But he aborted his plan to climb Phnom Aural the next day as it was raining.

At 7am on June 30, he set off up the mountain after notifying the people at his homestay, and his girlfriend via text message.

Clad in a red shirt, shorts and sports shoes, Mr Sanjay had a watch with compass and altitude functions, a mobile phone, torchlight, camera, mini-tripod, and spare camera batteries.

Taking up most of the space in his backpack was a graduation gown he had purchased in advance.

"I wanted to take photos in my graduation gown at the summit," he told The New Paper yesterday after he returned to Singapore the day before.

"It was a normal climb and I reached the summit after five hours," said Mr Sanjay, who said he has scaled 39 mountains in such countries as Malaysia, Nepal and Croatia, since he was 15.

By then, he had run down his phone battery from using its GPS function.

Then it started raining, so he decided to jog his way down the mountain trail.

SLIPPERY

He said: "The path was slippery, and around 1.30pm, I slipped off the trail and fell down a slope for 10 metres into the woods."

He could not find his way back to the trail.

"The trail was as good as gone. Everything, the trees, looked similar," said Mr Sanjay.

His shorts had also been torn in the fall so he decided to take them off.

"There was nobody to see me anyway," he said with a laugh.

After two hours of looking for the trail, he gave up and took a nap.

"I realised I wasn't going to return that day and needed to get into survival mode.

"It is not a difficult trek for someone with experience. But the place is not a popular trekking destination so it was quite isolated."

That night, he slept "under some rocks". It was about 18 degrees Celsius, so his graduation gown came in handy.

"I slept in a foetal position with my gown as a blanket," he said.

For the next two days, he waited at an open clearing, hoping for help - perhaps in the form of a helicopter - to come. He was out of luck.

So on Day 4, he decided to climb down the mountain by following a stream.

"I climbed through the rocks in the river and walked through terrain if the waterfall got too steep," he said.

He drank water from the stream but had no food as he had eaten his biscuits on the summit.

HUNGER PANGS

"I didn't want to risk eating a poisonous plant," said the vegetarian.

"When I got hunger pangs, I drank water. But as long as I kept active, I wouldn't think about it."

"I wasn't too scared of death. It's okay to die if I was meant to die. Everything happens for a reason," he said.

Battling against thick vegetation and insects, he suffered cuts, rashes and bites on his thighs, calves and arms.

"I trekked from 6am to noon until it started raining in the afternoon, and slept from 6pm to 6am because it was dark.

"I thought it would take 10 to 15 days to reach the bottom. I kept going because I didn't want my loved ones to cry.

"When my cousin passed away two months ago, I saw my parents crying so hard, and I can't imagine how they would cry if it were their own son," he said.

Mr Sanjay lives with his father, 64, mother, 60, and two older brothers, aged 29 and 36.

After trekking for six days, he finally reached flat ground last Sunday morning. He kept walking for an hour and saw a stationary motorcycle. He waited another hour for the owner to return.

The man gave him an unripe banana and took him back to Srae Kan 3 village.

There, he was given rice and vegetables to eat, as well as pants to put on.

The Cambodian police drove him to a town, Kampong Speu, where his brother, Mr Premnathan Radakrishna, 29, was waiting with members of the Singapore embassy in Cambodia.

They flew home on Monday afternoon, and Mr Sanjay visited Khoo Teck Puat Hospital for a check-up.

Mr Sanjay admitted: "I didn't have a worst-case scenario planned and thought it would be a simple trek.

"I didn't do special preparations because I always stay fit and healthy, running daily and trekking up Bukit Timah weekly."

Mr Sanjay, who is on a gap year at NIE, said: "This has made me stronger and believe more in myself and my willpower."

On whether he would still climb mountains, Mr Sanjay said: "You don't give up just because you failed once."

Family, friends worried after he missed flight

Mr Sanjay had left some belongings in the Phnom Penh house of his Cambodian friend, Mr Kelvin Hieng, who studies in Singapore. So when he did not return and missed his flight last Wednesday, his friends got worried.

Mr Hieng informed the Singapore Embassy in Cambodia and his other friends, who notified his brother, Mr Premnathan, 29, on Thursday morning.

"My family was very worried when we found out, but we were also unsure if he was really missing or still climbing after starting last Tuesday because of the rain," said Mr Premnathan, a director at an F&B vending machine company.

But Cambodian police confirmed that Mr Sanjay had started off the day before, June 30.

Mr Premnathan said: "My parents were very worried, especially since Sanjay is the youngest son."

Mr Premnathan flew to Phnom Penh on Saturday to search for his brother.

"The people at the embassy were really helpful, and even got 10 local villagers to search the mountain near the trail on Sunday morning," he said.

But by that afternoon, Mr Sanjay had reached flat ground some distance away from the trail, and met his older brother later that day.

On whether he would allow his brother to climb mountains again, Mr Premnathan said: "I scolded him when we came back, and let him know that although he is confident, he has to behave responsibly, prepare better and inform us of the details beforehand.

"But this is his passion, and I would not stop him."

Phnom Aural factfile

- Located on the eastern side of the Cardamom Mountains, 95km north-west of the capital Phnom Penh.

- At 1,813 metres, it is the highest peak in Cambodia.

- The Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1993 to protect the biodiversity of the mountains.

Other Singaporeans who got lost in mountains

MAY 2011

Two women were lost in the Malaysian jungle for more than 48 hours.

The women, both 26, had ventured - unguided - into the Taman Negara National Park. When they did not return a day later, the hostel reported them missing.

They were found 7km from where they started their trek.

JUNE 2005

A nine-year-old Singaporean boy and his three Malaysian cousins, aged 10, 14 and 16, were lost around Fraser's Hill in Pahang, Malaysia.

They did not return after six hours from the 1.5km long Bishop's Trail, sparking a huge search and rescue.

They were found 7km away, three days later by aboriginal villagers.

JULY 1997

Five Singaporeans were lost for two days on a hiking trip to Mount Ophir.

They got lost after taking the wrong path halfway up the moutain.

The group went without sleep and water for nearly 24 hours before following a stream downhill and emerging from the jungle to a dirt track where a lorry picked them up.

Keeping safe on a trek

Mr Noor Hisham, assistant director for training and operations at Outward Bound Singapore, has some tips:

BE PREPARED

Plan a detailed route of the hike or climb.

"The planning stage is vital. Planning the route allows you to better pinpoint your location along the way and lets you know roughly how long the climb will take to complete," he said.

INFORM OTHERS

Always inform the relevant authorities or hotel staff about your destination and when you expect to return.

This makes it easier for them to know if you have gotten lost, and can inform the authorities.

Mr Hisham said: "The authorities will also be able to provide valuable information on the potential dangers or important landmarks to look out for on the trail."

HAVE PROPER EQUIPMENT

"A compass and map are staples in any climb. GPS (Global Positioning System) is also recommended."

Communication is crucial, so take along a satellite phone or mobile phone with spare batteries.

"Modern phones are likely to be drained in half a day with constant GPS usage, so spare batteries are very important."

Other essentials include a torch, first-aid equipment, water purification tablets and a shelter.

TAKE EXTRA SUPPLIES

On top of the usual food and water, Mr Hisham advises hikers to pack emergency rations such as muesli bars, trail mix, chocolate and energy drinks as a precaution.

IF YOU GET LOST

Do not panic and try to stay at the same location.

"Staying put makes it easier for a search team to find you. If you keep moving, it is going to become like a cat-and-mouse game," he said. - Colin Tham


This article was first published on July 9, 2014.
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