FIVE YEARS AGO in Lopburi, Thailand, the local population of macaque monkeys rioted in an internecine battle that spilled out into the surrounding streets and brought traffic to a standstill. The old alpha male of the troop, now aged and nearly blind, had either died or been killed. The troop had then split into two factions, each with its own alpha male candidate. The struggle was vicious, filling the air with the shrieks of excited and injured monkeys. When the dust cleared the two factions had separated, neither having been able to gain the upper hand. Like gangs, the two camps parceled out their turf in the Old Town, but there is no question that the group which ended up in control of Phra Prang Sam Yot had won the prized territory.
Each November for the past twenty years Phra Prang Sam Yot, a 13th-century Khmer-style Buddhist temple, has been the scene of a festival in which a huge banquet of food is presented to the resident macaques (nominally as an offering to the animals who are thought to bring good fortune, but also because it provides good publicity to its sponsor, the Lopburi Inn/Hotel, which uses the monkeys in its advertising campaign).
When my girlfriend heard about the festival, she signed on immediately. “Are you kidding? Monkeys!” We took the train from Hualamphong Station in Bangkok, purchasing third-class seats on a non-air-conditioned coach which took us to Lopburi in four hours. During the trip we were rousted out of our seats by unsmiling Buddhist monks who then lounged across the benches to chat on cell phones and smoke. It was a stretch from the standard image of the humble saffron-robed ascetic, but perhaps a more accurate one. I was to find out later about the practice of donning robes as a means of escaping justice in Thailand’s criminal system. In his book Bangkok 8, John Burdett’s main character is convicted of being an accomplice to murder but chooses to enter a monastery in lieu of doing time in prison. His partner, the actual murderer, joins with him. This is an occurrence based on actual practice in Thailand, so it was perhaps just as well that we didn’t argue with the Enlightened Ones.
Lopburi, to the north of Bangkok, was once the second most important city in the Kingdom of Siam, most notably during the reign of King Narai the Great (1656-1688). It was second only to Ayutthaya, the capital until 1767. The city harbors many ruins, some dating as far back as the 10th century, and many have been restored well enough to evoke their former magnificence. But it is the Monkey Festival, held annually since 1989, that now serves as the main draw of the town.
We arrived in the late afternoon under a blazing sun. Our first view of the town, from the window of the train, was of the ruins of Wat Phra Sri Rattanamahathat, its prangs (towers) rising above the trees. Our next view was of the bicycle taxi drivers, who accosted us as we stepped off the train. “Where you stay?!” they shouted. When we told them the name of our hotel they nodded eagerly and said, “Yes, yes. 20 baht!” That was a surprisingly lowball figure for a first offer, amounting to about seventy-five cents, and made me think that the hotel was within spitting distance. We decided to hoof it, to the howls of displeasure from the peddlers, and found the hotel in less than ten minutes. It was located in the heart of Lopburi’s Old Town, a charmingly compact collection of parks and ruins scattered amidst rundown shops and tattered sidewalks. After dropping off our weekend bags and showering off the train ride we made our first visit to Phra Prang Sam Yot. On the way we made a wager; the first person to see a monkey would get a foot massage paid for by the loser. I kept an eye out on the alleyways and telephone wires, but it was my girlfriend who spotted the first one: a lone macaque sitting on a roof ledge. As we stood there, a group of about thirty more monkeys appeared, strolling down the sidewalk across the street. They moved quickly, darting up telephone poles and running across the wires, but for the most part just loping along the walkway. Light-brown fur covered their bodies, which were small and lean, although a few that we saw later were fairly obese and slow-moving. Standing up, few of them would have reached two feet in height. Many were half that size.
They are known by many names: crab-eating macaques, long-tailed macaques, and – oddly – the dog-milker monkey. They have long been used as organ-grinder monkeys and their repertoire of service to humans includes extensive use as laboratory animals and as test flight subjects for space. There is a very strange black-and-white photograph of “Sam”, a space monkey, which was taken in 1959. Sam is encased in what looks like a Mr. Peanut costume and he wears an expression of complete incomprehension. His left arm is raised and he is apparently feeling the fabric of his space suit, but he looks for all the world like he’s giving a salute before blast-off.
