Saturday, 26th September 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Curious Encounters of the Human Kind – Borneo

Posted on 07. Oct, 2015 by in Books, Curious Encounters of the Human Kind

Curious Encounters of the Human Kind – Borneo

Curious Encounters of the Human Kind – Borneo
True Asian Tales of Folly, Greed, Ambition and Dreams

Buy the book:
Amazon US
Amazon UK

Explorer’s Eye Press. Geneva. 2016

ISBN: 978-2-940573-11-0       Kindle
ISBN: 978-2-940573-09-7      Print on demand
ISBN: 978-2-940573-10-3      Ingram



This is the fourth book in a five-book series of unusual (and true) personal travel tales.

How has a town named after a female vampire ghost spawned an entire genre of kitschy horror films?  Why did a quiet Swiss man choose to live rough in the rainforest with the semi-nomadic Penans — and what inner spirit drove him to fight a David vs Goliath rebellion against timber tycoons and corrupt officials who were destroying the Penans’s home?  Has White-Brown colonialism been replaced by Brown-Brown arrogance? What’s the story of the grandmother who spits at meddling ghosts (but only because they spit first)?  Why did the first White Rajah of Borneo amass a vast harem of concubines?  What happened when I tried to ride the tidal bore that almost killed Somerset Maugham?  In what way was an illiterate Borneo teenager instrumental in helping Alfred Russel Wallace develop the theory of natural selection?  How close are we to orangutans — “our poor cousins who look like they haven’t done so well in life” — and why do some rehabilitant orangutans go bi-polar?

This is Borneo as you’ve probably never imagined, full of curious people, startling happenings and unexpected moments of humanity and introspection, giddiness and solemnity, avarice and ambition.


Editorial reviews 

“In the great tradition of Asian reporting.  The humanity of Somerset Maugham, the adventure of Joseph Conrad, the perception of Paul Theroux, and a self-effacing voice uniquely his own.” Gary Braver, bestselling author of Tunnel Vision

“The spirit of Kipling in contemporary Asian journalism.  This collection is essential reading for anyone who wishes to pass beyond even the unbeaten track, right to the heart of Asia.” John Burdett, author of Bangkok Eight, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts

“A fun, and funny, introduction to some of the most interesting people, places and sights of South and Southeast Asia.  A must-read for all serious travellers.” Jonah Blank, author of Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana through India and Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras

“If anyone can pull off something as innovative as Curious Encounters, it’s Paul Sochaczewski. Expect pellucid writing, insightful irreverence and universal truths elegantly presented, in a genre that defies categorization.” John Keay, author of When Men and Mountains Meet, India: A History, China: A History, and Mad about the Mekong

“Most of Paul Sochaczewski’s curious encounters start out as intelligent travel writing, exploring hidden corners of Asia and characters very much out of the ordinary.  But this series works on a more complex level, he frequently zooms in out of left field with a curious tangent, a sensitive reminiscence, a provocative opinion, a new way of looking at events that already are beyond most “normal” travelers’ tales.  I read each story feeling refreshed, enlightened, and curious to see what the next stage of Sochaczewski’s journey will bring.” Judith M. Heimann, author of The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and his remarkable life and The Airmen and the Headhunters: a true story of lost soldiers, heroic tribesmen and the unlikeliest rescue of World War II

“Constructed on a base of strange but true personal travel adventures, Curious Encounters adds elements of history, an edgy sense of humour, mysticism, political-incorrectness, current affairs and memorable characters you’ll wish you had the pleasure to meet on your travels.  Consider each book in this series like a good curry — the result is more than the sum of its parts; each tale has its own zing.  Travel with these books to the little-visited corners of Asia, and savour them.” Jason Brooke, director of The Brooke Trust

“Paul Sochaczewski skips about Asia like a Monkey God hopping from mountain to mountain, bringing back life-prolonging peaches while annoying the gatekeepers. Whatever you do, follow him on this journey!” Lee Chor Lin, director of National Museum of Singapore, former curator of Asian Civilizations Museum-Singapore, author Batik: Creating an Identity

“In this series Sochaczewski explores the hidden corners, the forgotten people, and their surprising tales.  All the personal traveler’s tales in these volumes are captivating, all filled with humor, drama and insight, with an edgy take-no-prisoners voice; you won’t find anything else like this on the bookshelf.” Jeff McNeely, chief scientist, International Union for Conservation of Nature

“Sochaczewski is a world-class searcher, reporter, and observer who has criss-crossed Asia for forty years, pausing in the most unlikely places and finding extraordinary people.  The essays in this insightful and witty chronicle present a rich tapestry of eccentric nobles, self-serving naturalists, scoundrels who will make your teeth ache, celebrity monks and memorable folks whose stories are too good to be true.  But they are.” Christopher G. Moore, author of the Vincent Calvino novels, and Heart Talk

“The Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series is a delicious stew of improbable characters and intriguing stories, served up in thoroughly pithy style, and with a hearty dash of irreverent humour.” Tim Hannigan, author of Raffles and the British Invasion of Java and Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis: the Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation

