Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Too Much Monkey Business?

When I tell people that I was chased by a monkey, they almost invariably ask, "How big was it?" Like there's some threshold size at which it becomes acceptable to choose discretion over valor when confronted by a disgruntled simian.  I didn't get an accurate gauge of the monkey's weight; I was too busy noting its surprising speed and the huge teeth it seemed awfully fond of displaying.  My completely undignified retreat is pretty funny to picture now - my Teva® sandals slapping on an unevenly cobbled downhill path  as I tried to maintain speed without wiping out - but, as the saying goes, at the time it wasn't so funny.

396 steps of monkeys
(Prachuap Khiri Khan)

It's quite easy to get up close and personal, perhaps too personal, with monkeys in Thailand. Some towns, such as Lopburi, are famous for their  resident troops, attracting tourists who can easily find themselves surrounded by a bunch of swingers in every sense of the word.

Visitors can often choose to do more than just watch the swirl of activity. At some sites you can purchase food to feed the monkeys. While Buddhists may do so to "make merit," others just enjoy taking part in the unique experience. Throwing the food (bananas, corn, nuts) in the general vicinity of the animals and watching their hierarchy noisily assert itself is always a feeding option, but sometimes you can literally hand the food out as if it were Halloween and  a bunch of really short nervous kids all arrived wearing the same costume.

Click below for more photos and the rest of the article.

Hey, that was our bottle!
The experience can be a lot of fun, providing great photo opportunities and even insight into monkey behavior, but animals who have lost their natural fear of humans, especially those who have come to expect food from their two-legged cousins, can be problematic, if not dangerous.  My friends and I have lost two water bottles to sneak thieves that we didn't see until they were already scampering away. That wasn't a big deal, more of a funny surprise, but if a monkey takes a more direct approach to wealth redistribution, it can be quite scary. The monkey I fled had blocked my path (I was in a small town visiting an abandoned temple) and seemed to be demanding some sort of toll. My efforts to scare him away were futile so I ended up throwing some trash to distract him and sprinting for safety with my nemesis in hot pursuit.

I'd say that people should use common sense, but of course they (and I) pretty much abandon that when we choose to venture into the middle of a bunch of decidedly untame animals. I generally try to ask locals about the aggressiveness level of the monkeys, though one person's "naughty" can be another person's "borderline homicidal." If I'm at all concerned, I make sure I'm not the only human in the vicinity, not that there's any guaranty of safety in numbers.

I'm no expert, but I do know not to bring food containers (ie. plastic bags in the places I've visited) around the monkeys unless I plan to part with their contents. I'm not sure what the couple in the photos on this page intended, but they certainly had a bad minute or so when they strolled by a group of monkeys carrying, of all things, a plainly visible bag of bananas, and then tried to keep the bag away from a clearly food-aggressive monkey.

All's well that ends well, I suppose. The couple slunk away physically unscathed, having lost the bananas but gained a great story, perhaps the centerpiece of their travel tales. I don't envy them the experience, but I'm slightly jealous of the story. I can almost hear the guy telling it: "So I told the damn thing in no uncertain terms to 'Piss off!' Which it did...but with all our bananas!"

I'll continue to visit monkey sites because for me the rewards outweigh the risks. It can be nerve-wracking to walk through the midst of a troop as it noisily fights and feeds, but there's nothing wrong with leaving one's comfort zone every now and then. It's almost certainly more dangerous to use Thailand's notoriously speedy van service than to stroll among monkeys that generally ignore you if you don't have food. But I won't forget that the monkeys aren't tame or even predictable, or that I'm not as fleet of foot as I used to be.

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Gotta Gettaway by Josh Lewis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.