South China Morning Post
January 5, 2000
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Making Monkey Business

Guests fight, steal and make love at an annual Thai festival, but nobody seems to mind very much. Amit Gilboa was there.

Every year, the town of Lopburi in Thailand hosts a special outdoor feast. The guests of honour climb all over the food, steal treats from each other, and toss their leftovers onto the ground. After the meal, some of the guests show their gratitude by pulling hair and stealing earrings from the hosts while others make love in public.

The "invitations" at this annual extravaganza go to the town's estimated 600 monkeys. They are Lopburi's blessing and its bane. According to legend, the hero of the Ramayana epic rewarded his friend and ally, Hanuman the Monkey King, with the fiefdom of what is now Lopburi. Centuries later, monkeys still rule the area around the town's two most sacred sites: The picturesque Khmer ruin of Sam Prang Yod and the nearby shrine of San Pra Kan.

Although the monkeys live in the midst of the city and are not afraid of humans, they are certainly not domesticated. From their base in the shrines, they cross streets at will to climb on parked cars and groom each other on storefront awnings. They are equally at home scampering about the ancient Khmer ruins as they are scrambling up and down the urban jungle of electric wires, window grates and TV antennas. Living or working in the monkey zone is both fun and trying. In the words of Eumporn Jirigalwisul, regional tourism director for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, "it's like we have many, many friends."

While other Lopburi residents also appreciate the monkeys, their praise is qualified. Two Thai words often heard Lopburi are "yeng" and "son", meaning "grab" and "naughty", respectively. Salocha Lekpech provides a representative view: "I like the monkeys, but they are often very naughty. If you carry something, hold it tight. They like to grab things, like fruit or candy. They even like to grab babies' bottles."

A pickup truck with paper and styrofoam padding in the back is parked near Sam Prang Yod. The monkeys, always on the lookout from something new to explore, tear the load to shreds. In a typically Thai reaction to such a situation, the hapless driver returns to his violated vehicle, smiles, shrugs and drives away, leaving behind a pile of monkey confetti.

Sermluk Kribour and Piya Komsomjit watch the vandalism from their aquarium shop opposite Sam Prang Yod. "If you park here, you have to watch out for the monkeys," notes Sermluk impassively. Piya shrugs toward the monkey-styrofoam orgy and says simply, "Yeah, it's normal."

The citizens of Lopburi have adapted to their town's celebrated citizens. Food vendors in the monkey zone keep sticks or slingshots at hand to ward them off. To prevent the monkeys from climbing on television antennas, the citizens of Lopburi have developed a unique cone-shaped attachment which hangs from the antenna pole. It seems to be the only physical barrier which the monkeys are unable to pass.

Even for all the nuisance, there is no question that the monkeys bring benefits to Lopburi. The unique urban wildlife brings joy to even longtime residents: on the balcony of one of the apartments facing San Pra Kan shrine, a mother holds her child who laughs delightedly as he offers morsels of food to the monkeys clambering up the side of the building.

Other benefits, spiritual and tangible, accrue to the town. Spiritually, the monkeys offer the citizens of Lopburi wonderful opportunities to tum boon (make merit). According to Thai beliefs, donating food to the monkeys is a perfect way to accrue good karma. Judging from the hundreds of healthy monkeys scampering about, Lopburi residents are assured places in the highest levels of Buddhist heaven.

The monkeys bring more tangible benefits to Lopburi. "They put Lopburi on the map," says hotelier Yongyuth Kijwattananuson. "People all over the world know about Lopburi because of our monkeys." Whether Thais on a day trip from Bangkok or Germans on tour from Frankfurt, thousands of tourists come to see the monkeys of Lopburi. And Lopburi boasts other attractions, too. Thais like to visit nearby Pasak Dam and the lovely sunflower fields. Europeans enjoy King Narai's Palace, which was built with design contributions from French architects in a unique blend of Thai and Western styles.

Reflecting the symbiosis between Lopburi and its monkeys, hotelier Mr. Yongyuth chose a monkey as the logo of his flagship Lopburi Inn. As business grew, Yongyuth decided 11 years ago to show his gratitude and make merit by sponsoring an annual monkey feast. Employing three tonnes of food, four chefs, 30 food bearers, and 25 traditional Thai dancers, the monkey feast has grown into Lopburi's most lavish and photogenic spectacle.

At the recent feast, spectators entered the Sam Prang Yod grounds in the morning to find a huge plate - seven metres in diameter - veiled in festive red cloth. In years past, the food was placed on as many as 100 small tables. The switch to this year's single plate was for both symbolic and practical reasons. While the total amount of food was the same as the previous year, a single table is more symbolic of the continuing economic difficulties in Thailand. Another factor is monkey psychology. Tourism director Ms Eumporn notes that with smaller tables, larger monkeys take ownership of an entire table, refusing to share even though the table has more food than they can possibly eat. "Just like humans," she says, with a sigh.

As spectators watched from the ground and monkeys watched from high up on the ruins, the town's high school students marched to the temple carrying brightly coloured banners. When the magic moment arrived, the single giant plate was unveiled to reveal a bounty of brightly coloured fruits arranged in enticing patterns around a centre of flavoured rice. The Thai dancers danced, the photographers photographed, and the monkeys seemed unsure of what to make of it all.

Slowly and cautiously, some of the braver monkeys climbed down off the ruin, grabbed some fruit and scampered away. As the monkeys came to understand the nature of the bounty before them, more and more came crawling down off the ruins and the feast began in earnest. There were monkeys face down in papaya, ripping open rambutans, chasing away rivals from choice pieces of watermelon, mothers holding bewildered infants, swaggering adolescents chugging down cans of soda. The crowd watched in delight and the photographers lined up for the best shots as the monkeys got down to the serious business of literally stuffing their faces (monkeys store excess food in cheek pouches).

After the monkeys ate their fill and the feast wound down, monkeys and humans alike strolled the temple grounds, often interacting. "Sanook [fun]" declared eight-year-old Bangkok residents Jutamat Suriya and Suchrale Misaran as they allowed the monkeys to climb onto their heads. Throughout the compound, fascinated youngsters handed peanuts and water bottles to the ever-acquisitive monkeys. The sated monkeys played, fought, nursed their babies and humped as fascinated humans continued to watch, feed, photograph, and in rare instances, pet them.

As the heat of the afternoon descended on the scene, the crowd began thinning out. The day trippers headed back to Bangkok, the foreign tourists to their hotels, the Lopburi residents home to eat their own meals. The ancient and majestic Khmer ruin of Sam Prang Yod ended the day as it began: fiefdom of the monkeys.