Day 30: Human infestation of Lopaburi
These God damn humans making a mess of my town, the elderly monkey seems to think. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
DESPITE the claims of nearly ever blog and travel book, Lopburi isn't a people place with a monkey problem. It's a monkey town with a human infestation.
A small monkey starts making its way back across the ancient laterite blocks of a crumbling prang toward a modern shrine built into the ruins.
Those paying respects to the four-armed Vishnu body, which is done in a Lopburi-Khmer style with an Ayuthaya-era Buddha head attached, have taken their shoes off at the entrance. The monkey recently made a get away with a single black flip-flop, but eventually lost her trophy to a grounds keeper.
She's clearly back for trouble.
Spend enough time with monkeys and it's easy to spot when they are feeling particularly mischievous, though that doesn't necessarily mean they won't still make off with your ice cream.
Seeing the look in her eyes, I back away and position myself and the camera to catch whatever trouble she has in mind.
A French teenager is sitting on a stone stool with her back to the monkey, unaware of it approaching.
The monkey pounces.
Strong little fingers, pull hard on the girl's ponytail as the monkey wrestles her black scrunchy free. The girl's face is in shock and then flashes a bit of pain. Finally, the monkey frees the hairband and retreats.
The girl's fine, a bit bemused, but mostly shocked.
The entire time I clicked away with the camera. I show her the pictures, hoping that her family will want them – another chance to spread the word about Dice Travels. She says a few things in French that sound nice enough, but the family continues on its tour.
I probably should have warned the girl the monkey was coming. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
It's not until I join Nan at the bottom step of the shrine that it occurs to me that I probably should have warned the girl about the monkey instead of taking pictures.
I met Nan about 30 minutes ago.
I was crouched down over the railroad tracks trying to fill the frame with the modern metal rails in the foreground with the ancient brick ruins of a temple in the background when she approached me.
“Maybe I can help you take pictures,” Nan, who has a dark, dusky Southern Thai complexion, offers. I'm a bit weary of the situation, afraid of getting roped into some sort of undesirable tour guide scam.
Nan's wearing a buttoned up denim jacket, black jeans and is carry a red leather backpack – harmless enough. She's studying to be a teacher, but her university is on break, so she came to Lopburi to look around.
Like me, she's a tourist.
“Where you go?” she asks.
The die was given the options of the peacock temple, the bat cave and two sides for local temples. It went with the weighted odds.
I point toward San Phra Kan shrine, as well as the three prangs of Prang Sam Yot, which is the towns most iconic structure, shadowed only by the presence of monkeys.
Nan hesitates. She pulls a tiny, cheap notebook out of her backpack and thumbs through it. Neatly written with pencil inside is row after row of numbers the time table for the train back to her dorm room. She looks at the two options highlighted in ink. One leaves in about 30 minutes another in about three hours.
What should she do? She wants to know.
I can't explain it, but I'm still being a bit standoff, not impolite, but not my usual self who would be gunning for my new acquaintance to come explore the city with me.
If she's going to catch the next train, I point out that she probably should just head to the station now – all this being said in the simplest of English.
After a bit of back and forth, she decides to catch the 3:38pm train instead of the one at noon.
Looks like I have a travel buddy for the day.
A number of trees have taken root and are perched on the laterite blocks of San Phra Kan, making the temple ruins even more similar to those of Angkor Wat.
Though the porous red blocks are the same used by the Khmer in the awe inspiring construction of the world renown complexes in Siam Reap, the impact in Lopaburi is not comparative. Nonetheless, the piles of ancient stones surrounded by the modern town hint at a rich history and importance that stretches far beyond an off-the-track tourist destination overrun with monkeys.
Crossing the street as we head to the large gated field surrounding Prang Sam Yot, we are officially in monkey town.
Hundreds of the lesser apes swarm the grounds, a dozen or so hang from power lines on either side of the street, sliding down the dangling wires as if they are vines. Four or five climb over a car that has come to a stop in traffic.
They seem quiet content on the car.
A monkey herder, armed with a couple twisted sticks, gently shoos them off the car so it can start moving again – it's a scene directly out of Jumanji.
