in Monkey Land
you ever get the opportunity to visit the sacred monkey
forest in the town of Ubud in Bali, my strong advice to
you would be to give it a miss. Don't get me wrong the forest
isn't without its attractions in the same way that the terror
of bungy-jumping is considered fun by some people - but
I wouldn't go see the forest if what you are hoping for
is to be charmed by communing with the cute monkeys in their
I was recently attending a wedding
in Bali and one of the excursions that had been arranged
for the amusement of the guests was a trip to the Sacred
Monkey-Forest near the town of Ubud, which was where most
of the guests were staying. Sounded like a splendid plan.
A gentle late afternoon stroll through the woods to see
The ride down is pleasant and uneventful.
Through Ubud's tortuous streets down Jalan Hanuman and down
to Jalan Monkey-Forest at the very bottom end of Ubud where
the town gives way to the surrounding forested hills. It
is a little later than we had planned to make it down to
the forest. More early evening than late afternoon. I notice
with a touch of alarm that the forest looks a little less
welcoming in the early evening gloom than in the bright
sunlight of the brochures I have been shown. But it is probably
just the light. Nothing more, surely.
An old woman on the outside clicks
her tongue as she tries to convince us to buy a bunch of
small champa-type bananas to feed the monkeys, but after
much internal debate we decide against. Some have heard
that to feed the monkeys could set off a ferocious feeding
frenzy. Sounds plausible. We enter without bananas.
We walk gingerly down a twisting
path that cuts through the middle of the forest after the
first turn we can no longer see the entrance and are surrounded
by trees on both sides as far as the eye can see. We are
in sacred monkey territory. Adjusting my eyes to the gloom,
I start to pick out more and more monkeys on the trees on
either side of us.
They are not too big most are between
two and three feet tall and have quite smart shiny silvery
fur and intelligent (though sullen) expressions on their
faces. Most astonishingly they all have a spiky strip of
fur standing up on top of their heads like little Mohawks
that make them look quite thuggish as they huddle together.
I don't know if it is the Mohawks or the surly expressions
or the way they slouch around but they look just like a
gang of disaffected little hooligans I almost expect to
see cigarettes drooping from their lips and tattered leather
jackets on their hairy backs. This is one tough bunch of
We all know the rules. No eye-contact.
No fighting with the monkeys. If they want anything just
let them have it. I recall from my youth in a town with
a high monkey population that it is best not to bare your
teeth as a monkey could take it as a challenge, and share
this intelligence with the group. Sounds plausible. Conversation
henceforth conducted by all through clamped lips lest the
monkeys catch a flash of white and misinterpret our intentions.
nowhere a large monkey--must be three and a half feet tall--lopes
up to my cousin's husband and starts to menace him. Cousin's
husband conducts himself with considerable aplomb no sudden
movements no panicked yelling no baring of teeth--he looks
warily at the monkey growling gently at his feet and stands
motionless. The monkey boldly ups the ante. It hurls itself
upon cousin's husband and clambers up his legs until it
settles on his lower torso from where it can grab the bag
on his shoulder with its front paws and tear at it with
its teeth. The fearsome beast savages the bag. The rest
of us are faint with terror. A sudden particularly brutal
offensive rends the bag in two, spilling its contents and
startling the monkey into jumping off and running away.
Everyone is stunned almost speechless
following this audacious display of ferocity. Cousin's husband
is praised (through clasped lips of course) for courage
in face of such danger (though suspicion remains among some
that he was merely paralysed with fear). Turns out monkey
is most likely after baby's milk bottle which is in bag
and retains trace quantities of milk. Baby fortunately left
at home. Cousin's husband roundly berated by all (through
clasped lips of course) for his idiocy in not leaving bottle
We walk on in protective clusters,
making sure not to stray too close to the edge of the path.
Notice with a start that some branches swoop high over the
path so that at any moment a monkey could drop on head from
middle of nowhere. Have to walk right under three villainous-looking
monkeys sitting on branch like nightclub bouncers begging
for an excuse to take you out back and rough you up. We
pass below, keeping lips tightly clamped and eyes to the
ground, not daring even to make accidental eye-contact.
A particularly mean-looking group of monkeys may or may
not be stalking us. Not a good sign. The sky has been darkening
steadily. With the home-field advantage, you have to figure
that poor light favours the monkeys.
We walk around to the front of the
Sacred Monkey Temple in the middle of the forest. This is
truly terrifying. The path runs along the sides of the temple
so on one side of you is the high temple wall crowned with
innumerable monkeys and on the other side of the narrow
path is a dense jungle populated by thickets of monkeys
so close you can reach out and be bitten by one. The effect
is that of walking down a long gloomy corridor-like alley
in some squalid part of town with hostile thugs crowding
the pavements and planning all manner of villainy. The temple
itself is spectacular and almost worth the terror that is
induced in reaching it.
The evening is drawing to a close
and we decide to retrace our steps back to where we have
come in. This would of course mean running the gauntlet
by the side of the temple again. I have a better idea if
we go out an alternative way we can loop back to our original
path without putting ourselves at the mercy of the temple
monkeys again. Emboldened by their successful and unmolested
navigation to the temple, the group pronounces itself willing
to return the way it has come, leaving only me and companion
to employ my cunning alternative route.
Thus it was that she and I were by
ourselves when we are waylaid by a monkey of robust proportions
and villainous countenance. This hirsute ruffian gallops
up to her and with bared teeth clearly expressing his perfidious
intent, grabs firm hold of companion's shawl and begins
to pull. Companion, indignant, holds on resolutely, and
for the next few seconds is involved in unseemly tug-of-war
with the determined primate, each making low growling noises
in their throat. Suddenly remembering the injunction not
to fight with the monkeys, she guiltily drops her end of
the shawl and retreats reluctantly.
The monkey is triumphant. It busies
itself with trying to determine the most flattering arrangement
for its new garment. First it rolls around in it a few times
to establish ownership. Then it tries all manner of arrangement.
Hmm... let's see... it looks good as a cape but it's hard
to swing through trees if you're cinching your cape around
your neck with one paw all the time. A shaw--but its shoulders
aren't wide enough to keep it on. It draws the shawl over
its head like a pallu and peers out. Quite chic really but
again the problem of holding it in place all the time.
Companion and I are weak now with
laughter. Trying to laugh through clamped lips is difficult
but the situation is hysterical. The monkey is mugging away
like its trying out for a Dior show, striking all manner
of glamourous pose and doubtless cursing the lack of a mirror,
to say nothing of opposable thumbs. Finally, frustrated,
the monkey stalks off, leaving behind a slightly soiled
shawl which we gingerly retrieve.
It turns out that the shawl belongs
not to companion but to her friend, the bride, who will
be needing it back. We promise never to breathe a word but
the story is so good that we barely are reunited with the
rest (who have not missed us and are casually in the process
of leaving) then all comes tumbling out. They have managed
to extricate themselves from forest with no further harassment
or molestation but all agree that the excursion has been
a touch more stressful than anticipated!