So two weekends ago (when i first started writing this said “this weekend” #procrastination) I took advantage of the poor tidal conditions at my field site to gorge on street food in Bangkok and hit up Lopburi for the annual monkey party. I travelled with Amy, who also studies macaques, and one of her friends, Milan, joined us for festival day.
Arriving in Lopburi, we checked into the Sri Indra hotel, deliberately chosen for being right in the heart of the Old Town where most of the monkeys live. The hotel, and many other buildings, is enclosed in a cage, which keeps the monkeys at just the right distance from your window, close enough to watch and play a game of “slap finger” with.
After dumping our bags and ogling our cute neighbours we headed out to explore the town. From the moment you step out on the streets, it’s apparent that this is indeed monkey city, monkeys everywhere, and not a tree in sight.
The streets are littered with corn and the skins of various fruits that are provisioned to the monkeys 3 times daily, and you will meet a new monkey with every step you take. There are monkeys on the sidewalk, monkeys in the middle of the road, monkeys on power cables, monkeys on cars, monkeys on buildings.
I could find surprisingly little information about the monkeys of Lopburi, but I gather that there are about 3000 monkeys in the city, and can only speculate on how they got here. What I think is most likely, is that they were brought to inhabit the many temples in the city, and continue to live here long after the temples fell to ruins. Either that, or they were driven out of forests as the city was built, I don’t know.
The largest group of monkeys, 200+ of them, live around the Wat Phra Phang Sam Yot, the formidable ruins of one of the many Khmer temples of Lopburi, and the first thing you’ll see when you come into the Old Town. We decided to check it out before the madness of festival day, and here it is in the picture below.
From a distance it looks pretty barren, but it is actually covered with monkeys. Big monkeys, little monkeys, hungry monkeys, tired monkeys, and you can clearly see the effects that living so closely with people have had on them. Many are severely obese, their folds of fat flubbering all around their bodies when they can be bothered to walk, many with tumours of various sizes, and in various stages of hair loss. Trust me Singapore, you have extremely healthy and beautiful monkeys.
As expected, the monkeys are all ready to jump on you if you get too close, but also for some unexpected reasons. They are often not after food, but after your hair, which they want to use as dental floss. This gets pretty painful because they’re not dainty about plucking a few strands. Tooth flossing is a tradition in the Wat Phra Phang Sam Yot group, unique to the group, not even practised by the other monkey groups around Lopburi. Macaques never cease to amaze.
We left the temple to explore more of the city, which is largely several more Khmer temple ruins, some with resident groups of monkeys. As evening fell, street food stalls began popping up magically on the sides of the streets in true Thailand fashion. I was surprised at first that there could be so many street food stalls in a town overrun by monkeys. The monkeys didn’t raid food stalls because stall owners consistently chased them away, and after awhile the monkeys just don’t bother (see, it can work). It’s also not the case of the monkeys already being provisioned enough because they are still not above snatching food from you once you’ve bought food from the stalls, so the standard rules apply, hold your food to your chest and all will be fine.
In the absence of trees, the monkeys settled down on power lines and lamp posts to sleep for the night. It was pretty cute, also kinda sad.
FESTIVAL DAY! we woke bright and early to check out the preparations for the big day. The festival was first started in 1989, by the owner of the Lopburi Inn Hotel, Khun Yongyuth Kitwatananusont, as a (huge) gesture of thanks to the monkeys for bringing in tourists dollars.
It was actually really touching to see the locals all pitching in and putting in so much effort to give these monkeys the best day of the year, it’s like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every monkey’s birthday rolled into one. There were simple pleasures like bunches of leaves and tree branches brought in and set up around the temple grounds, and I suspect that for the yearlings, this might be their first contact with so much natural substrate. There were also really elaborate decorations being set up – holes were drilled in huge blocks of ice and filled with juice, Christmas trees were put up and decorated with fruit, candy, and jelly cups, platters of fruit, drinks, and cake were laid out on tables, existing statues were decorated with more fruit, and this year there was a even a jacuzzi filled with fruits, in place of the traditional fruit pyramid. All this time, hipster (you’ll see in a minute) monkey guards keep monkeys from prematurely ravishing the festivities. Some monkeys manage to get a lick in but considering that there are a bazillion monkeys and only a couple of guards, they do a pretty effective job.
Told you they were hipster.
After everything was set up, the festivities began with someone dressed as Hanuman dancing around the temple grounds, trailed by a procession of happy-old-men drummers and fruit-laden golf carts. After all that, the monkeys are finally invited down to indulge in their party. The man who started the festival was there too, and I spotted him yelling “maa maa maa!” at the monkeys which means “come come come!”, while barring people from getting too close to the monkeys’ treats. It wasn’t as crazy as expected, the monkeys ate fairly politely, and the older ones especially seemed pretty over it, continuing their general lazing about.
Still, the monkeys get the job done, and by evening there wasn’t too much left.
All in all, Lopburi was a very eye-opening experience. It wasn’t my favourite way to see monkeys, so far removed from any forest edges, showing too many ill-effects of living too closely with people. At the same time though, I think it’s admirable that they’ve managed to thrive in a dusty concrete city, and even managed to develop and maintain their own special traditions, adaptable and tenacious as always. Even more, I love the willingness of the people to co-exist with them. The people know the mischief that monkeys can get up to, but they make efforts to get along, focusing on their own behaviour rather than fears that monkeys may do this or that. Food stall owners always tell us how to carry our food, home and hotel owners install grilles and nets over their windows, shop keepers diligently shoo monkeys from places where they are unwanted. In our time there, I only saw one little monkey side a shop, and all he did was sit peacefully on the countertop. Lopburi seems like a place where co-existence is most likely to fail, the monkeys know almost nothing but people and people food, yet they are an accepted part of life, and even honoured with the best treat you can give a monkey, for one day every year.
- Macaques In The City: Lopburi Monkey Festival (part 1) (newswatch.nationalgeographic.com)
- Macaques In The City: Lopburi Monkey Festival (Part Two) (newswatch.nationalgeographic.com)