All images by: Worranit Kiatcharatchot
Translated by: Wil Hathaway
THAILAND — About two hours north of Bangkok lies Lop Buri. Archaeological evidence confirms that these parts of the fertile Chao Phraya River Basin have hosted human settlements for more than 3,000 years. This province is home to plenty of fascinating historical sites, including the ruins of Phra Prang Sam Yot, a three-spire 13th-century Khmer temple near the city centre.
Despite its potential, Lop Buri was far from capturing the crown as Thailand’s top attraction until hotelier Yongyuth Kitwattananusont decided to throw a grand banquet in 1989 in honour of the local macaques living about Phra Prang Sam Yot. Yes, the guests were long-tailed monkeys, not humans. Due to its success, the feast has since become an elaborate, annual event known as the Monkey Buffet Festival that has made headlines worldwide.
The Monkeys of Lop Buri
Lop-Burian’s continue this tradition year after year because they want to express their gratitude to the furry primates for attracting tourists to their hometown. In many ways, that is probably true. Lop Buri has quite a few monkey-related myths and legends that have been told and re-told long before the first banquet was ever held—many of which depict them with reverence.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand has also used images and footage of the long-tailed macaques roaming the streets of Lop Buri to attract tourists, portraying them as friendly and coexisting peacefully with their human neighbours.
Common sense, however, tells me that there is more than meets the eye.
For one, macaques are wild animals. They are meant to live in a jungle—not a city. Think about it. The only living species on Earth that farms are homo sapiens—that’s us, humans. Living in a city is not a problem for humans because most of our sustenance comes from outside the city limits.
I can’t imagine the macaques of Lop Buri ploughing the fields, nor are there many trees in the city to produce enough fruit to sustain a whole population. Where would they live, anyway? And then there’s the viral footage of two gang-like troops of monkeys fighting on the streets of Lop Buri? What was all that about?
One question remains. The city of Lop Buri is associated with many macaques, but exactly how large is large? How many of these long-tailed locals are there for the city to earn the nickname “Monkey City”? A hundred? A thousand?
I found it difficult to wrap my head around the concept of a city where wild primates roam about freely. It’s hard to fathom what life would be like to have hundreds of untamed long-tailed monkeys living around my house.
One thing is for sure, though, it could not possibly be anything like those cute stray cats that occasionally visit me at home. At least, I didn’t think I would want to share an Instagram story about my stray monkey neighbours.
When reality strikes
As soon as my feet touched the ground in Lop Buri, I realised I was right. Whatever preconceptions I might have had were far from what I could ever imagine.
The sheer number of macaques living about the 13th-century Khmer temple was more than I could count. I reckon they could easily take over Times Square if they were somehow able to reach New York City. I also had no idea the Phra Prang Sam Yot Khmer temple, where these little primates frequent, was located literally across the street from shops and residences where humans dwell and do business.
I soon realised, however, that what I had thought to be shophouses and homes mainly were empty shells. Most of the buildings here appear to have been abandoned for quite some time, long enough for these wild primates to take up residence.
Nonetheless, quite a few were still occupied, and their owners insisted on staying put. For as long as they could remember, they had always had simian neighbours. Many even treat them with respect, believing they were descendants of the Hindu god Hanuman. As far as these stubborn dwellers were concerned, it was just another business-per-usual day in Lop Buri.
I also noticed that some of these abandoned buildings bear a large net held up by blue PVC pipes, the kind we typically use for our water supply in Thailand. I learned that it is an electric fence to keep the monkeys out.
Still, it is not the only passive primate defence system locals have developed. They also have weapons in hand.
Weapon of macaques’ destruction
Now, don’t be alarmed. When I say that the human inhabitants of Lop Buri carry a weapon, I don’t mean handguns. Instead, they have a slingshot with them to ward off hangry monkeys, and, to put it mildly, there were quite a few of those around.
Every resident I interviewed—and there were mixed signals about how they felt about these street primates—was armed with a trusty slingshot. If PETA knew, they would have cried out in horror. To be fair, the Lop-Burian’s don’t like hurting the macaques either. The ones I talked to feel bad for doing it, but they don’t see any other solution. These street monkeys are gangsters. A whole troop will attack you if you seem like an easy target. You always have to watch your back.