Walking within meters of the demonic fur balls, I tuck my camera under my arm, avoiding eye contact with them.
The temple grounds our overrun with a troop of monkeys. Hundreds of them walk along the fence, sit on the ancient stone blocks, chase and bite each other.
At the entrance, there is double pricing – it costs more for foreigners to visit than Thais. I'm usually okay with this, but the small grounds are completely open and visible from the broad, brick walkway surrounding the square. I don't see any reason to pay fifty baht to get a closer look.
Looping behind the temple, I again pull my camera close to me, hesitating to go any further down the road, like a woman who feels the predatory eyes of men loitering in a dark alley. Nan and I are completely entering enemy territory as we walk down the small road. The monkeys sit in window sills of the abandoned building. Others sit on the ground and the roofing, casually watching us.
Nan calls out as a little one goes for her leg. I spin on it and it goes for me. I jump at the little ape, stopping it in its tracks. Now, the monkeys are really look at us, I few make aggressive hissing sounds.
We quickly escape to the far end of the alley, past a monkey feeding station near to the tracks.
The monkeys are fed three times a day by locals, who also hold a monkey festival in November. A number of monkey themed murals run down the side of the abandoned building. Their is Monkey Lisa, monkeys taking selfies, graffiti artist monkeys and so much more.
“Want to get food?” I ask in Thai.
With no real ideas of what else to do, she agrees. After struggling to find a place, Nan politely asks an elderly man for a suggestion. He points us in the right direction.
Nan puts her hands together in a wai, does a quick bobbing curtsy, and politely thanks him.
Down a Soi hosting a dingy food market, we find a hole in the wall noodle place. Nan takes off her jacket. Though she's 20 years old, I feel awkward in being so suddenly aware of what her candy-cane striped belly shirt doesn't cover.
With nothing much to talk about, I flip through my photos and Nan sends some messages on her phone.
The thin rice noodle soup isn't very good, but I finish mine. Nan hardly touches hers. I cover the bill of 70 baht for the two waters and two soups. We're off again.
Nan's asks someone what we should see next, but the high walled place suggested is closed.
“What about the peacock temple?” I ask.
Dice Travels arrives at the Peacock Temple. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The temple is about a 30 minute drive from town. Given that we need to be back for Nan to catch the 3:38 train, we'd be cutting it close.
Nonetheless, she gives the idea a greenlight.
Back at the hotel, I run up to my room to grab the keys to the bike.
I give Nan the helmet and pull my Dice Travels baseball camp down low on my head.
The black visor vibrates in and out of my field of vision as we speed out of town.
Nan seems to be getting more shy as they days gone on, speaking less and less English – not that she really said much at the start. Instead of letting me know when we miss a turn in our attempt to find the temple, she just puts the phone out in front of me so I can glance at the map.
Eventually, I take a right down a country road toward the temple.
There are a number of temples hidden in the patches of forest between the freshly tilled fields. The soil on the fields is a healthy dark brown, fertile and ready for fresh crops. The narrow, cheap cement road eventually Ts into a proper road, the one we probably should have taken in the first place.
Up through the hills into the mountains, we are flanked by sparse, but healthy, forest.
The road goes directly through the mouth of the statue of a giant. It's the gateway to the “Peacock Temple”.
As we pull in, we are greeted by the enormous wailing of peacocks as a number of them strut around the paved area in front of the temple.
The birds' disturbingly loud calls are echoed throughout the temple grounds. There are about a dozen of the beautiful birds, several with tail feathers raised in full display, as we get off the bike.
The temple grounds are overrun with peacocks and peahens, a few monks wrapped in orange can be spotted going about their business among the enormous flock of birds.
Leaving the Monkey City for a Peacock Temple, I'm beginning to feel out of sorts, half expecting to end up on a train to Haruki Murakami's Cat Town. We are a social species that sticks together. When it comes to anything larger than an ant, we are rarely aware of being out numbered, and when we are, it's uncomfortable.
