For a fun festival with a difference, and one that is unique to Thailand, why not visit the ancient town of Lopburi in November when it holds the annual Monkey Buffet Festival? And yes, you’re quite right in what you’re thinking: a Monkey Buffet Festival is exactly what it sounds like!
Let’s start off with a little history about Lopburi before we get on to its most famous residents though. Lopburi is the capital of Lopburi province and is situated about 180 kilometers (approximately 111 miles) north east of the Thai capital, Bangkok. It is one of the oldest settlements in Thailand and it is said that the town was founded over 1000 years ago by King Kalavarnadish who came from a region in Northwest India – now modern day Pakistan. When the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was established in the fourteenth century Lopburi became a stronghold of Ayutthaya’s rulers and was designated the royal capital during the reign of King Narai the Great during the middle part of the 17th century. King Narai would thenceforth stay in Lopburi for around eight months of the year.
These days, however, Lopburi is not so much a royal capital but the home to hoards of monkeys – correctly known as Crab-Eating Macaques or Long Tailed Macaques. It probably comes as no great surprise to learn that this particular breed of monkey has both a long tail (typically longer than its body) and also likes crabs! A regular sized adult is 38 to 55cm long with comparatively short arms and legs however its tail is typically 40 to 65cm. The male macaques are a lot larger than the females, weighing in at around 5 to 9 kilograms whilst the females weigh approximately 3 to 6 kg.
Crab Eating Macaques are found across Southeast Asia where they live in groups of up to twenty female monkeys, their offspring, and any number of males, although each group normally contains less males than females: for these monkeys, the female is the boss! Despite the name, the monkeys do not live purely on a diet of crab, in fact it’s not even their main source of food and they exist by living on a range of different plants and animals. It seems that the Crab Eating Macaque is not a fussy eater as although 90% of their diet consists of seeds and fruit, they are also more than happy to eat virtually anything they can get their paws on including flowers, leaves, roots and even tree bark. They will also occasionally add some meat to their diet by feasting on baby birds, nesting female birds and their eggs plus lizards, frogs and fish.
Having said all that, the monkeys of Lopburi have co-existed alongside humans for so long now that they’re not afraid of, or averse to, snatching tuna sandwiches or a paw full of noodles from the plates of people dining al fresco either! The locals actually regard the monkeys as somewhat of a nuisance – there are over 3000 of them living downtown side by side with the town’s human residents – but they are undeniably a good source of income as they do bring in the tourist trade.
Although the Kingdom of Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist (around 95% of Thai people define themselves as Buddhists) the monkeys have a history which is rooted in Hinduism. In the 10th century the Khmer Dynasty built many Hindu temples, and if you have been to Cambodia and visited Angkor Wat you will recognize the style of architecture as being very similar. These temples are in the Old Town of Lopburi and make for some fascinating visits, as well as being excellent photo opportunities, particularly as this is where the Macaques have set up their headquarters, roaming the grounds and clambering over the ancient temples as is their want.
So why are the monkeys of Lopburi not driven out of town and tolerated by the locals? It all dates back to the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit tale which is attributed to the Hindu sage Valmiki. In this epic story, which is seen as one of the two great canons of India, a heroic monkey with human traits named Hanuman helped rescue a bride to be from a 10 headed demon and it is believed today that Hanuman founded Lopburi and that the monkey residents of the town are direct descendants of his bloodline. Whether it’s true or not or if it just makes for a quirky and interesting background to entice the tourists, we will never know. Having said that, even though the monks and practicing Buddhists of Lopburi are not, of course, followers of Hinduism, they do regard tending to and feeding the monkeys as a merit making activity and take care of them (or at least do their best not to be too angry with them when they have their mobile phones stolen by them!) accordingly.
So, this brings us to the Monkey Buffet Festival and it’s whys, what’s and wherefores. Despite the monkeys’ illustrious and ancient connections with the town, the Monkey Buffet is actually a pretty new tradition and one that was actually conjured up by a local business man with an eye on attracting tourists to the otherwise sleepy town. Lopburi’s convenient location in regards to Bangkok makes it ideal for a weekend or overnight stay either from the city, if passing through on the way to the Northeast region of Isan, or as a detour when heading to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai in the North.
So, who is the genius behind the annual Monkey Buffet Festival? For this we have a man by the name of Yongyuth Kitwattananusont to thank. Back in 1989 Kitwattananusont, a hotelier by trade, gained sponsorship and assistance from TAT – the Tourism Authority of Thailand – to launch his inaugural festival for the benefit of the monkeys’ stomachs, the town’s peoples’ wallets and the tourists’ holiday memories. Now the festival pulls in thousands of visitors every year bringing in much welcome income for Lopburi’s restaurants and hotels.
Khun Yongyuth also takes great enjoyment from the festival and he attempts to make each year a bigger and better spectacle from the previous one. One year saw him dressing up in a monkey costume and floating into the festival by parachute while in 2013, he aims to increase the already magnificent buffet by offering those cheeky monkeys over 4,000 kilograms worth of food!
And boy do those monkeys make the most of their buffet; they don’t care whether it’s good for the town’s collective bank balances or if it gives the tourists great photos to take home and share with their friends and family on Facebook or Twitter – they’re just happy to be able to gorge themselves and fill their furry stomachs to such excess one day a year. They’re probably also quite fond of the added opportunity to be able to grab some extra cameras or bags from unsuspecting tourists too! You have to wonder what these kleptomaniac monkeys do with all the things that they steal; do they store them all somewhere? Do they use them to trade with other monkeys? Have they secretly mastered how to take photos of their babies and upload them to Instagram?!
