Sunday, 10 June 2012

Monkeys... why is it always monkeys?

The grey, furry face stared unflinchingly back at me.

I froze halfway up the long, steep staircase that wends its way up Mirror Tunnel Mountain, known in Thai as Khao Chong Krajok. I'd been attempting to climb up to the Wat on the summit, but found the route blocked by dozens of monkeys, lazing on the steps and scrambling along the railings.

I'm terrified of monkeys, so it's possible that Thailand wasn't the most logical place to come on holiday. I'd been here two weeks, and thus far I'd managed to avoid getting up close and personal with the furry critters. Now I found myself face to face with dozens of them, each the size of a three year old child, if three-year-olds had enormous canine teeth.

I fled back down the hill, very aware of the sudden trembling of my knees.

Safely back on the roadside at the bottom of the hill, I caught the eye of a snack seller. She gestured at me, waving up up the stairs. Climb back up. It's fine, she seemed to say.
I shook my head. Too frightened, I mimed back.

She grinned, and walked twenty feet from the staircase. Then she started calling the monkeys, shaking crumbs from a plastic bag onto the ground as she made high-pitched hooting noises. The monkeys came running leaving the steps, if not free of monkeys, at least less thoroughly clogged with critters as they had been.

It was my chance.

Gingerly, I resumed the painfully slow process of easing myself up the mountain, dodging the remaining monkeys as I went. By the time I'd passed the last of them and was finally able to look up at the scenery again, I realised I was almost at the summit.
View from Wat Thammikaram

Wat Thammikaram, established by Rama VI in the first decades of the twentieth century, perches on the very top of the mountain like a contented white cat sleeping in the sun. It's a small temple, just a few pale buildings shimmering in the midday heat.

Apart from one small boy, I had the views all to myself. White-sand bays and pine-covered islands spread before me like a postcard. Turning to face inland, I could see into Burma; the border is only eleven kilometres away.

When I'd taken my fill of the views, I started back down the long steps accompanied by the small boy. He proudly showed me his empty slingshot, brandishing it theatrically at each monkey that got too close. Amazingly, the monkeys that had so easily intimidated me on the way up now scrambled out of the boy's way. I was too grateful to be embarrassed.

The mountain rises above the provincial capital of Prachuap Khiri Khan - but don't let the word “capital” fool you. It's a small, sleepy place that sees few western tourists.

Prachuap features a handful of guest-houses clustered along the bay and a half-dozen restaurants and cafes offering fresh seafood to go with the sea views. Just south of town is Ao Manao, a pine-lined beach on the local military base (tourists will need to sign in and out at the base's main gate, which turns out to be a lot less intimidating than I'd expected).

Not far from the beach there's a troupe of black and white lemur monkeys that hang out by the roadside in hope of being fed. Unlike the more common grey macaques (who'd intimidated me on the mountain) these lemurs are as gentle as can be.

I stopped my bicycle and watched the monkeys being fed fruit and nuts by a couple of young Thais. Would I like to feed them? Of course I said yes, I'd love to. I accepted a few peanuts and held my hand out, close to the ground.

One of the lemurs walked up to me and, almost politely, took the peanuts from my hand, his tiny fingers just touching my palm. Then he was hurrying back to his family, where a mother, tiny gold baby clutched to her breast, waited for her dinner.

Who's afraid of monkeys? Not me.

This article is based upon a trip to Thailand from December 2010.

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