A group of uniformed schoolgirls paused at the approach of the troop and began to back away, but a man armed with a long bamboo pole came to their rescue, warding off the animals with a few sound cracks against the wall. The girls huddled together, giggled nervously, then darted through the opening.
Phra Prang Sam Yot came into view when we reached the corner and I was immediately struck by the otherworldliness of its architecture compared to the surrounding town. The temple had been built on a rise and sat in the middle of a small, fenced lawn with apartment blocks and vehicle traffic all around. The prangs had the shape of a bishop’s miter, rising perhaps fifty feet above our heads, and were alive with scampering monkeys. The image that came to mind was of the creepy house on the hill in the movies where the mad scientist lives. The only thing missing was the crash of lightning and sinister music. As we came closer we had to step around monkeys that were humping each other in the street or lounging by the entrance gate where a few tourists were snapping their pictures. My girlfriend sat down to rest on the low wall outside the temple grounds and was immediately approached by a macaque. Allergic to dogs and cats, but unsure about monkeys, she warned off the animal with a sharp word and threatening finger, which the monkey promptly bit.
“I wonder if these monkeys have rabies,” she asked, inspecting the mark it had left.
It was a question that went unanswered in the e-mails I later sent to the Tourism Authority, although when I Googled it I discovered that in addition to rabies, macaques have been identified as a possible vector for Ebola virus and monkeypox and are known carriers of B-virus (Herpes) and malaria. I comforted myself with the reasonable, though perhaps naive, assumption that no self-respecting city would host an event that draws thousands of tourists each year which was based on close contact with disease-ridden vermin.
I’d read in the guidebook that there were temple guards who carry catapults to keep the more aggressive monkeys at bay. I was curious about these devices and was hoping to see them in action. Unfortunately, the guidebook was an English publication and I soon learned that the word catapult in England simply refers to what we in the United States call a slingshot. So I was thwarted in my mission to photograph a monkey being sent airborne. Thinking about it later, I don’t really know what I had been expecting: a monkey strapped down to the arm of a medieval catapult and then launched, shrieking, over the temple walls? It only seems unrealistic in hindsight though, because at the time I was pretty excited about getting that photo.
The following day, the day before the Monkey Festival, we spent exploring the Old Town. In the early morning we went back to Phra Prang Sam Yot for some sunrise pictures. We were the only people in the yard and it didn’t take long for the monkeys to discover us. Before long I was swarmed by macaques, grabbing at my camera bag and clambering onto my shoulders where I realized how badly they stank.
“These monkeys smell like ass!” I complained to my girlfriend, who laughed at the turn of events as my hair was pulled and my arms bitten. It was a short-lived revenge however, as a macaque grabbed her scarf and ran off with it toward a Buddha statue, sending her in hot, screaming pursuit. There is a certain kind of humiliation that comes from being made a monkey’s plaything, a category of embarrassment that precludes sympathy, which we had to endure for several more minutes before a guard approached with a long stick and a slingshot. He smiled at us with the self-indulgent expression of someone who feels that he has let you suffer long enough, and that perhaps now you will appreciate the services he has to offer. Sadly, the monkeys retreated at his approach (no doubt having felt the sting of his slingshot in the past) and his services were not required, although I considered paying the man to send a few projectiles anyway.
We moved on to Wat Phra Sri Rattanahamathat, whose prangs we had seen from the train. This was a magnificent ruin, encompassing a large area and – in my opinion – would have made a far more comfortable and even opulent home for the macaques. At the same time, I enjoyed the peace that came with their absence. The only creatures living here were birds, and we watched as they would explode from the upper tiers of the prangs upon our approach. Once again we had the place to ourselves and wandered the grounds of the complex in that peculiar daze shared by all visitors who lack an interpretive guide.
“When was this built?”
“How many people lived here?”
“I wonder what life was like…?”
Questions we posed to each other, but we were really just thinking aloud because even the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s own pamphlet on the subject was unhelpful: constructed in a certain period with no precise evidence. Our questions would have to wait until we got back online.