“The Curious Encounters series is proof positive that a writer/traveler can immerse himself in Asian cultures and yet remain objective enough to write extremely entertaining and often irreverent articles and colorful stories about what he has experienced.  From Indonesian mystics to Burmese white elephant hunters, the descriptions are spot-on.  There is something in these articles and stories that reminds me of the writing of Paul Theroux — not as cynical, perhaps, but the author is just as able to look at events with a clear, unsentimental and yet sympathetic eye.  You won’t regret a moment spent reading these tales which perfectly capture the allure and spice of the places visited.” Dean Barrett, author of Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior

“What a discovery!  Paul Sochaczewski is that rarest of writers, who knows that the real “Asian miracle” isn’t malls or computer geeks. In his years traveling the continent he has discovered an eternal assemblage of arcane explorers, putative emperors, frivolous mystics, sacrosanct elephants and, yes, miracle workers. When Sochaczewski finds them, in Javanese palaces or sacred forests protected by spirits, they are caviar (or sweetened bird’s nest) for his fascinating portraits. A book for everyone who knows that the Mysterious East is alive and well, and more how-about-that-wonderful than you perhaps imagined.” Harry Rolnick, author of The Chinese Gourmet, The Complete Book of Coffee, and Spice Chronicles: Exotic Tales of a Hungry Traveler

“I never tire of living vicariously through Paul Sochaczewski and his writing adventures. He keeps finding these wonderful details that miraculously open up entire worlds to be explored.  Paul is the last of the Great Hunters, only instead of trophies, it is stories he brings home for our admiration, wonder and delight.” Mark Olshaker, Emmy-winning filmmaker, author of Einstein’s Brain, The Edge, and Mindhunter



We share 96.4% of our DNA with orangutans — is that enough to call them family?

The rite of passage and the teenage imperative.

Who will determine the future of Sarawak’s isolated Penans?

Riding the “Yellow Streak” where Maugham almost died.

Searching for the first white rajah of Borneo and other sultans, kings and wannabe royals.

It’s been a good ride, but Iban healer doesn’t expect many others to follow his path.

Ethnic massacre is one more bloody battle in history of eco-conflicts.

Does TV success depend on brawn or brain?

Borneo lad takes part in momentous discovery; then totally ignored.

Encounters with female vampire ghosts in a city built on a ghost story.


Sample Chapter (Excerpt)

Encounters with female vampire ghosts in a city built on a ghost story.

Dewi, channeling Farida: “Meester, I’m coming for you.”

Dewi, channeling Farida: “Meester, I’m coming for you.”

PONTIANAK, West Kalimantan, Indonesia

The shaman asks me a third time.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

I feel like I was back in high school again and my soccer coach, Charlie Koch, was looking down the bench to see who he could put into the game.  Put me in coach. I can do it. I’m ready.

The shaman was responding to a request I had made hours earlier.  I was the first European to pose this particular challenge to the middle-aged man and he was checking my desire and commitment, and, I suppose, my strength to handle what might take place if he was successful.

Send me in coach.

 For the third time he offers me an easy out.  He points to a 30-something woman named Dewi, who was seated nearby, watching quietly.

 “She’s a medium.  She can channel the spirit and you can watch. It’ll be easier for you.”

 But I had come this far and can be stubborn when faced with a challenge.

 Put me in coach.  I’m sure. I want to meet a pontianak.

 * * *

            In the Inter-World, in the twilight mist of grey rainbows, hovering between dusk and dawn, joy and sorrow, life and death, dwell the ghosts.  Wisps of smoke, certainly, but all too real for those who believe.

And the best place in the world to look for ghosts is the western tip of Borneo.

Not just any kind of ghost, but a very specific type of spirit which gives this city its name: Pontianak. The only city in the world named after a female vampire spirit who is eternally angry at men.

 * * *

I am in Pontianak.  I have visited various shamans over the previous few days and have heard a bunch of pontianak stories.  Now I want to “see” one for myself.

 A friend found a shaman who was willing to hold a séance and, through a medium, introduce me to a “real” pontianak.  The only hitch was that the shaman-for-hire had to pay the medium, buy offerings, cover his costs.  “How much?” I asked.  “About $650,” my friend said.

 Time for Plan B.

 * * *

            According to legends, and there are many, a pontianak is a misandrist for good reason:  She is the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, alone, abandoned by the child’s father.

The word pontianak may be a corruption of the Malay perempuan mati beranak or “young woman who died in childbirth.”

She preys on men, indiscriminately.  She is pale, dressed in white and horribly ugly, except when she’s beautiful.  You can only make a hideous ghost beautiful by hammering a nail into the hole on the nape of her neck; the spirit will then become an attractive and dutiful wife.


(To learn how my search for a female vampire ghost turns out, and to read some asides where I’ll try to catalogue Indonesian and Malaysian ghosts, explain why the city of Pontianak is named after a ghost, explore our universal fascination with the Inter-World, and interview some leading actresses who have played pontianaks (and the directors who made their films), please have a look at the book. Oh yeah, Karen and Richad Carpenter even make an appearance. Hint:  it all gets a bit weird.)


Buy the book

Available as Kindle (ebook) and paperback at To order please click here.