Malaysian 'ghost tree' creates new haunt for tourists

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people have been flocking to a small and hitherto unremarkable village in northern Malaysia to see what is being called the "ghost-tree" - a tree on which what appears to be a grotesque human face has appeared.

It is a betel nut tree, a type of palm that is as common and everyday a sight in the tropics as an oak tree in rural Britain. But etched on one of the fronds of this particular tree is something that looks like a monstrous face, its teeth bared in a snarl and its eyes lost in shadow.

It may sound like the plot of a Scooby-Doo cartoon, but people in rural Malaysia are taking it very seriously. Village elders have warned the thousands coming to see the face just to look and not to make any comments, for fear of arousing the wrath of the ghost.

You could be forgiven for suspecting the locals have been indulging a little too much in chewing the betel nuts, the mildly intoxicating fruit of the tree, which are popular in many parts of Asia.

Sceptics have pointed out that the face appears to have changed dramatically since the first pictures of it emerged a few days ago, and become considerably larger, more distinct, and scarier and suggested that enterprising locals may have decided to give the thousands flocking to the site more to look at.

Villagers have, after all, been selling photographs of the apparition to visitors for 2 ringgits (30p) apiece. But the credulous insisted the changing shape of the face over the days was just further evidence of its ghostly nature.

Locals vied with each other in their claims to be the first to spot the face. The owner of the tree, 60-year-old Miah Majid, told MalaysiaÕs The Star newspaper she first spotted it last week. But Zainol Nayan, a 54-year-old villager who lives nearby, told the New Straits Time he saw it beginning to form a month ago but that it only became obvious last Friday.

"Since then, villagers have gathered around the tree to see for themselves and the news spread like wildfire, attracting outsiders," he said.

The tree stands some five metres tall and is ten years old. But this is not the first time it has sprouted an apparition, according to the owner, Ms Majid. She says the first strange formation to appear on it was in the shape of an eye.

The episode is a rare glimpse into the life of undeveloped rural Malaysia - a country better known in the West for the ultra-modern skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur and Formula One motor racing.

But far from the modernity of Kuala Lumpur, in the villages belief in ghosts and the supernatural is still widespread in Malaysia. The ghost-tree is mild by the standards of the Hantu Penanggal, a disembodied head that sucks the blood of newborn children, and the Hantu Kum Kum, a female ghost carrying a tombstone as if it were a baby and asking for milk.

Anyone who wants a glimpse of the ghost-tree had better hurry. According to Ms Majid: "The frond will probably last another two weeks. By then it should shed naturally." But, and this may interest collectors of the bizarre, he added: "So far, nobody has asked to keep the frond."