It started innocently enough, as these things often do. He gazed at me with caramel-brown eyes as he tickled my palm with the tips of his fingers, and I, so smitten with his affectionate caress and enamored by his disheveled mohawk hairdo, hardly noticed when he slipped his hand into my purse, nabbed a wad of several rupiah, and ran for the woods—quite literally.
"No, monkey," I cried as I chased the macaque up a series of steps, the Indonesian currency he'd so swiftly lifted from my bag dropping one bill at a time behind him as he ran. By the time he stopped, the monkey held a lone 100,000-rupiah bill—about $8—in his little hand.
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I reached for the cash, but this pint-sized gangster wasn't going to give it up without a fight. The monkey bared his teeth and hissed, and bit into the bill as if it were a banana. It wasn't the tasty morsel he'd surely anticipated, so he spat it out—and ripped what remained of the bill in half for good, mischievous measure. He left me a little heartbroken, and a lot amused.
Google Ubud's infamous Monkey Forest, and you'll quickly find dozens of harrowing stories of survival, people who've lost water bottles, snacks, and even jewelry to the 700 beguiling and thieving inhabitants of the 30-acre protected park. But losing a bottle or bauble—plus the 50,000-rupiah entrance fee—seems like a small price to pay to get an intimate look at—and dozens of priceless up-close-and-personal photos of—such charming creatures.
But thieves, animals—even molesters—they are. On my first trek through the temple-laden site, beyond a Banyan tree so old the sanctuary doesn't bother to estimate its age, on a wood railing that runs through the thickest part of the forest, sat a small macaque all too eager to leap from his perch into my arms, where I held him like a baby and cooed—until he pulled my shirt from my chest and reached his hand beneath the fabric, scavenging, and when he found it was flesh and not lychees filling my bra, bounded off, never to be seen again.
Of course, not all these monkeys are out for whatever they can snatch. On my second recent visit to the forest, I watched a ranger gently drum on the head of a female macaque, and she closed her eyes, enjoying his rhythmic taps like a dog enjoys a good scratch behind the ears.
"Do you know her?" I asked the ranger. Yes, he told me. Her name is Ayla, and he sees the seven-year-old monkey every day he works at the park.
"But how do you know it's her?" I asked, incredulous that the ranger could pick her from this crowd. He looked at me as if I was the ridiculous one. "Every monkey has a different face," he said, as he rubbed her stomach and then scratched her armpit. "She is my friend."
Even those monkeys that keep a safe distance put on a show: They slither down 115 species of trees like fire poles, ride manmade wooden railings as if they were slides, causally laze on 14th century stone temples, and swing from vines, of course, through woods that seemed ripped from an Indiana Jones movie set. They devour bananas and corn and sweet potatoes, raw, and talk using sounds that range from a chirping bird to a hissing cat.
You can largely choose your experience here: Stand back and take in the show from a safe distance, or interact with the animals—under the watchful gaze of the park's rangers—in various ways. Bananas are sold for 20,000 rupiah a piece or 50,000 rupiah a bunch, and if you're brave enough, a ranger will watch as you hold a banana above your head and more than one monkey scrambles up your trunk and onto your shoulders, working to be the first to snatch it from your fist. If you're lucky, the victor will stay long enough for you to snap a photo or two—but if you're smart, you'll bring a friend to capture the escapade on video.
In an amphitheater-like setting in the middle of the sanctuary, you can sit on steps and gaze at monkeys playing in the grass. One or two—or four—might sidle up to your side and paw at your purse, camera, the bottle of water you saw on the entrance sign you shouldn't bring but carried in anyway. They'll sit in your lap. (One sat on my head.) And when they see your attention is averted and the ranger is busy chasing off another badly behaving monkey, one will surely grab that bottle and make a run for it. If this kind of thievery appeals to you, by all means, bring in a water bottle. But otherwise, leave everything you feel you can't afford to lose at your hotel. You will lose everything a monkey's hand or mouth or tail can hold.
You're warned by signs and rangers and the screams of other park guests not to touch the monkeys, an important and well-meaning directive I personally found impossible to oblige. A smarter man or woman might worry about getting bit; no cases of rabies have been seen at the park, but rabies or not, a bite is still a painful prospect indeed. There's a clinic on site if a monkey takes a chomp out of anything other than a banana. Otherwise, if you're sitting, simply standing will ward off a monkey's wandering paws—and walking away is a suitable solution if you're already upright. Don't ever push, pet, or pick up a monkey, the forest warns.
In fact, rangers will tell you not to maintain eye contact with the monkeys or smile, bearing your teeth—both signs of aggression that can be met with hissing, charging, or worse. Good luck not breaking into an ear-splitting grin when you see a baby macaque flailing unsteadily behind his mother, not yet able to maintain his balance, every wiggle eliciting a giggle.
If you choose to go to Ubud's Monkey Forest, heed my advice—and hit me up. I'm already ready to go back, and they say the third time is a charm.