Thailand, 2011

 

My Third Time In Thailand

In January 2011, I returned once again to Thailand. As before I flew into Bangkok and booked a room in Chinatown, my favourite neighbourhood in the city.

My main objective on this trip was to visit Laos. Back in 2008 I had spent a hurried few days in southern Laos. I had cut through that part of the country on my way from Vietnam back to Thailand. Unfortunately I had little time to spend in Laos because my return date back home from Bangkok was fast approaching .

Before journeying on to Laos I took a day trip from Bangkok to Lopburi, Thailand. Lopburi is famous for being a town where monkeys and people coexist peacefully together. Most of the time anyway.

The monkeys of Lopburi belong to a species known as Crab-Eating Macaques. They have free reign over the city. Not only is their presence just tolerated, they are regularly fed by the local people . In fact, since 1989 there has been an annual Monkey Festival held in November in honour of the simian residents of Lopburi. A huge, elaborate feast is laid out for them. In addition to tons of fresh fruit, cakes and ice cream, sticky rice and other treats are set out for the macaques to help themselves to. As the macaques throw themselves on the piles of succulent treats, mayhem ensues. They gorge themselves with abandon. They often also resort to food fights with each other. Imagine the mess they must create. I wish I had been in Lopburi to witness the Monkey Festival.

Monkeys have an honourary place in Thai culture because they are associated with the brave deeds attributed to the monkey-headed Hindu god Hanuman. Because of this, they are thought to bring good luck. This helps to explain why macaques get the red carpet treatment in Lopburi.

All this pampering has, not surprisingly, led to the macaques of Lopburi having no fear of people. In fact they can be very bold and brash in their interactions with humans. Some will attempt to steal anything they think might be edible. They are well known as bag snatchers and think nothing of making off with any food left unguarded for more than a second or two. Some go further than that. As soon as they scope out a suitable mark they’ll pounce on them and begin stuffing their hands into any bags their hapless victims are carrying. Whether you can take that with a sense of humour or not will really determine if you want to journey to Lopburi to see them.

I explored aimlessly around the town for awhile after disembarking from the train. At first I didn’t see any monkeys. Then suddenly on one street I saw a young macaque sitting on the handlebars of a motorcycle. Because I had never been in Lopburi before I didn’t know how close I could approach without scaring it off. I slowly inched closer trying to not be threatening. I wanted to get a tight close-up photo of the little rascal as he sat there. I needn’t have worried. The little macaque paid no attention to me and I got my photo. Immediately after that a cluster of macaques ran along the second storey ledge of a building across the street and then climbed up a jumble of telephone wires until they scampered out of sight around the street corner. Almost immediately after that more macaques emerged from a store rooftop almost directly above me. They scampered along more telephone wires in the same direction as the first group I had seen. My curiosity piqued, I headed off in their direction.

I didn’t have to walk far before seeing the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple called Phra Prang Sam Yod. There were dozens of macaques on the steps and ledges of the temple and around the grounds. I had found monkey central.

Still wanting to get more close-up shots of the macaques I made a beeline for the largest cluster of them. When I was a couple of meters away two of them jumped me. One landed on my shoulder bag and began trying to dig its hands inside. The second one jumped on my lower back and with great swiftness and ease clambered up onto my shoulder leaving small holes in my t-shirt with its claws. Not wanting to encourage any others to follow their lead I backed away from the group. The macaque on my bag jumped off quickly having satisfied himself that I wasn’t carrying any food in my bag. Meanwhile the other one starting picking through my hair like he was trying to groom the lice from a fellow monkey. I was amused by that.

After the second macaque jumped off me I approached closer to the ruins of the temple in the hopes of getting a close-up photo of a monkey with my wide angle lens. I looked for one that was alone. If I was going to get pounced on again I preferred to be ambushed by one at a time rather than get mobbed. I didn’t have to wait long. One curious little guy walked right up to within a few inches of my camera looking right into the lens. I got my shot and I backed away.

Next I wanted to get some photos of the macaques from inside the temple. The doors and windows of the Phra Prang Sam Yod temple are barred so the the macaques can’t enter. Being denied entry doesn’t stop them from trying to scrounge handouts from the people inside. The macaques push their faces between the iron bars and stick their opens palms up at the visitors in the temple. More often than not they succeeded in getting some snacks that way.

Soon it was time to catch a train to return to Bangkok. On the journey back I couldn’t help but laugh at the notion that I had been almost mugged by a monkey. That was a life experience that I had never previously hoped for but will treasure nonetheless.

The next day in Bangkok I bought a train ticket for Nong Khai a city on the border with Laos. The train would not leave until the evening so I had another day to kill in Bangkok. Having been in Bangkok twice before I was running out of ideas for things to do to keep me occupied.

I decided to check out Siam Ocean World in the Siam Paragon Mall. I generally avoid malls but I thought the idea of an ocean oriented theme park located in a giant Thai shopping mall was something I wouldn’t get a chance to see too often. The experience was mildly amusing. The aquariums were quite large and many types of sea creatures were on display. I got to watch some penguins being fed. Everybody likes penguins. On the whole the place was more suited to family outings than for singles.

Once I got to Nong Khai there was one more place I wanted to see before journeying on to Laos. Sala Kaeo Ku is a spacious park featuring a number of over-sized concrete sculptures with Hindu and Buddhist religious motifs. Construction started here in the late ’70’s and took 20 years to complete. The whole thing was the culmination of the life’s work of a Buddhist visionary named Luang Pu Bunieva Sulilat. He had built a smaller version of Sala Kaeo Ku in his native Laos but was forced out of the country after the Communist takeover.

The sculptures in the park have a unique styling that you won’t see elsewhere in Thailand. Sala Kaeo Ku (there are many ways it is spelled in English) has many detractors. It’s often criticized for being in bad taste but I didn’t agree with that assessment. I found the gigantic scale of many of the sculptures (some are as tall as 25 meters) and their peculiar appearance to be worth taking the time to go see. If you’re ever around this part of Thailand it’s definitely worth seeking out.

With my visit to Sala Kaeo Ku out of the way I felt that I had seen and done everything in Thailand that I wanted to to. Now it was time to cross the Friendship Bridge to Laos.

 

 

 

 

 

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