Greetings from Lopburi, possibly the most fantastic place that we have been. We arrived by train from Ayutthaya, with our arses still sore from yesterday’s all-day bike ride, which was followed by a well-into-the-evening beer bust hosted by Mr. Noi.
We were aware of Lopburi by reputation…this town is known for its annual monkey festival, where tables in the center of town are heaped with fruit, and the local macaque (mə-ˈkak) population is invited to come on down and help themselves. Viewing this festival, which occurs annually in November, was on our original Asia itinerary back when this segment was planned to be longer. Missing the festival was one of the major disappointments of that forced rescheduling.
But this town takes its monkey business seriously 365 days a year, so visiting Lopburi remained a must-do on the abridged itinerary. And it was so worth it.
The city itself is at least 1000 years old, and is mentioned in Marco Polo’s Travels. The “city of lava” was once the capital of the kingdom of Ayutthaya, before that kingdom was absorbed into Thailand. Today the city is best known for the hundreds of crab-eating macaques (they rarely eat crabs) that live in the middle of the city, especially around the Khmer temple, Prong Sam Yot. The macaques, medium-sized monkeys, are fed by the local people and by tourists. They are not afraid of humans, and they steal whatever food or other items of interest that they can find from unwary visitors.
Our train to Lopburi was full of tourists, including a group of five backpacking French twenty-something girls that we have been bumping into in different towns for days now. We decided to haul ass from the train station to our desired lodging spot, in order to beat them and the rest of the rush. We made it, and checked into the NooM Guest House. We dumped our packs and grabbed a quick lunch. I had an amazing red curry…full of red pepper but cooled down by a coconut milk broth. That was the first of several great meals at the NooM.
Energized, we headed toward downtown. Soon, we heard the rustling of a group of monkeys traversing a tangle of power lines overhead. I watched for a few minutes, amazed at what I was seeing.
We walked on. Soon, we were encountering small groups of macaques scavenging for food on the sidewalk. They observed us, but didn’t seem concerned. They were more interested in us than afraid. We had read that we were not to show our teeth to them (that’s a sign of aggression), so we concentrated on NOT SMILING. That was hard, as these little fellows are adorable.
The crab-eating macaque, sometimes known as the long-tailed macaque, is an opportunistic omnivore. We saw that principal in action; they will seemingly eat anything. Every bit of street trash was being examined for nutritional value. I suppose the ones that live near beaches may occasionally eat a crab. The ones we saw don’t have much access to crabs, other than the stuff that street sushi vendors try to pass off. In the wild, fruit and seeds make up 60-90% of their diet. Who knows about these city monkeys. I saw them eating lots of corn and sugar-water.
Macaques live in social groups that contain three to twenty females, their offspring, and one or many males. The groups usually have fewer males than females. In social groups of macaques, a clear dominance hierarchy is seen among females. These ranks remain stable throughout the female’s lifetime and also can be sustained through generations of matrilines. Females have their highest birth rates around 10 years of age and completely stop bearing young by age 24. In our walking around, we saw several females carrying or attending to immature monkeys. The small macaques travel by clinging firmly to the underside of their mothers while on the go.
In a short while, we found ourselves at monkey central: the Prong Sam Yot temple. The Prang Sam Yot was a originally a Hindu shrine, and has three prangs (low towers) that represent Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (the Hindu trinity, I suppose). It was later converted to a Buddhist shrine. It now belongs to the macaques.
The temple is inside a fenced area, and on the grounds both inside and outside the fence, hundreds of macaques wander, scavenge, and play. I promise you, unless you have been here, you have never seen anything like this.
We entered the grounds, amazed and surprised at all of the actual monkey business around us. Initially, no macaques approached us, although they studied us with curiosity from a few meters. A couple of males did, in fact, show me their teeth. It wasn’t intimidating…it was sort of cute…but I did not smile back.
Becci and I approached and entered the temple ruin, which has been given over entirely to the monkeys. It was dark and cool inside, and surprisingly clean and odor-free. We walked slowly through the old temple, and observed a number of macaques who were outside. These highly-curious animals were observing us inside the grate-covered temple windows (we came to notice that every window and balcony in this town is covered with a heavy metal grate).
