Man and monkey meet in the famous temples of Lopburi
The macaque scampered down a power pole and scurried past a convenience store, a gold shop and a tailor, before stealing into a Chinese pharmacy. Behind the counter, the monkey snatched several bottles of medicine off the shelf and ran back outside, where it drank a bottle of codeine-laced cough syrup. Several minutes later, the monkey fell asleep on the street. A car swerved around it, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a motorcycle, but severing the thief’s tail.
In Lopburi, 160 kilometres north of Bangkok, the city’s 1,000-plus population of monkeys are both miscreants and mascots. Some locals believe the animals are godsends from Kala, a Hindu divinity who holds sway over time and death, because many of them live around the 10th century Khmer-style shrine devoted to him. But for most of the city’s residents, the monkeys are nothing more than pests and petty thieves.
The old section of Lopburi is a breeding ground for three different species of macaques–the pigtail, the rhesus, and the crab-eating variety. They have lived in the city since Lopburi was Siam’s second capital. Some people believe that the monkeys are soldiers of Hanuman, the monkey god and warrior who led simian armies to great victories in the epic Indian tale, the Ramayana.
The monkeys are divided into three different factions: those who live at the Phra Prang Samyod Temple and sleep on its roof; those who roam free around the nearby Phra Karn shrine; and their arch enemies, who loiter on the streets nearby and sleep on the tops of apartments and Chinese-style shop-houses.
The two groups that live around the places of worship largely subsist on handouts from visitors and have it easy. As with other primates like humans, comfort does not necessarily breed content. On the contrary, it often inspires discord and in-fighting. The macaques living on the streets and buildings have to forage for themselves, so they tend to be the worst troublemakers. Living in unhygienic conditions, they are also prone to a great many skin diseases and even leprosy.
All three factions are as territorial as LA gangs. For instance, if a member of the street gang tries to gatecrash the shrine, it is immediately chased away or attacked, and vice-versa.
In attracting foreign tourists and day-tripping Thais, the animals have been a boon for Lopburi’s economy. On any given day, you can watch visitors gawping at the macaque’s high-wire antics or having their photos taken with them at the shrine. The youngest macaques are the naughtiest.
Outside the Angkor-era shrine, on a morning gilded with sunlight, Anchana had four or five of them leap on her back. She grabbed a bamboo stick, coaxed them to jump on it and then started swinging them around in circles while pulling monkey faces and cackling. Sensing they had met their mischievous match, the juvenile macaques leapt from the stick and scampered back into the shrine. The monkeys don’t usually bite, but they are notorious for picking pockets and stealing sunglasses and cameras.
As a tribute to the town’s mascots, and a way of fattening local coffers, the authorities prepare a huge buffet of fruit and vegetables for them in late November every year. This wacky tribute often turns into a food fight between the macaques who sometimes pelt tourists with their foodstuffs. To prevent this from happening, local authorities have started putting the fruit and veggies in blocks of ice, so that the monkeys have to lick and scrabble their way to the goodies and visitors have some great photo ops with the shrine in the background.
The world’s first Monkey Hospital, located in the city’s zoo, provides first aid and re-training for rogue primates–like the thieving junkie whose tail had to be amputated. The hospital also helps to spin some positive public relations for these victims of bad press, by proving they can be put to more positive uses like helping the blind. The latter programme, the first of its kind in the world, came about by accident. A local soldier who volunteered at the hospital noticed that when he put a rope around the waist of a three-year-old female macaque named Cindy, she liked to stand upright and lead him around. Manad Vimuktipune, the president of the local branch of the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand (WAR), saw this and thought they might be able to use monkeys as a substitute for seeing-eye dogs.
Sitting behind the hospital’s front desk, in front of a black- and-gold painting showing one monkey pushing another in a wheelchair, Manad conceded that the programme was still in its infancy, but he was encouraged by an organisation in Boston called Helping Hands. Since 1979, the group has trained more than 100 capuchins (a tiny, agile monkey found in South America) and placed them in the homes of quadriplegics. The monkeys, after two years of training, could fetch food from the refrigerator, change CDs, and even comb their owner’s hair.
This tale and many others come from the author of Bizarre Thailand: Tales of Sex, Crime and Black Magic, which chronicles the strange, surreal and supernatural sides of Thailand, as well as the country’s weirdest museums and tourist attractions.