Mugged by monkeys in Lopburi
Monkeys. Cute little big-eyed creatures that remind us of human babies.
I used to have a cute monkey doll when I was little. It was furry with plastic hands and feet and could suck its thumb.
I’ve just looked them up, and apparently, they came from Japan. Monchhichi dolls. Look them up.
Ah, Asian monkeys, cute right?
Another monkey memory is of watching our car get dismantled by a troop of them at Longleat Safari Park.
Not so cute now.
In various places in SE Asia – Ubud Monkey Forest, Ko Chang Island, the monkey temple at Khao Sok national park to name but three, monkeys are the star attraction. Macaques to be precise. These are usually one of the four species of macaques most common in the region: the long-tailed macaque (also known as the crab-eating macaque), the rhesus macaque and the two pig-tailed macaques: northern and southern.
Troops of macaques are often found around temples because they eat the offerings that people make to the spirits or gods. Since Hindus believe that monkeys are descendants of the god Hanuman, they are revered within the temple grounds and often outside. Add to that revenue that they bring in from tourists coming in to see the monkeys, and you can see how huge groups of the little critters can build up in these areas.
While they may look cute, macaques can be dangerous. They’ve got a big set of gnashers on them and can give a nasty bite. Plus, if you get bitten, you need to have a rabies jab.
The monkey forest in Ubud on Bali is a popular place for people to go and hang out with macaques. The temple grounds are full of them, causing all kinds of trouble! While we were there, they stole someone’s water bottle, opened it (pretty incredible to watch) and drank the lot.
Tourists were unwittingly buying bags of bananas to take in and feed them, perhaps thinking that the monkeys would all sit down on a picnic rug and sit quietly while peeling and eating the bananas in a civilised way. Perhaps in pretty dresses and quirky hats. Instead, as soon as people with bananas came near them, the monkeys would rush up to them and steal the lot.
One woman was wearing a strapless dress and carrying a bag of bananas. A monkey jumped on her front, and pulled down her top, to reveal that she wasn’t wearing a bra.
So if you are going somewhere to see monkeys, don’t carry food and be really careful with what you’re wearing. You don’t want to be the one flashing primates in a temple grounds.
Monkeys in Lopburi
The whole town of Lopburi is famous for its monkeys. Here they don’t just hang out by the Ayuthaya era temples, but all over the town. As you can imagine, this can cause huge problems for the locals, so buildings have cages over them and shop owners can be seen shooing the monkeys away from their premises. Given the sheer number, you can see that food-stealing would cause massive problems for restaurants, food stalls and general passers by. It makes sense, then, that twice a day, at 10am and 4pm, the monkeys are fed at two locations – Phra Prang Sam Yot – the monkey temple, and Phra Kan shrine.
The monkeys even get their own party. On the last Sunday in November, the monkeys are given a full buffet, including sticky rice and frozen desserts, like monkey Christmas dinner. This is accompanied by monkey dancing and music, and often generates into a massive monkey food fight.
I can’t believe we’ve never been to see this. Instead we headed to Lopburi after New Year’s Eve in Ayuttaya.
The temples of Lopburi
Lopburi is closely linked to the ancient (and more famous) city of Ayutthaya (check out our post about New Year in Ayutthaya). While Ayutthaya was the second capital of Siam, after Sukhothai, King Narai the Great built a palace in Lopburi and spent several months a year there. Before that, it was part of the Khmer Empire (that of Angkor Wat fame), and consequently, there are many temple ruins throughout the city.
The temples are quite obvious as you get off the train – you can see at least two from the railway station. However, before exploring them, we went to find somewhere to stay. Normally we would book accommodation online through Booking.com or Agoda.com, but since it was New Year, we couldn’t find anything. We reverted to what we did before the popularity of online booking agents and decided just to walk around a look for somewhere. There are always a lot of guesthouses and small hotels that don’t put themselves on booking websites, so you can still almost always walk in somewhere and find a bed.
Noom Guesthouse seemed to have a good reputation, so that was the first place we called at. The shutters were down and it was in darkness, but as we peered inside, wondering if it would open later, a guy appeared and beckoned to us. He ran inside to fetch someone who could speak English, who showed us a nice double room in the gardens at the back. For 500 baht a night, it had a bathroom, air con and TV so we took it.
A quick change of clothes later (we were oddly covered in some kind of yellow dust from the train), and being careful to not wear anything that could be removed by monkeys, we headed out to see the sights.
The Monkey Temple – Phra Prang Sam Yot
First stop was the monkey temple. To see the monkeys, we thought. However, as soon as we started to walk down the street away from the guesthouse, monkeys were everywhere; climbing on the buildings, swinging from the power cables, jumping on cars…….It was like a city-wide safari park, with us on foot. Vehicles were covered in monkey poo, and there were monkeys sitting on motorbikes looking like they were going to don their helmets and go for a ride. And it smelt of monkey pee. Quite strongly.
The monkeys got more numerous as we got to the temple. As all the temples were still free since the death of the King, we went straight through, where someone tried to sell us a bag of nuts for the monkeys. Remembering the monkey forest in Ubud, we refused that and went inside.
