Ubud, a green town set in the hills of central Bali, Indonesia is the perfect place to unwind from the party-hard lifestyle of Seminyak and Kuta. Indeed, it is often the next stop for many backpackers moving around the most famous Indonesian island. While there is enough to do in Ubud to eat up weeks of your time, by far the most rewarding experience is a visit to Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest. The cheeky fellas in this natural sanctuary are charming and naughty in equal measure, but they are also wild. If you let them, they can be little terrors. We’ve read too many unnecessarily negative stories about the place so here is the story of how we ‘survived’ our visit unscathed.
A LITTLE ABOUT THE FOREST
Ubud’s Monkey Forest is set amongst centuries-old Hindu temples and holds 678 long-tailed Macaques – macaca fascicularis – (as of our visit in Nov. 2016). Of the adults, there are 268 female adults to 59 lucky males. Although the monkeys have 31.5 acres of land to roam, the male-female ratio leads to the occasional fighting over who gets the girl – as you might expect. The macaques main food source is sweet potato which is given to them three times a day by the sanctuary rangers. They also eat corn, papaya, banana, banana leaves, cucumber, coconut, and other local fruits.
FUN FACT: The forest is sacred because of the Hindu principle of Tri Hita Karana – three causes of happiness. The essence of this in this context is that, under this principle, monkeys are sacred creatures and are therefore well-protected.
WHAT HAPPENED TO US?
We walked down to the forest from our homestay with Emily and Bruce, the other British couple we were travelling with. Before we even arrived the little monkeys were on top of cars, hanging-out on lampposts, and pinching morsels of food from the local shops. Filled with excitement at getting close to these chaps, we paid the stupendously cheap entrance fee of 40000 Rupiah each (30000Rph for children) and drained our bottles of water (as per rule 2 below). Tentatively edging through gates we were immediately greeted with a few bullish males waiting to steal any food we’d failed to leave behind.
Within minutes of being in the forest, the four of us had fallen in love with the place. It is huge, and the monkeys are truly charming. We soon came upon a stall selling bananas to visitors; carnage ensued and monkeys came out of nowhere to swoop bananas like early birds catching worms. The carcasses of butchered bananas lay strewn across the forest floor. On the corner, discarded sweet potato skins indicated that these had suffered the same fate.
No sooner had we avoided the first banana stall, that we came across another one in an open courtyard. Western girls with long hair queued up to buy bananas for the monkeys and screamed as they were swarmed, hair was pulled, and skin scratched. Kids approached monkeys and then hastily retreated when they got too close. It was quite a sight; humans of all sizes being terrorised by their primate cousins. Bearing witness to all this, it took a while to pluck up the courage to buy some bananas ourselves.
Standing in the courtyard alone, wielding three bananas, surrounded by would-be banana-murderers was nerve-racking but exhilarating. Quickly, a large male monkey attempted to scale my lofty height. Unfortunately, for the big guy, he couldn’t grip onto my vest top, so reluctantly gave up whilst other smaller lads jumped up to claim their prize.
In their haste, they smeared banana over my shoulders. Initially, this was pretty gross but, soon after we sat on a wall to watch other tourists freak out, some of the smaller, younger guys were attracted to the scent on my shoulders. It gave us the chance to get some great photos, but more importantly I had wild monkeys on my shoulder stroking my head. What?
The feeling was immense, and Emily’s jealousy that they chose Bruce and I, instead of her, made the whole thing even sweeter. Katherine was pretty terrified by the whole episode – especially after her hair bun had been mussed and she’d been punched in the eye (a clumsy hand not an ‘attack’); – but nothing was stolen, except Bruce’s cigarettes which were torn up and thrown on the floor. Perhaps as a sign from Mother Nature – ‘SMOKING IS BAD’.
We spent about two hour in the forest after this point, hoping that more monkeys would show some interest in us. On our walk around, we saw tourists with food, loose items of clothing, and some trying to snatch things back that the monkeys had taken. It seems that many were not expecting wild monkeys, known for their tendency to steal, to be roaming around a wild monkey forest.
We found that avoiding the Wrath of the Macaques is pretty simple.
THE BASICS OF HOW TO SURVIVE THE MONKEY FOREST
- Follow the rules: Okay, so this seems obvious and maybe we’re killjoys but you are about to enter the territory of wild animals known to be thieves. Follow the rules and no harm will befall you.
- Don’t bring food or drinks: They will have it off you within minutes of walking through the gates. They can sniff it on you or your bag, and I promise you they will loot your snacks. They even know how to unscrew bottle caps.
- Remove glasses and other loose items: These guys are little thieves and will try and take anything that might give them a bit of status in their colony. This includes phones, wallets, and hair bobbles. I’d even consider taking off your earrings if you are planning to have them jump on you.
- If you buy bananas to feed them expect them to jump on you: DON’T PANIC. Don’t scream. Don’t try snatching the bananas back, and UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES look them in the eyes; it’s a sign of aggression, and you’re asking for it.
- Try not to get too close to mothers with babies: Obviously they will be protective of their young so don’t approach closer than you need to. The photo isn’t worth it. Definitely no eye contact with mothers.
- Consider whether bringing young children would be wise: Young children are prone to panicking, screaming, running away, and may not fully understand the rules. We agreed that if we had children below 6, we wouldn’t visit; especially if they’re in pushchairs.
JUST BE PREPARED, USE YOUR BRAIN AND YOU’LL BE FINE
This is not a comprehensive guide for avoiding monkey ‘attacks’. It doesn’t need to be. The monkeys only want to take what you’ve brought with you into their territory. They didn’t touch our GoPros or sunglasses, but if you’re worried don’t bring them. If you follow the rules you more than likely won’t get hurt. You’ll have a fulfilling experience getting as close to wildlife as possible, in an Asian animal tourism venue not associated with animal cruelty; a desperately rare thing.
To reiterate, these animals are charming and cheeky, but ultimately, wild. If they bite, scratch, or act aggressively, remember that they are wild and you are in their territory. Think about how you acted before complaining about the monkeys’ aggressive behaviour. This experience was easily one of the best we’ve had on our trip through Southeast Asia. We feel that we could have photographed them all day, seeing how their families work, how their colonies act with each other, and how food dramatically changes each relationship. Just watching them so closely is truly fantastic opportunity.
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