Lopburi: Planet of the Apes (Monkeys, whatever)

In which I watch a pig get stripped down to its component parts and get bullied by monkeys.

Although today's story starts in Saraburi, my guide book failed to mention the city and I will not devote many more words than that. It is in most respects a pretty forgettable place, but since I was in town I decided to explore.

I soon became very lost among the narrow, crowded streets but now that I am armed with a rudimentary knowledge of Thai I can get around and back a little. In the meanwhile, my wandering led me to the meat market. It was a horrific, blood-soaked affair which although appalling to me as a vegetarian, was a marvel of efficiency in animal deconstruction. I watched as the carcasses of pigs were relieved of their various appendages and processed for sale. Heads were soaked and scrubbed; feet were de-hoofed, halved and chopped up; and glistening piles of organs and innards were placed in plastic tubs. There were torsos hanging in various states of disassembly, thick slabs of what looked like it would be bacon arranged on wooden planks, and other parts and by-products sorted and prepped. I wondered what they use the heads for.

Satisfied that I had seen all the city had to offer, I returned to the area where the route vans collect, picking up some pineapple along the way. It tasted faintly of Ebola, and if I die, please go speak to the fruit dealer near the vans in Saraburi and tell him I want my 30 cents back.

As I write these words it is about 8:00 PM, but I feel like today was at least two days long. Sort of like the last time I traveled with the monks when our overnight trip turned into a three day journey into the heart of darkness and ants. This time, the mascot wasn't ants, though (more on that in a moment.) The city of Lopburi could easily have been another unremarkable provincial capital in central Thailand, but there was a specific reason I came to this place: monkeys.

I had learned that there were a lot of macaque monkeys around here and that they were often spotted in the streets. As it happens, that is a total understatement because this city is so completely overrun with monkeys that in certain ares they present a tripping hazard. I almost kicked one when I was walking and he leaped up at me, growling, with teeth bared. The monkeys here exist in such numbers that it is as if they have organized and are now in a position to demand concessions from the locals. In fact they have done exactly that. There are a couple of areas on the edges of the Old City where huge open bowls are kept in playgrounds which were built to feed and amuse the monkeys and hopefully keep some of them out of the center of town. These feeding areas are tough places though, where frequent squabbles and turf wars erupt, resulting in monkey explosions that send the animals hurtling in every direction.

Despite these efforts, they are still everywhere in town. They are on the buildings and the cars. I saw one bend the windshield wiper of a parked van. They are on the sidewalks and they are on the power lines, sometimes causing them to fall down due to their combined numbers and gymnastic exertions. They sometimes drop down to street level on raids, stealing anything and everything from the vendors. In response to this, many of the town's residents carry slingshots and long staffs for when they have to engage in combat with a larger raiding party. The residents do not harm the monkeys, even with the slingshots, because they believe they are descended from an ancient monkey god and that harming them would be karmically problematic.

I had seen enough monkey bite scars on the arms of locals to know that I wasn't exactly dealing with Curious George here. These guys were wild and fearless, and although I got as close to them as I could to check them out and take pictures I was nervous that one of them would try to grab my iPod. There is a camera hanging from the power line outside my hotel and I doubt one of those macaques paid for it. The big males were intimidating, but the mothers with babies were the real problem. The babies would wander all over the place, and then when a mother would suddenly look for her baby, if she discovered it anywhere near me she would freak out and lunge at me. 

Having spent the last couple of days doing a lot of walking and climbing around ruined temples, I decided to treat myself to a traditional Thai massage. Back in the 1800s, the Thai King Rama III built a temple and school to preserve and promote this most traditional Thai activity, and now in many cities there exist Thai massage schools, generally based on the grounds of a wat. In many ways, the wat serves as a community center, and hosting the massage school creates one more reason for people to make regular visits to the temples.

This experience turned out to be a great and unexpected learning moment in which I feel I gained some real insight into Thai culture. Many of my interactions with local people have been either in public places or at various wats where I am already well versed in the culture, etiquette and expectations. In addition, appearing in the company of monks gives me automatic insider status in places where outsiders ordinarily would not penetrate. In unmediated public settings, the Thai people have always been exceedingly polite, curious and sometimes even excited to see a farang.

However, the unexpected appearance of a farang at at massage school in a wat in a town that does not get that many tourists to begin with caused immediate consternation. I walked in and was greeted near the front door. The man thought I was lost, perhaps, because he seemed perplexed at my request for a massage. We went inside, and he stepped behind a curtain. I heard him say a long sentence or two, the last word being "farang," and I could understand enough Thai to understand that no one wanted to give me a massage.

It was extremely awkward, but in my halting Thai I threw out "Thai people don't like farang." The situation then quickly resolved itself in typical Thai fashion: we all laughed and the matter was settled. I was led back into the main area which was a large open room with a row of mats on the floor down both sides. The 18 or so mats were about 24" apart, and on almost every one was a Thai man or woman, clothed in loose fitting garments supplied by the school, attended by uniformed masseurs and masseuses. Despite the light-hearted resolution to the situation, I was painfully aware of the disturbance my presence had caused.

The massage began and after a while the normal atmosphere of the place reasserted itself. Quiet conversations went on between the clients on the mats and the adjacent clients and masseurs. There was an easy comfort as neighbors and friends relaxed and laughed softly together in this very intimate setting. Over the course of the two hour massage (cost: about $7) they began talking to me a bit as well, and between their limited English and my (very) limited Thai they understood a little about my trip and what I was doing. I felt their misgivings fade a bit, and by the end of it I felt very appreciative that they had allowed me to enter this interior part of their culture.

I went back to my hotel room (cost: about $5) afterwards to rest before finding some dinner (cost: about $1), and as I lay there in the tropical heat watching two geckos dart around the ceiling hunting mosquitoes and listening to the sounds of monkeys probing my hotel windows for vulnerable entry points I wondered what I was doing here, so far from my home and family. This type of travel can be tough sometimes, with occasional periods of doubt and loneliness, confusion and alienation. But sometimes when we can make a connection and gain some real insight it's all worthwhile.

I am very grateful to my wife for giving me her blessing to make this trip. Travel has always been an important part of my life, and although we do travel as a family, these types of experiences can really only happen when one travels as a renunciate, leaving everything behind and heading out with a heart both open and empty, like the monk's begging bowl, ready to gratefully accept whatever is given.

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