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Fear and Loathing in Lopburi

The macaques of Thailand's monkey capital, Lopburi

Well, it’s not all loathing – just sounded like a catchy title for the post – since, as far as we could see, the inhabitants of the medium-sized, provincial Thai town of Lopburi appear to have a love-hate relationship with their simian co-residents.

The town’s population of urban, long-tailed macaques, currently stands at somewhere between 6 and 7,000. They don’t stay still for long, all look a bit the same – just a bit smaller or a bit larger – and are really not easy to count. To put it in perspective, the last census put the human population at around 58,000. However, at present, the minority section of the population is on the increase and the majority group is declining.

Lopburi city block
Lopburi, downtown city block

Unlike the human citizens who are spread across downtown and the suburbs, the monkeys tend to congregate in large groups or clans so in certain areas far outnumber their more evolved cousins. However, they don’t all live together, don’t all get on and are estimated to be divided into 7 or 8 main troops, groups or cland – each with its own territory and GHQ. Not surprisingly then there are occasional turf wars, some of which, as this much-viewed YouTube clip shows, can be spectacular. (A re-enactment of Agincourt or Chelsea vs Millwall spring to mind.)

Lopburi street gang
Lopburi street gang. (Bit fuzzy as we didn’t want to get too close with a camera)

The problem is that there are just too many of them and certain areas of the town centre have been abandoned with entire city blocks now derelict and given over to macaques, crumbling concrete and graffiti, (although you can’t blame the monkeys for the latter). Under a state of permanent siege, it’s impossible to even reside there, let alone run a shop, office or cafe. The last remaining bank branch has security guards with catapults, shopkeepers stand in doorways with bamboo canes and any brave cafe owners still operating, have to factor in a percentage of loss due to theft and damage.

Urban decay with monkeys
Urban decay with monkeys

Everything is covered in metal grills and barbed wire and electricity and phone cables are covered in spikes to prevent them from being used as trapezes and swings. Even if a few rare, courageous traders put up with it, nobody wants to shop there or sup an iced cappuccino while the waitress stands guard with a stick. More to the point these days, you can’t get your phone out as they’re the monkeys’ favourite non-edible target. A hardware shop is famous for being the last commerce on one particular block – the owner’s even been interviewed by Thai TV. His tactic is to place plastic crocodiles and life-sized tiger heads around his shop to frighten away the invaders.

This abandoned cinema is home to one of the city's largest clans
This abandoned cinema is home to one of the city’s largest clans

Of course, you’d have to go back many, many generations to find a local macaque that had actually seen a real tiger or croc but anyway – it does brighten up the hardware supplies.

Hardware store monkey deterrent
Hardware store monkey deterrent

Conversely, on a number of occasions we saw shopkeepers scaring away an aggressive bunch while one or two monkeys sat quietly in the store. The ticket seller at Prang Sam Yot handing out bamboo canes to each visitor actually had another one sitting on his lap. Certain chilled-out individuals that they ‘know’ personally are not only tolerated but treated with affection. These may have been older, smarter monkeys as it is a good way to get hassle-free treats. They were also generally females as the younger males tend to be the more aggressive ones – often fuelled by sugary junk food and drinks that they’ve stolen from cafes.

The various gangs used to frequent certain spots – parks, temples etc. – within the city but as the population increases they are spreading. Consequently, some residents have not only given up on the town centre but left the city altogether. Authorities tried a sterilization scheme but catching and operating on some 3,000 male macaques is not only hugely expensive but downright impossible. (Being Buddhists, they also won’t cull any.) Huge quantities of fruit and vegetables are delivered regularly as having thousands of hungry monkeys makes them more aggressive and wouldn’t look good to town visitors. Purpose-built suburban parks may rehouse them temporarily but most would simply move back to the city and relocating them further afield is impossible as who wants 7,000 relocated macaques?

Emtpy apartments, Lopburi town centre
Rows of emtpy apartments, Lopburi town centre

That said, we did begin our post with mention of a love-hate relationship and however annoying and intrusive they can be, locals know very well that it is macaques that have put Lopburi on the map. The town is famous – due partly to many similar video clips such as the above – and, although Lopburi does have some excellent historic monuments, it is largely the simian population that makes it stand out from any number of non-descript, mid-sized provincial Thai cities – as well as, and not least, attracting a steady stream of curious local and foreign visitors.

As mentioned – there are simply too many; the population is increasing daily and we wouldn’t begin to have any idea what they can do about it.

At the right time and place - they can even be quite cute!
At the right time and place – they can even be quite cute!

While not usually a fan of the pesky long-tailed macaques, we recently spent three days there without any monkey-related problems and found the whole thing rather amusing and certainly unique. Wouldn’t want to live there though!

We don’t currently include Lopburi on any of our regular Thai tours although it is easily done as a day trip from Bangkok.