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Macaques In The City: Lopburi Monkey Festival (Part One)

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Every year since 1989, 150km north of Bangkok, at the Khmer ruins of Phra Prang Sam Yot temple in Lopburi, Thailand, a few hundred macaques get to party like it’s… well… 1989 I suppose. Reverence of monkeys isn’t particularly new—in Hinduism, the monkey god Hanuman is an important figure who used his army of monkeys to save the Lord Ram’s wife and has been a culturally important symbol ever since. Since Hindus believe the monkeys themselves are direct descendants of Hanuman, throughout Southeast Asia they are worshiped when on temple grounds. This reverence typically only applies to monkeys on temple ground, however, and when they step foot outside, they are subject to the same pest control any other nuisance animal might be. What is new is the institution of new festivals devoted to thanking monkeys for what they bring to communities. That’s just what Yongyuth Kitwatananusont, owner of the Lopburi Inn Hotel, has been doing since November 1989!

In cities where monkeys, macaques in particular, range freely or live around temple grounds and in urban environments, locals use them as a source of revenue for tourism and see economic benefit. Not only can many sites gain admissions fees, but tourists eat at local restaurants, stay in local inns, shop for souvenirs and necessities (many of them monkey related!), and use transportation services. This isn’t to say that having monkeys in urban settings doesn’t generate its own unique set of problems that need to be carefully navigated, but oftentimes, the positive benefits to the communities get written about much less frequently. In this post I’m hoping give a sense of what it looks like to live in a city of ~3000 macaques.

As I said, there are some undeniable challenges that come with living with wildlife in general, but in particular with monkeys. You can see that for hotels to keep monkeys out it is quite necessary to have wire caging surrounding the windows so that guests don’t bite off more than they can chew by inviting monkeys in, or simply forget to close their windows. While visitors at some temples throughout Asia are allowed to buy snacks to feed the monkeys, the monkeys sometimes take matters into their own hands and snatch food where they can find it, such as in the back of truck beds—meaning that locals and tourists alike need to be vigilant about food in open truck beds or on your person.

Moreover, monkeys are curious in general, and will try to play, grab, snatch, etc anything they find interesting in general, like my camera in the case of the juvenile above. While this makes for a great photo, it can also make for a broken camera or a bite if an individual decides he wants your stuff more than you want to let go of it. Finally (and this list isn’t by any means exhaustive), monkeys can be, for lack of a better word, messy. I have yet to see them fling poop, though I get asked about it with surprising frequency. But they do poop pretty much everywhere they eat, which in a town like Lopburi, is everywhere. When people feed them it generates leftover food scraps as well. Monkeys never quite picked up on that phrase about ‘finishing everything on your plate.’ Don’t get me wrong, they’ll take a bite out of everything, but they have the luxury of having more food than they need in most cases where they interface with humans, so they don’t worry to much about finishing every last morsel.

That being said, towns like Lopburi have navigated these challenges in an admirable way. For the hundreds of monkeys and thousands of visitors, there was incredibly little conflict. Out of hundreds of open storefronts, I saw but a single monkey inside of one, and he seemed to be a regular. My next post will feature the main event—the epic monkey festival from the 25th of November, 2013. Before that, I’d like to show some images that highlight some of what monkeys do best: hanging out and napping.