For Part 1, click here.
Assuming you’re caught up, you’re likely reading this in search of monkey stories. Let’s get right back to it.
The Batu Caves of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, turned out to be quite the host the largest concentration of monkeys I’d yet seen. The Batu Caves, a thoroughly interesting land formation — one of those massive limestone mountains with intense weathering characterizing its walls and with a toupee of jungle the summit — had a ten-story staircase leading up to said cave entrance. Through this one can continue on through a chasm, leading eventually to the back end of the caves, where looking up one could see the sky through an immense, weathered opening.
It felt like walking into an empty volcano, and someone, long ago, thought it was a good idea to build a Hindu temple here. While the temple itself doubltess attracted tourists, the monkeys held our attention as much as anything else.
Doubtless related to the macaques I’d seen a bit north as in Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, this Malaysian variety had the characteristic long tails that people like to associate with our simian cousins. And at the Batu Caves, there were a lot of them.
On our way up the steps, I remember pausing to regard the city beyond – clear air stretched on between my vantage and the far reaches of that view, for my visit came at a lucky time. The smog from the 2015 Indonesian Fires had lifted a day before my arrival, and locals were telling me stories of how one could barely see across the street. Looking out now at the afternoon haze, one could hardly guess that huge tracts of land had been set fire in a neighboring island country.
My companion, Lan, brought a bottle of juice with her and held it placatingly toward one of the monkeys as we scaled the stairs. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the thing ran up, snatched it from her grasp, and set to work opening it with its teeth. The monkeys found here and all around Southeast Asia have long since learned the value of stealing food; it’s comparatively energy efficient to be a thief than it is a farmer, after all, and these guys were brigands.
I watched one Japanese tourist notice a monkey approaching him. The guy decided he would have none of that and simply placed his drink on the ground, scurrying away as the monkey didn’t bat an eyelash taking his 7UP. The monkeys’ll take anything edible, and when if their nose or eyes do not bring them promise of easy pickings, they’ve been known to steal other things.
Sunglasses off your head, iPhones out of your hand, even sandals off the feet of small children being carried in the arms of their mothers. Nothing is sacred, and the monkeys will hold fast to whatever percieved-valuable item they’ve pilfered until such time as they are presented with a morsel of food. The exchange complete, they’ll let loose whatever human-made thing they held (often dropping it like a forgotten toy), take the food it won, and scurry to a higher vantage before its colleagues can pester him for a bite.
They get pushy sometimes. They say you aren’t supposed to make eye contact in the animal kingdom, but as a self-described animal I found myself abundantly curious of these things. Staring at a monkey an arm’s length away rewarded me with bared teeth and a false charge — more than enough to make me jump away. Groups of tourists — locals and foreigners alike — posing for photos often had monkeys make cameos, strolling up towards them with expectant little hands. They sometimes saw the monkeys approach, illiciting a thumbs-up or bigger smile on part of the tourist, while other times, as someone posed for the shot, a monkey would approach them and nobody would issue a warning. Every time the tourist jumped, and sometimes the monkey would make off with something.
They have learned behavior that cannot be unlearned; once one sees it happening, doubtless their friends spread word and the stealing-exchanging cycle perpetuates itself. Elders perfect the art while the young observe and imitate. Whether I’m talking about the tourists or the monkeys here is up to you.
In one of the central provinces of Viet Nam, a region and city known as Dak Lak, I and two travel mates perused a souvenir boutique as we waited for our overnight bus. This would be at the tail-end of a several-day-long adventure the likes of which I happened to be eager was ending.
After a brief walk through the initial room — the boutique stretched in much further than it looked from the outside — I came across a cardboard box no larger than milk crate. Inside there peered up at me a baby monkey, the same widespread species of macaque you find everywhere. A little chain went to its neck and it looked small enough to have been torn from its mother prematurely.
I signalled to the attendants as to whether I could play with it — they nodded their head, and I kneeled by the box and extended a finger. Tiny hands grasped me and the monkey’s eyes locked with mine. The thing about looking into the eyes of another human is that there is, usually, this general common understanding of sentience. With most humans you meet, you probably regard them as a creature with its own independent emotions and motivations. One usually does not encounter this in something non-human, aside from dogs and cats and birds that many families have adopted, and given enough time around them, anyone will come to associate anthropomorphic qualities into it. We do that with cars and dolls, so why not animal companions?
But the thing is that monkeys come with litereal anthropomorphic traits prepackaged. That little baby primate stared at me with legitimate sadness in its eyes, and in those brief moments I felt his little fingers holding mine, I might have felt a sense of desperation. When the time came and our bus arrived, it would not let ago, and I entertained fantasies of snapping the chain loose and smuggling the thing in my coat.
As it happens, keeping a monkey as a pet is generally a bad idea, and more than once I’ve rationalized that I don’t lead the right lifestyle to keep a full-time animal companion in my home/life. Especially one of a species shown to have the emotional and problem-solving intelligence of a small child.
But I’ll never forget the Dak Lak baby monkey’s silent plea for release.