There is power in numbers. I'm fairly sure I could beat one little demon-spawn monkey to death in hand to hand combat, but two, three? Not a chance. Though let's be honest, one of the aggressive little bastards can easily scare the shit out of me.
The temple grounds, however, feel like another world. It's as if weights have just slid across the scales, changing the balance in the world.
Among the dazzling purples, greens and blues the peacocks' display as they attempt to get laid, there is a single leucistic bird. The partially albino peacock has retained the vibrant royal blue along most of its neck feathers and the emerald green down the body of it's back, as well as the colors in its tail feathers. However, it's body is covered with patches of white. The lack of pigment seems to have no pattern, as if the bird was dyed bright colors by a careless child.
One of the peacocks is only partially pigmented. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The screeching of the birds begins afresh. One of them stretches its neck out, turning its head to give me a good look. The movement, the cry, the beauty reminds me of Kevin, the mythical Snipe in Pixar's Up. Though it's tempting to think the creators took the corona feather inspiration for Kevin from one of the birds in front of me, the reality of it is that Keven was based on the Himalayan Monal pheasant – dice willing, I'll see one of these beautiful birds in the not too distant future.
The temple grounds are spread out through a cleared forest area, further back there is a striped down ultra light airplane propped in the air by a cement stand. There is no explanation.
My heart is pounding as I climb the nearly 500 steps to the large Buddha statue at the top of the mountain. Two of the mythical seven-headed Nga statues reared up at the beginning of the steps, their bodies hand rails on the long trek up. Not particularly interested in making it to the top, Nan is falling behind.
Two peacocks look down on me as a make my way up the final steps.
The entire valley below, the forest and farmland, all fall under the peaceful gaze of the Buddha statue at the top. I attempt to round up the peacocks for a stellar photo. However, one displays it's feathers, turning its back on me before charging.
Yelping, I stumble back.
Noted. Stop fucking with the birds.
I check the time. It's nearly 2:45, we're going to be cutting it very close.
After some further dillydallying trying to get a photo of the bike with the birds, we're back on the road, racing to town.
I check my watch at a stop light.
Twisting the throttle hard, despite being in town, we cross the tracks and make it to the train station with seven minutes to spare.
Seven minutes; that's heaps of time.
I wave Nan off after we take another selfie together.
Since seeing Prang Sam Yot, I've wanted to get the drone out. The footage would be stellar. The concern, however, is monkeys. I had nightmares last night about monkeys ripping the little drone out of the sky like miniature King Kong's.
I buckle down and commit to the project.
Too afraid to setup in the field around the ruins, I prepare the drone in the parking area along an adjacent street. I'm constantly scanning the tin roof and empty windows of the multi-story building behind me, expecting a monkey to jump down and wreck havoc at any moment.
The drone takes off, then starts to drift toward the building.
I panic, hitting the wrong levers... it's watching a slow motion crash. My 600 dollar baby bumps into a closed store and then sputters, flipping and hacking into a wall, a chair, the sidewalk – all with sickening thunks.
A local man who was watching me setup looks on as helplessly as I feel.
Finally, I'm able to kill the engines and assess the damage. The blades are pretty scuffed, but that's it.
Heart pounding, I pray that it's okay. It is.
Mentally reviewing the controls again, I attempt another take off. Before it drifts too far off, I land it.
Why is it drifting? I place the drone even further from the buildings. Third time is the charm. She's up, but needs some more height to clear the lorry heading our way. With the drone up in the air and out of harms way, I get ready to record, but the feed on the screen isn't working. It looks like the camera is stuck looking at it's own mechanical insides.
I bring it back down. Re-start everything. It appears to be fine.
After some extraordinary flying and beautiful aerial views of the ancient structure, with the drone circling it from above, I'm ready to bring my baby back.
It's ready too. The low battery warning starts to flash.
It's going to land somewhere near me, probably in the street without the slightest awareness of traffic.
In a panic, I navigate the drone back, waving off a car that is trying to park exactly where I'm standing.
With the drone safely on the ground, I show the local who'd been watching the entire fiasco the footage.
Nothing. I wasn't recording.
Okay, well I did get a little footage. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli