Lopburi isn’t too far outside of Bangkok, but it offers a glimpse into an older, smaller town. It’s pretty interesting historically speaking, dating back to over 1,000 years ago, and it even once stood as a Khmer stronghold. But I’ll be completely honest… I didn’t come for any of that. For once, I jumped on the tourist bandwagon and came to see the famous Lopburi monkeys!
I have no idea how or why the famed macaques decided to take over the ruins in Lopburi, but take over they did! Giant monkey statues greeted us as our train pulled up to the Lopburi station, immediately announcing that we were now in the monkeys’ domain. All along the streets, I caught little scurrying feet, and above my head, even more monkeys scampered across electric lines and street signs. But it wasn’t until we checked into our cute little room at Sri Indra that I realized just how many monkeys were in Lopburi!
Barely having settled our things in the room and checking for sneaky roaches, we threw open the curtains to let in the evening breeze. Sliding the glass pane to the side, we saw that an extensive network of chain link fence had been mounted just above the rooftops and along the walls of this side of Lopburi. Hovering just a couple of feet above and outside, the fence provided a complete alternate universe that belonged not to us, but the monkeys. They would run, climb, leap, and laze about, sometimes shaking the whole expanse with a fury I couldn’t decide was meant to express anger at being kept out, or at feeling caged in…
As I watched the scene with amazement, the sun sinking in the distance with the notorious deep hues of a SE Asian skyline, a rather large macaque attached himself just beyond our window, not 6 inches from our faces. We rushed for our cameras, but after a mistaken flash, the cute little furry fellow reminded us that these are not domestic friends, these are wild animals. He shook the fence with dangerous swaying, howling and hollering as he tried to reach us.
A timely warning I suppose, because our plans for the next day included nothing but getting up to some serious monkey business at Phra Prang Sam Yot, or as tourists appropriately call it, the Monkey Temple. This is the Holy Grail of Lopburi, the most-photographed and most-visited landmark of the city. Standing out with its golden monkey statues and three Khmer styled prangs, or towers, the temple is also the favorite resting place and home to hundreds of monkeys.
Here, there is little question as to who holds the upper hand. Upon entering the dark, cool corridors inside the temple walls, we got a chance to feel what it’s like to be caged in, the roles suddenly reversed. We trampled through the narrow spaces as monkeys ogled us through the bars, sticking fingers in to poke or prod us, curious as we looked out from within our temporary cage.
But it’s outside these walls that monkey mayhem really takes over. And can I say cuteness overload?? Especially the little baby monkeys, examining little cobs of corn or pulling tails, with their scrunched up old man faces and large, soulful eyes.
Most of the young monkeys seemed to flock to one of the Buddha statues, tumbling and careening down the smooth sides, or having a little mass wrestling match in the Buddha’s folded arms and lap. They seriously are cheeky little monkeys! We stood around this spot for ages watching them play with each other, as the adults sat around the perimeter looking on.
At one point, we were interrupted by a shrill shout… “Pi kah! Pi kah! Mister, mister, pi kahhh!” Two tourist girls who had been posing in the sidelines, with giant straw hats and requisite Asian peace signs, were outsmarted by one brave little guy who took off with her hat! I barely captured him as he stole away, the girls hollering and tour guide in mid-chase! In case you were wondering, she did eventually get her hat back…
As cute as they were, I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time one of the monkeys leapt onto my back! I have heard horror stories about vicious bites and rabies, and in a moment of flushed fear, I absolutely froze on the spot. Truthfully, the young monkeys were relatively harmless, much more interested in figuring out how to open my yellow purse or snapping the hair ties on my wrist than anything else. Some of the older monkeys are much more aggressive though, and I was sure to stay clear. Overfeeding from tourist hands most likely has something to do with that, and so I neglected to take part in the hustle of buying corn or sweet red juice to tempt little monkey tempers.
Actually, there’s a reason why feeding these wild monkeys is considered acceptable in Lopburi, where the monkey king/god Hanuman (with the head of a monkey and body of a man) is greatly revered. The city of Lopburi itself was supposedly granted to Hanuman as a thank-you gift for fighting along with Rama against the great demon, Ravana. Locals believe that the monkeys, as descendants of Hanuman, are thus a sign of superior good luck and good fortune. In fact, they host a giant monkey banquet once a year in which over 4 tons of food are gifted to the wily macaques. P.S. — we missed the banquet by one day. One day! Special thanks to the misinformation that often appears on the internet…
At any rate, some of these guys have obviously taken full advantage of the feeding frenzies. We saw a few monkeys like the one below, not looking especially comfortable in their extra layers during roasting hot afternoons. When a monkey like this wants to eat, all others clear the way and only come out for a bite once he’s had his fill.
So anyway, I’m fully aware that Lopburi is a bit of a tourist trap. But seeing the hordes of monkeys was totally worth a quick day or two in the town. Seriously, where else are you going to have sights like this everywhere you turn?
- Lopburi is a perfect stop if you’re heading North toward Chiang Mai. Take a break, stay one night, and then head on your way. The train stops right down the street from the guesthouses, street market, and most of the temples.
- If you don’t want monkeys jumping all over you, especially the big ones, don’t feed the monkeys! Always remember that they are wild animals first and foremost, and can be dangerous. Also, keep in mind that looking them in the eyes too long can be interpreted as a threat.
- Where to stay? If you’re looking for a lively spot where you can have a few drinks and swap stories with other travelers, check out Noom Guesthouse. Prices here are cheap, ranging from about 150-350 baht. The guesthouse is in a restored, older Thai-style home with loads of character but impossibly thin walls. If you want something quieter, check out Sri Indra, just down the street from Prang Sam Yot. Expect a very clean, hotel-style room with ensuite bathroom for under 300 baht, and views of those monkeys clambering on rooftops!
- You’ll find some wimpy Western food directed at tourists in Lopburi for sure, but please please opt for something local! Pick up a few bites at the market on the main strip, or even better, take a seat at Khao Tom Hor. Never mind if you don’t see a sign, it’s the busiest place on the street, and every plate is as delicious as the last!