We are the True Monkeys

posted by Pete McDonald

“You want to see monkeys?”

I knew the answer was yes. But even as Mr. Hak pulled the Tuk Tuk off the road, stories of monkeys mauling and disfiguring their owners flashed through my memory. I wondered what my Dad would think about me messing around with a group of wild, long-tailed macaques on the other side of the world. Somehow, being inside the walls of a nearly 1,000 year old city justified it in my head.

The walled city of Angkor Thom, in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. Today, much of the city’s carved stone structures have cracked and crumbled, but its central temple remains as majestic and awe-inspiring as ever. The city belongs to the once-great Angkor Empire, also home to more notable tourist attractions like Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building, and Ta Prohm, the temple from Tomb Raider. But while the ruins have slowly deteriorated, they have done the opposite for Cambodia’s economy. Each year, millions of sweaty, wide-brim hat-wearing tourists flock to the area to snap pictures and crush the hearts of poor local toddlers who sell “cold drink” and “postcard.”

“Cold drink sir? One dolla!” they say.

“No, thank you.”

“No thank you not put food on my plate, sir!”

A study abroad classmate, Satyam, and I were racing toward the city’s south gate in a motorbike-pulled carriage, or Tuk Tuk. Our tour guide, Brem Sopheap – a giggly, comical Cambodian man and proud owner of the world’s roundest face – accompanied us, along with our driver, Mr. Hak. We had seen the monkeys on the way in, but had been dismayed when Mr. Hak didn’t stop. So as we left, Brem knew the answer to his question before he even asked.

Our cart wheels, which looked like bicycle wheels in a previous life, clambered onto the hard dirt next to the road. A throng of older women selling bananas immediately surrounded us.

“You feed monkey, sir?”

“No, Akun.

I fought my way through, simultaneously whipping out my camera like John Wayne in El Dorado. I’ve gotten pretty good — after nearly a week of sightseeing in Siem Reap, I could probably take a picture of a lightning bolt from about eight different angles before it disappears.

Around 15 monkeys had scattered themselves in the grass and trees alongside the road. Old, saggy monkeys sat on their butts. Mothers milked their wet, patchy babies, and adventurous monkeys accepted popsicles and bananas from onlookers. Without thinking twice, Satyam and I dove into the middle of the pack and began to capture pictures and video. I gawked at the monkeys’ slightest movements because I had never before seen them in the wild. They could have been eating their own poop and I would have been equally mesmerized. To me, encountering these animals spoke to the great distance I had traveled.

I took continuous footage until I felt an alien-sized red ant crawling through the strap of my sandal. As I brushed it off, I realized that the locals had stopped watching the monkeys, and had begun to watch us instead. To them, our American amazement was far more interesting than the animals themselves.

I turned back to see Satyam taking a head-on picture of a large, seated monkey with his iPhone. He leaned down, arm outstretched, until he was about two feet from the monkey’s face. The monkey stared back, motionless, but just as the electronic shutter sounded, he lunged. He sprang forward, reaching out with his thin grey arm, white teeth bared. Satyam and I both yelled and jumped back, and the monkey’s teeth snapped on air, inches from Satyam’s pant leg.

Our next thought was that other monkeys would come to the aid of the first. We frantically looked up into the trees as if monkeys would suddenly rain down on us. I shielded myself from further attack, running back toward the Tuk Tuk and giving each monkey a wide berth. The locals began to laugh hysterically. None of them had flinched during the attack. They all stood rooted, staring at me, grinning from ear to ear. Brem was bent over with giggles. Mr. Hak chuckled from the Tuk Tuk.

Apparently my reaction had been a bit over the top, but rightfully so. Back in a developed country like the U.S., the most dangerous part of life was to stand on a subway platform without falling in. All possible safety hazards had been accounted for and minimized, all potentially harmful wild animals caged and tamed. The monkeys signified my freedom from first-world order, but also my inexperience with third-world norms.

Each year, millions of tourists visit the ruins of Angkor. We bring cameras, umbrellas, and money. We stare at the stones, pay for the guides, and buy from the needy children. We carry ourselves as mighty, knowledgeable world travelers, but we must not forget who owns the land on which we walk.

As we find amusement in the most mundane aspects of Cambodian life, the Cambodians are equally amused by us.


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