As rules of thumb go, if you ask someone whether they like monkeys and they say yes, it’s pretty certain they’re not from a part of the world where monkeys live.
Coming from a country blessed with pretty dull wildlife — where the most exciting encounter might be a badger scuffling around in the woods or a squirrel stealing nuts from a back garden bird-feeder — I’m practically obliged to think monkeys are brilliant. They’re entertaining, they’re cute, and they’re really rather clever.
But try telling that to a staff member at a Gambian beach resort who has to deal with them breaking in through balcony windows. Or at a Kenyan safari lodge where baboons rampage across the dinner tables. You don’t tend to find much love for monkeys — or the other primates that are inaccurately banded under that label — in destinations where man and ape have to live alongside each other. In these spots, what we see as entertaining antics are generally regarded as a dangerous nuisance.
It took me a trip to Gibraltar to start coming round to this point of view. The Barbary macaques that strut all over the Rock (and often through the streets as well) are a consistent bone of contention. The question of whether to kick off a cull regularly crops up.
I was just outside the cable car station when I felt something on my back. I looked around — everyone in the group I’d arrived with was in front of me. That could only mean that one of the macaques had jumped on to me and was admiring the view from its new perch. For everyone else, this was clearly hilarious. And shaking a monkey off your back is harder than the cliche suggests. Eventually, I coaxed it onto some scaffolding, from where it bolted towards an unfortunate woman holding a camera. It grabbed the strap, stole the camera and ran off down the Rock with its new trophy.
Gibraltar hasn’t got a patch on Lopburi, however. I’d read reports saying the Thai city is overrun with monkeys and was fascinated to see how much of this was hyperbole. You don’t have to walk far from Lopburi’s train station to encounter them. Wandering down a major shopping street, my wife and I saw the primate pests clambering along the power lines and taking a break on top of shop awnings.
One was sat on a motorbike, playing with the keys the owner had foolishly left in the ignition. The interloper realised the keys weren’t edible and threw them to the floor under a neighbouring truck.
Heading further north, it just became sinister. If Hitchcock wanted a simian sequel to The Birds, he could have just rocked up and set the cameras rolling outside Prang Sam Yot. Known as ‘Monkey Temple’, it is utterly swarmed by the little sods. Tourists gingerly tread around the complex led by women carrying canes, which are used to scare off rather than hit the monkeys.
The surrounding streets are bleak, though. The buildings that have not been abandoned are covered in wire frames to stop the plague of monkeys getting in. It’s not too far off Planet of the Apes-style domination.
In the temple’s grounds, the mischievous monkeys were on the attack. One woman shrieked as her hairdo was picked apart; a man nearby soon realised it’s foolish to carry a bottle of water in their presence. I, however, had made the mistake of carrying a small backpack with dangling straps. Invitations are rarely more open, and soon a monkey had leapt onto it. The Gibraltar experience had taught me to play bucking bronco, and I swung hard until my rider was flung towards the ruins. He landed in a dazed heap.
It only took a couple of minutes for another one to have a pop. I instinctively shook my back, and sent the adventurous ape flying before it had a firm grip. Seconds later, my wife yelped: “Ow! What was that?” Another great rule of thumb: if you ever want to see the dirtiest look known to humanity, try throwing a monkey at your wife’s head.
Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)