Animal-loving outsiders like you and me may see it as a form of cruelty, but if I were to live there, I don’t think I would have much of a say in the matter. I’d need to adapt to survive. While stray cats and dogs are common across Thailand, we don’t usually need a weapon on hand in case the animals we’re feeding get hungry and decide to attack us.
With the macaques, you always need to prepare for that possibility.
An unsustainable truce
Earlier, I wondered how the furry gangsters of Lop Buri could survive in a city with virtually no fruit-bearing trees. Where would they get enough food to feed themselves?
The answer came to me later that afternoon. As I explored the neighbourhood, I witnessed a shop owner offering the street macaques a tray of fresh fruits. The irony of the situation is not lost on me. The Lop-Burians have a monkey invasion problem, which they exacerbate by offering the one thing these primates need most to continue living here: food.
These monkeys are fed by the locals here day after day, but it was clear that there wasn’t enough to go about. Many of the macaques look somewhat malnourished.
Well, at least this particular troop would survive another day, but what will happen when these people leave? How will these city-dwelling monkeys continue living in a concrete jungle? Will they take the train to a new destination? Rumour has it that they sometimes do just that to find food. Or are they going to keep stealing until this city is entirely void of humans?
Lop-Burian’s who can leave has left. The ones who remain are just trying to coexist with the primate population. They still have to make a living—all while holding a stick to ward off unwanted visitors.
Under the correct management and proper caretaking, Lop Buri has the potential to be a booming tourist attraction. The Khmer temple was a sight to behold. Its juxtaposition with modern edifices made for some exciting photo opportunities.
It could even be the next Nara, a city in Japan known for having deer roaming its public space.
Just as I was perusing this thought, an unfriendly long-tailed macaque charged and chased after one of us in the team. It further reinforced that these monkeys aren’t friendly and well-behaved pets. They will not obediently help you with your groceries like Pankun the Chimpanzee on that Japanese TV show.
These Thai primates are no adorable exotic animals. In fact, they are annoyingly clever. Nut, the owner of Billy Cha, has been warned that these monkeys could sneak up on you, unzip your bag, and steal your food. They are downright thieves.
Having listened to many of these local accounts, the tale about a monkey travelling on its own by train no longer seems so far-fetched.
Unsurprisingly, these macaques have become a tourist attraction. Fed with human food, these monkeys are more energised than ever, and with little else to do to release some of that pent-up energy, they have turned to reproducing. They have multiplied. Their numbers are now larger than ever, wreaking havoc on the city.
Is it the monkeys’ fault for the state of disrepair the neighbourhood has fallen to? I think not. Is it the locals? I don’t think so either.
The long-tailed monkeys of Lop Buri have been allowed to roam the streets, steal, and breed freely, all in the name of attracting visitors to come and see an exotic sight. Now the locals have to deal with their aggression.
The monkeys themselves act on instinct to survive. They steal from humans. They garbage dive to find some food. At this point, I doubt they would know how to live in the wild. The city is now their natural habitat.
Two sides of the story
Visitors like us only experience the monkey’s aggression briefly—the locals have to cope with it day after day. Some have labelled residents “cruel” simply because they use non-lethal weapons to protect themselves and their property, without understanding that this was a matter of survival for them.
Meanwhile, the monkeys have been branded troublemakers despite doing nothing more than following their primal instincts.
Stories are like coins. There are always two sides. That’s why we can’t make any judgement based on superficial information. We need to delve deep down into the issue and listen to both sides. That’s why we need to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. They may not fit snugly, but at least now we know where they are coming from.
Dang, a representative from the Lopburi Monkey Foundation, retorted that the viral video clip of monkeys fighting on the streets of Lop Buri “is really not funny at all. These monkeys are acting out because they are starving to the point they would fight for just something sweet to drink.”
Still, no one in power has taken action. The video went viral. It became the talk of the town for a while. But like all things that have gone viral, it didn’t last long. Just as quickly as it was viewed and spread online, it has now ceased to remain relevant. The monkeys go about their day freely in the city—starving, acting out, and causing mayhem.
The problem is still there.