After a good wander through the temple, we stumbled back out into the sunshine and the humid, sunny temple grounds. I purchased some corn from a vendor, and began feeding some of the monkeys. That’s when the real fun began.
It took about five seconds to get from ho-hum to ninja-monkey-crazytown once that bag of corn was opened. I am certain that they were aware that this bag of corn was in the hands of a monkey feeding newb. Within a few moments, half the bag had been stolen by a big male who wrestled it away, absconded, and feasted.
All of the macaques in all of the pictures in which you see them on meare younger ones…not babies, who are much smaller, but not either full-sized adults. The adults are somewhat larger than the ones that you see pictured on me. The climb-up-your-pants macaques are the teenagers, I suppose. None of these monkeys seem afraid of humans, although one can regulate whether they attempt to get on you or not by gait and body language.
These guys had a lot of fun exploring my beard, hair, and face. They have strong little fingers, and those fingers spent time poking around in my nose and ear holes. I’m not sure what they were looking for, but I don’t think they found it.
It was great fun interacting with them, but it was also a little terrifying. I got gently chomped three times (none of the bites broke the skin). Becci got a small scratch on her arm (from an inadvertent finger, we think), and had a lock of hair yanked out. Becci was less pleased than me about these interactions, and was effectively shooing these things away while I was still getting overrun. Was it too much monkey business for me to be involved with? No way!
I considered briefly how awesome it would be to have one of these creatures as a pet. She would be named Banjo, and would accompany Penny and Lincoln and Becci and me on our neighborhood walks. We would fit Lincoln with a small saddle for Banjo to ride upon during these forrays out into the hood. Climbing ropes and rails would be installed into the high places of Chez Bon Temps. Banjo would be trained to bring me fresh beers, and to call out when Lincoln is nosing around the kitchen.
Of course, that’s all a terrible idea. These critters, while adorable, are food-crazed and mischievous. This makes them like Lincoln, but they are more enterprising and far more ambulatory. They have mad pocketpicking skills. They are intelligent, adorable, and curious, but amoral. They will bite you to see if you are edible; they will destroy a thing in case it has food. So, I’ve abandoned the Banjo concept. For now.
Surprised and in pain. This is about one second after one of these guys bit me on the chest for absolutely no reason. They are adorable but unpredictable. Probably not a great pet option. Perhaps the worst pet option this side of a panther.
In the middle of a corn bag feeding frenzy. Note the enterprising fellow who is lifting a 50 baht note (about $1.50) out of my right pocket. That bill and the water bottle were literally the only things that we had that weren’t secured behind a zipper. Both were taken, although the bill was discarded in a few moments.
After a couple of hours and a number of passes around the grounds, we headed back to the NooM for a couple of rounds. Becci noted that “we don’t need to do anything else in Lopburi; nothing can beat that”. We had a couple of beers and then I decided to go for a run. While Becci worked on the Ayuttaya blog, I knocked out a few kilometers around town. Oathkeeper was waved and honked at by many, who aren’t used to seeing white guys out for a run. Thai people don’t run for exercise, I don’t think. I haven’t seen any. And I don’t think many backpackers are into running. Consequently, the discretionary runner is a rarity in southeast Asia, as it was in South America. Especially a discretionary runner with a giant beard. The discretionary runner with the big giant beard always sorta blows everybody’s minds.
I rejoined Bex for a few more pints. She wrote, and I read. I continued to contemplate the macaques. I reconsidered and then again scrubbed the Banjo plan. That night as I drifted off to sleep, I could still feel them grabbing my pant leg, and scurrying up my clothes, grabbing for the next hold. That’s a sensation that I hope always to remember.
I got up the next morning and went for a quick walk back to the temple. Immature macaques chased each other and screetched, while anxious mothers guarded their babies. Locals walked past the temple, largely ignoring this scene, while tourists gawked. I watched a young couple preparing to enter, performing the same ritual that we had performed the day before. All loose items of any sort went into sealed areas of the backpack; jewelry came off, especially ear and nose rings. I looked at the girl’s gold eyebrow studs, which she didn’t remove, and wondered if they would make it.
I didn’t stick around to find out. We had a train to catch.