By Bill Bredesen
LOPBURI (DPA) – They swing from the telephone wires, loot passing pickup trucks and barge into local shophouses, taking whatever they can get their little paws on.
For the thousands of crab-eating macaque monkeys that have taken up residence in the historical city centre of Lopburi, Thailand, 150 kilometres north of Bangkok, ordinary rules of good citizenship don't always apply.
Local residents say theirs is a love-hate relationship.
On one hand, the monkeys are Lopburi's prime tourist attraction, the sole reason that many out-of-towners visit, and a seemingly endless source of smiles and good cheer.
But the monkeys are also a nuisance and seem to be reproducing at an unchecked rate. Nearly everyone in Lopburi voices some level of appreciation for them before expressing hope that the city government will do something to limit their numbers.
On Sunday, the macaques were the guests of honour at the city's 26th annual Monkey Festival, where they were treated to an extravagant buffet: more than 2 tons of fruit and 1 ton of vegetables, along with sweetened drinks like lychee sodas, all donated by local residents and the hotel group that sponsors the event.
The main celebration was held at Wat Prong Sam Yot, a 13th-century Khmer-style temple that often is better known simply as the "monkey temple." During non-festival times, it marks the heart of their domain in Lopburi.
The festival cost roughly 400,000 baht (12,200 dollars), with four monkey "seatings" scheduled throughout the day. Most residents said they were happy to give back to the monkeys for bringing so many tourists to their town.
A live band played traditional Thai music, while costumed dancers performed, and camera-happy tourists snapped photographs of the feasting monkeys.
Despite their special status in Lopburi, the monkeys are also a source of persistent headaches for some shop owners, workers and residents, particularly in the immediate vicinity of the monkey temple.
"Lately it seems like they are more of a problem because their numbers are increasing and they are spreading out into more neighbourhoods," said Itiphat Tantipati, 40, a hotel owner, as he wielded a metre-long bamboo stick to chase monkeys away from his guests' automobiles the day before the festival.
"They damage the building, tear out wires, break windows, pull the rubber parts off cars," he said.
Nearly everyone who lives or works around Wat Prong Sam Yot keeps a similar "monkey control" device on-hand, whether a long stick, a slingshot or a noisy toy pistol.
Some businesses have been forced to shut down because of the monkeys, Itiphat said, pointing to an abandoned building on the opposite corner. Originally a popular theatre, it was later converted into a shopping mall, but that too failed when the ever-curious macaques went after everyone's shopping bags.
"It's been empty for 10 years. No investor would want to come here. It's not worth the money," he said.
"These buildings are all deserted," agreed Sorapong Wongdeen, 55, a local resident, gazing up at the shuttered second- and third-storey windows of other shophouses in the square overlooking the temple. "Who knows where they went. They can't sell anything. People can't even park their cars around here."
Some building owners have installed 12-volt, non-lethal electric fencing along their upper levels in an attempt to keep the animals off their roofs and awnings. At regular intervals, the ominous "snapping" sound of electrical currents, and a briefly visible jolt of electricity, is sometimes enough to keep the monkeys away.
Others accept the animals as a fact of life in Lopburi.
"I play with them," said Suthip Tantiwong, the 60-year-old owner of a small automobile parts shop across the street from the monkey temple.
As she talked, a baby macaque wandered into the shop and climbed up onto a glass display case. Suthip gently shook hands with the little creature and then reached into a plastic bag full of sweets, unwrapping one to give to the small monkey.
Several more quickly appeared in the shop, perhaps anticipating a free meal. But before things could become unwieldy, Suthip brandished a toy pistol, pointed at the newcomers and pulled the trigger. At the sound, the monkeys fled in hisses and shrieks.
"They steal every day, but they don't bite unless they're angry," said Sunit Krataipo, 59, a traffic policeman stationed at a busy intersection opposite the temple.
"But even though there are some problems, serious monkey bites or scratches do not happen very frequently."