The old temple stands at the top of the hill, but it is quite hard to appreciate it because it is absolutely covered in monkeys. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head (really). Some were grooming each other, some asleep, young ones were chasing each other around. Many of them were eating – and not just fruit and nuts but brightly coloured drinks from plastic bags and milk from small cartons. Others were doing what monkeys do to create more monkeys (not that they need them).
Around the edge of the monkeys were guys with sticks ready if the monkeys attacked. Like magpies, they seemed to be attracted not only to food, but to shiny things and things to play on. They were jumping on passing tourists and grabbing what they could, like tiny asbos. One sprung onto someone’s back to grab their sunglasses from their head to wear. A baby decided that my swinging bag would make a great plaything, and so grabbed it to swing on. Mama monkey saw it and decided that I was to blame for her offspring’s monkeying around and bared her teeth at me. I decided to drop the bag and leave until baby monkey had been sufficiently disciplined. Luckily a ‘guard’ appeared with a big stick to scare the monkeys away for me to recovered my belongings.
Another leapt onto a woman’s back.
She said to us,
“Get it off me”.
Not wanting a trip to A&E for a series of rabies jabs to ruin our New Year’s break, we shook our heads and looked on. The monkey climbed up to her head, where it pulled her hairband out of her hair, and then ran off with it. Off to do her own hair in the latest styles perhaps?
Thinking it was safer to leave the temple and the asbo monkeys, we moved on to the next temple.
While not actually blessed with a monkey nickname, this temple still had its fair share of monkeys. The temple part was a fairly modern shrine, with people going up to give offerings of incense. Around the edge, monkeys played in the trees on the little monkey ladders that had been strung up between the trees. Do monkeys need ladders to get from tree to tree? I’m not so sure.
Anyway, this seemed to be the source of the brightly coloured drinks from the monkey temple, as this seemed to be where the monkeys were fed. A huge pile of discarded banana skins, apple cores, and other monkey-waste was being cleaned up by one guy, while a huge pile of fruit was being prepared by another. Small stalls sold monkey food – the sensible kind like peanuts and bags of bananas, and the slightly odd drinks.
Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat
The temple you can see from the train is the oldest Buddhist temple in Lopburi, dating from about 12th century BC, although done up by King Narai in the 17th century. Much of the original walls of the structure are still standing, with various chedis and towers around it. Wandering around the grounds, we had it nearly to ourselves, and it was monkey free.
Phra Narai Ratchaniwet – King Narai’s Palace
One of the most impressive buildings in Lopburi is the old Palace – Phra Narai Ratchaniwet. King Narai the Great, one of the Kings of Siam, spent most of the year at Lopburi and so had a palace built for himself. As he was really into European trends, the palace was built in a French style, so it looks quite different to the other palaces in Thailand. While the walls are still painted white and the curved rooves are more Thai in style, similar to those on temples, the walls and archways are much more European.
Some of the palace is just ruins, but King Monkut (Rama IV) restored part of it in the 19th century and added some extra pavilions. Some of these buildings house a museum of the history of Lopburi, which is very interesting.
It’s a really spectacular building. It was pretty quiet while we were there, so we were able to explore the grounds alone, which always adds to the atmosphere of a historical place.
As with many ruins around SE Asia, there are remnants of the buildings and statues all around. So areas are full of headless Buddha statues, broken columns and parts of elaborately carved freezes. A lot of this would not look out of place in a museum, but there is just so much of it. It’s amazing.
Lopburi province and its neighbour Saraburi, are both home to some huge sunflower fields which bloom between November and January. You can take a motorbike or bicycle to see the fields from Lopburi, or Noom Guesthouse offer a tour. The tour usually includes a trip to a cave to see the bats fly out at dusk, as well as to a temple famous for peacocks. Unfortunately, as it was New Year’s holiday, there were no tours to the sunflowers when we were there, so we missed it.
Nuts and Bolts
Lopburi is about 3 hours from Bangkok’s Hualampong station. A single ticket in a second class air-conditioned carriage is just over 120 baht.
You can take a train from Ayutthaya to Lopburi, which takes about 2 hours. The third class carriage is a bargain at 13 baht, although be aware that it is fan cooled and the windows will be open for most of the journey. We got covered in some kind of yellow dust which got in our hair, clothes and skin. There are second and first class carriages on some trains which are air conditioned.
You can buy the tickets at the train station for the next train, or book in advance. If you do that, you need your passport.
Alternatively, minivans go from Morchit bus station for about 120 baht, and take 2 1/2 hours. You can easily find the return minivans from near the railway station.
We stayed at Noom Guesthouse, a very traveller orientated place just around the corner from the railway station and walking distance from all the temples. With a large common area serving decent food, both Thai and western, and pool table, there are dorms upstairs and double rooms in the garden. They can arrange tours for you, such as climbing and trekking, as well as rent motorbikes and bicycles. The staff were friendly and we’d recommend it.
Food and drink
Lopburi was surprisingly quiet, probably because it was New Year. We arrived on New Year’s Day and not only was the Noom Guesthouse restaurant closed, but most others were too. We found a place opposite Noom Guesthouse to get a beer and some food, although they seemed to be low on ingredients. There are some Thai street food places on the main road though.
The following day, Noom Guesthouse bar and restaurant was back open and had a good selection of food and drink, both Thai and Western.
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