We’re in the Planet of the Apes.
There are monkeys all over the place. Some are sitting, staring like this guy above, others on hind legs, waiting, and others scampering after each other to say hi or settle a real estate claim. But no matter what they’re up to, all of them are interested in one thing: our banana collection. And, the truth is, we haven’t got one. No collection and no bananas. And, as we advance towards them on the pathway ahead of us, we’re both wondering if maybe we should have invested in one.
We’re in Monkey Forest, in Ubud, Bali – its name says it all. It’s a huge green space in the middle of the town Ubud:
which is essentially one big monkey exhibit, with no cages, electric fences or any other sort of containment. Monkeys roam and monkeys rule. And, their decisions are based almost entirely on the single pillar of their economy:
I assumed that “official” meant the proceeds went to the upkeep of the forest and wasn’t trying to trip up a naive tourist, who somehow couldn’t decide between these bananas for $1 or a stall to the right, just out of frame, selling for half that price.
In any case, watching most people walk in to the Forest with a bunch of bananas is to watch someone lose their childhood. Starting out, there’s some coo-chee-koo talk, still firmly within the mindset that they’re chatting with Curious George.
Then, the turn. One monkey shows up, lunging towards the person who, surprised by how quickly it moves, drops the banana, and says out loud: “OH”.
A second monkey shows up followed by four more behind him ready for the pillage, and the person starts backing up a bit, saying: “Oh, Oh, Oh. Oh my gosh” – until finally, a monkey crawls up the person’s leg, now one of 20 surrounding him and the person drops the entire bunch with a nervous squeal: “AHHHHHHH”and runs down the path into the forest.
Of course, there are other tourists. There are tourists, who, upon seeing these squealing wusses, decide that they’re much more cultivated. In fact, they’ve got a purpose here this afternoon: they’re animal behaviourists. They’ve decided they’re here to study monkeys up close, in the flesh. The closer the better.
Soon enough, however, many of these tourists look like riders on a roller-coaster who really, really want to get off.
He or she will bend down to the monkey – meeting the monkey on equal terms: after all, as an animal behaviourist, one should remain objective and not create bias. The person then offers the monkey a piece of banana. Success. The monkey goes for it. Now this time around the person offers another piece but holds it back slightly.
The monkey then decides to clamber up their arm, which is exactly what the person wanted. Now the animal behaviourist can get a photo with a monkey. Click. But, in that moment, when the person was getting their picture taken, the monkey wasn’t being fed any bananas. So, the monkey does it himself and decides to start looking for one, all over the person’s body. Pulling on hair, pulling on ears, pulling on their shirt, searching for what was promised.
At this point, the animal behaviourist quickly trades in the calm exterior of their scholarship for the panicked bleets of an innocent bystander with: “AAAAH. GET THIS F*^CKIN MONKEY OFF ME”!.
Amazingly, this was the best case. We saw another woman who, while not imagining the monkey next to her was Curious George, seemed to approach it instead with the image of a chimpanzee smoking cigarettes – a harmless curiosity. She edged closer and closer to it, staring down at the monkey, until it was touching her left arm. Ready for a photograph – the monkey, no doubt sensing he wasn’t going to get a reward for his portrait, leaned over baring his teeth, and bit the lady’s arm.
Thankfully it didn’t draw blood, but it didn’t help our own progress through the Forest as Rose gasped in horror: “Its teeth!”.
“Yeah, they’re pretty big eh?”, I replied and kept walking into a little spot next to a river, mainly to keep moving and not think about their teeth. As we got farther down the narrow river path, we realized it was a dead end.
And, in true horror movie fashion, a second later there was a rustling above us on the embankment. We looked up and saw a wave of monkeys fly off the edge, land right in front of us, and as I turned my body to protect against what was surely going to be a rough banana inspection, they flew off again.
This was enough to cement Rose’s fear who asked/ordered we get out of this little alleyway where sooner or later we’d be mugged by an ape, something which in retrospect might be worth it just to be able to use those words with a policeman:
“How would you describe your assailant?”
“I’VE BEEN MUGGED BY AN APE!”.
Oddly, there’s more to this place than just monkeys. I take back “oddly”. We’re in a Monkey Forest – I think it’s already odd enough. I’m not sure it can get any odder.
But, along the way someone decided to build a pair of terracotta Komodo Dragons, overlooking a river below:
Interesting enough. Not quite sure why, but as I said, it already feels like a paralell universe so why not?
The other interesting thing we discovered was a temple in the Forest, which true to its origin had plenty of monkeys inscribed along its outerwall in various forms of monkey-ness, including what I’m convinced is the sculpted image of a monkey having its way with a dog without, in my opinion, even the slightest pretence of seduction.
There was also a sign on the temple saying: “Prayer in session, please do not enter.” I had a look over the fence, but didn’t see any sign of people. Plenty of monkeys, though. Did they mean to leave the monkeys in peace so they could pray for more bananas?
After walking through another gauntlet of monkeys in front of us:
we wandered down a sidepath where a woman breezed past us holding a plastic bag. A guide who worked in the Forest stopped to say: “Please tuck your bag away. The monkeys will go for it”. She nodded at him, as if in comprehension, but then did nothing. The guide sucked air through his teeth in frustration.
Witnessing the exchange I shook my head in sympathy with the guide who said: “People. They don’t listen”.
“So, they’ll just take it from her?”, I asked. “They look for food. Think there’s banana.”, he said.
Having seen other guides like him shooing away greedy monkeys and untangling them from some women’s hair, I thought he had a pretty daunting job. Maybe he’s no shark wrangler, but putting himself between bananas and potassium addicted monkeys all day can’t be easy.
We chatted with him a bit more then wandered off down another trail, leaving the possibility of hearing the sound of a crinkling plastic bag and a woman’s screams behind.
Soon enough we walked into our own dilemma. Between us and the exit was yet another gathering of monkeys plunked down across the path, as if they were at a music festival waiting for the next act.
And, lo and behold, guess what we were? Right. The next act. As I walked through the gang, they closed ranks afterwards, leaving Rose on the other side. Now when Rose gets scared she tenses up, puts her arms out in a way that looks like she’s about to do jumping jacks, and makes low pitched growling sounds: “errrrrrErrrrr raaahhhhh” that pitches in frequency according to how scared she is.
At the moment, she was doing a pretty good imitation of a tiger roar, as the monkeys began slowly wandering towards her. Somehow, she managed to evade the posse (maybe the roaring helped), and came next to me. Here, I wanted to take a photo of the monkeys heading towards us from behind. As I went to open my bag to get my camera, one monkey bolted ahead, running up to me, ready to climb up my leg and have a look.
So, with Rose’s increasingly louder growls along with her imitation of the Dog Whisperer when he touches a problem dog: “SHHHT”, I decided I’d keep my camera in its sleeve and we wandered off. Rose ensuring, with repeated Cesar Millan skills, that we were away from harm’s way.
That brought our session to a close in Monkey Forest. My only wish was that if one had got on me, I hoped I would have had the presence of mind to say out loud:
“GET YER HANDS OF ME, YA DAMN DIRTY APE!”.
More from Ubud coming.