That evening we took our dinner from one of the street vendors who lined the avenue by the railroad tracks. As we sat down with our plates of stir-fried rice a dark shape moved slowly past our table. The shadow morphed into an elephant, which let out a bellow. None of the vendors paid any attention. Only a few tourists, like us, took note. Since no one wanted a ride or fed the beast, the mahout sitting atop the animal gave a command and they moved on toward the next group, where he pressed down on its head, cueing the elephant to bellow once more. We watched the slow progress of man and beast as they moved back into the shadows further up the street.
We closed the night back at our hotel, lounging on mats on the porch with bottles of Chang beer on the low table between us. “Chang” is the Thai word for “elephant”, and the label shows two pachyderms under a stylized tree. Like the macaques of Phra Prang Sam Yot, these animals were a popular feature in advertising, well-loved in the abstract.
The next morning, the day of the Monkey Festival, dawned like the previous days we had spent in Lopburi: cloudless and hot. There was no indication in the Old Town that this was a festival day until we reached the temple. Phra Prang Sam Yot had been transformed. The trio of prangs now rose above a scene of colorful activity. The sidewalk outside the temple was crowded with food and souvenir stalls, vendors selling everything from peanuts to monkeys-on-a-stick (which were toys, not snacks). There were balloons and banners, flowers and flags moving slowly in the almost still air. A garland strung across the entrance gate welcomed visitors to the 21st annual Monkey Banquet Festival, 2552, the Buddhist equivalent of 2009. Sunflowers had been planted along the steps and were already wilting under the strong sun. Large tents had been erected on the lawn for VIPs, food sellers, and for those preparing the banquet that the monkeys would feast upon. Each of the round, red-skirted banquet tables had been piled with as many as twenty plates of food, and each plate consisted of several dozen colorful confections. It appeared the feast was nothing but dessert, with sugared pineapple rings, multi-colored squares of taffy, small cakes and tarts crowding around cans of Coke and Pepsi. On the far side of the lawn, where the VIP tent had been set up, there was a lineup of mannequin monkeys dressed up as chefs, businessmen, and even a Santa Claus. Each of them were seated with a tray of food in their laps and children would pose by their favorites for photographs. The carnival atmosphere was enhanced by the announcers under the main tent who broadcast a running narrative throughout the day in Thai, Chinese, French and English as the crowd milled around the temple and explored inside. From their perches above, the monkeys took it all in.
At ten oclock there was a performance of the Monkey Dance. Eight men in monkey pajamas and masks pranced around the lawn in pantomime. Their movements were simple, amateurish and badly synchronized. One of the dancers accidentally ripped the tail off his partner’s costume and several performers were unable to pull off their cartwheels. All of which the audience applauded in good-natured fashion. Next, a series of parachutists were dropped from a helicopter and glided into the complex, freaking out the monkeys who scampered around the ramparts excitedly as the strange birds descended around them. One of the parachutists missed his mark and crashed into the crowd, but was given a round of applause anyway.
At last the banquet began and the heaped tables were brought to the base of the temple where photographers and videographers scrambled for access, positioning themselves for the best view of the anticipated chaos. The monkeys however, stayed away. They walked along the ledges, ignoring the tables of food and infuriating the cameramen. Presently, some volunteers came over, picked up a table and placed it on the ledge itself. Several monkeys strolled past before a young macaque finally hopped onto the table. Surrounded by such bounty, it appeared confused. It walked over the plates, picking up morsels and sniffing them, then dropping the bits and picking up others while glancing around at the crowd of gawkers as if to say, “Aren’t you going to chase me off?” Finally it threw caution to the wind and face-planted into a plate of lemon drops. Before long other monkeys leapt aboard and tore into the offerings, overturning entire plates and shoving food into their mouths with abandon. Someone placed half a watermelon on the ledge and an infant macaque disappeared inside, reappearing a moment later with a red, pulp-smeared face. Cans of Coke and Pepsi were picked up and drunk – a popular picture among the gathered photographers – and the crowd joined in by purchasing and proffering peanuts to the primates, along with corn on the cob, hot dogs and, yes, bananas. After a couple of hours of watching the monkeys gorge themselves we decided to call it a day.
I did not come here looking for any great insight into Thai society or humankind as a whole. I came to be entertained by monkeys. But seeing the simians chase us around, bite us, steal from us, and watch as we humans dressed up in costumes and danced and fell over and parachuted into each other, I got the impression that we were far more entertaining to them.