Regardless, the annual Monkey Buffet Festival is something that is surely looked forward to by Lopburi’s simian residents all year long. The buffet takes place in November and although dates can change from year to year, in 2013 it will be held on the 25th, which is a Monday. So what happens at the festival and where are the best spots for monkey picnic watching?
The Monkey Buffet takes place in the overgrown and ruined Khmer temple of Pra Prang Sam Yot where the majority of the monkeys live. But this is not just any old animal feeding time with fruit scattered on the ground; the monkeys are treated with reverence and respect and are even cordially invited to attend their feast with invitations that are attached to cashew nuts and distributed to the guests of honour. In fact this is a banquet worthy of a five star hotel as actual chefs lovingly spend hours preparing the food (which will be devoured in no time at all by the ungrateful diners!) The buffet is vegetarian: no baby bird or frogs here, thank you very much, and consists of fruit salads, sticky white rice and a traditional Thai desert called Thong yod, which means golden teardrop, and is made from egg yolk. Thong yod is reputedly difficult to make as it is hard to create the teardrop shape required, and it is also served at auspicious ceremonies, indicating that no time or expense is spared when it comes to honouring Lopburi’s most revered residents.
Endless oceans of bananas, mangos, dragon fruits, apples, pineapples, durians and all the other tropical fruits you can think of are spread out for the Macaques to feast upon. Some fruit will be encased in blocks of ice which the monkeys will lick in frustration, not being able to contain themselves and wait for the ice to melt. A perfect picture opportunity if you can catch one in action.
The buffet is served on long tables covered with crisp red table cloths – which don’t stay clean for long. Once the meal has been laid out it doesn’t take too long for the monkeys to make themselves completely at home and these distinctly badly behaved hairy individuals waste no time in stuffing themselves senseless then dancing on the tables, throwing leftover food and drink at each other and the watching tourists, and generally indulging in the type of behavior that would see them being swiftly thrown out of, and handed a lifetime ban, from the Hilton! It’s all for the tourists though and the bad behavior of the monkeys is delighted in by the camera wielding masses.
It is precisely this bad attitude and over familiarity with humans that drives the people of Lopburi somewhat crazy however and visitors to the town, whether during the festival or not, should be warned that these furry fiends are not backwards when it comes to being forwards and making a nuisance of themselves is practically their raison d’etre! Just wandering around town can be a hazardous occupation and you will need to keep an eye on your belongings pretty much all the time. Daylight robbery is a common occurrence and the monkeys are always on the lookout for an opportunity to add to their collection of stolen swag, so keep a firm hold of mobile phones, cameras, handbags and purses and anything else you value and don’t particularly want to donate to Lopburi’s hairy community.
It’s not just criminal acts that can be a problem however; some of the monkeys’ behavior can be downright anti-social too. They hang out along roof tops and telegraph wires, occasionally defecating on unsuspecting pedestrians, jumping on the backs of passersby and pulling their hair and indulging in, let’s just call it extreme displays of public affection, if you catch my meaning! As mentioned, providing you aren’t a victim of monkey robbery, this can all be very amusing and does make for some great photos and tales to tell back home, but the (human) locals are not quite so enamored of their neighbours’ exploits, despite the money they are responsible for bringing into the town. It’s somewhat of a simian swings and roundabouts situation.
Once the Monkey Buffet Festival is over, if you’re looking for a quiet, chilled out place to stay for a day or two, Lopburi makes a pleasant enough, low key place to relax and, Monkey Buffet aside, one that’s not really on the tourist trail. It’s a small town and is easy to walk around and is fairly interesting from the vantage point of seeing a typical Thai town go about its day to day business, albeit it a town with a historic past. Anyone interested in the ancient empires of the Kingdom might find Lopburi interesting. Of course there are the Khmer temple ruins – Prang Khaek (Shiva Shrine), San Phra Kan (Kala Shrine), Prang Sam Yot (Three Spired Shrine) and the tower at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat to visit but the Dvaravati, Sukhothai and Ayuthaya empires all also established their administrative centres here at various points in the past.
If you’re tempted by the mixture of ancient ruins and appallingly behaved Macaques, Lopburi is quick and easy to get to from Bangkok and other points across the country. Here’s how:
Frequent buses leave Bangkok’s North and Northeastern (Mo Chit) bus station and take around three and a half hours to arrive at Lopburi’s bus station which is on Naresuan Road, approximately 2km outside of the Old Town.
It is also easy to take the train. Whether coming from the north and from the direction of Ayuthaya, or from the south and Bangkok, you’ll arrive at Lopburi’s train station on Na Phra Kan Road which is handily located within walking distance to the historic sites and to hotels and guest houses. If you only want to stop off for half a day or so, the station will let you store your baggage there.
In Thailand there are several choices of trains, ordinary, rapid and express, so make sure you know which one you’re getting if time is of the essence for you. Different trains cost different amounts, with the ordinary being the cheapest. If departing from Bangkok, take the train from the main Hualamphong station; there are a number of departures to Lopburi throughout the day and night. The rapid and express trains take approximately three hours and the ordinary trains about four and a half hours.
Whether you go to Lopburi to see the ancient ruins or especially for the Monkey Buffet Festival you’re sure to have unforgettable time in this laid back monkey paradise!