Cute, human-like, mischievous, terrifying - whatever your opinion of monkeys, you are likely to encounter them in many parts of Southeast Asia. Their antics are enjoyable to watch and make great subjects for photographs to send home, assuming that they haven't stolen your camera by then!
Monkeys come in many types and sizes, with macaques being one of the most common species you are likely to encounter. Also found in Southeast Asia are orangutans, gibbons, proboscis monkeys, and langurs.
Regardless of how tame and accustomed to tourists that monkeys seem, they should still be approached with caution and some simple guidelines followed.
Tips for Monkey Encounters
- Avoid smiling at them: In the mind of a monkey, showing teeth is a sign of threat and aggression. A misinterpreted smile may provoke an unnecessary attack.
- Don't play tug of war: The primary reason that tourists are bitten by monkeys is because they do not drop something that a monkey has grabbed. Camera straps, backpacks, and water bottles are major temptations. Let go as soon as a monkey grabs something, chances are they will examine it and drop it anyway.
- Don't offer food: Having food around monkeys is a bad idea anyway, but feeding one will attract many more that may take your refusal to feed them as a sign to attack.
- Don't show fear: Monkey clans usually follow a well-established caste system with larger males being alpha.
- Be Careful Taking Pictures: A monkey seeing its own reflection in the lens of your SLR camera may trigger an attack.
Monkeys are extremely curious and may become intrigued by something that you are carrying. A majority of encounters are peaceful, so don't panic if one decides to become friendly. Immediately let go of anything that they grab, or better yet, don't present easy targets such as dangling camera straps in the first place.
Monkeys have an impeccable sense of smell and will even detect unopened food. That granola bar in your backpack may seem harmless, but any monkeys in the area will know that it is there.
In places such as Ubud, Bali, monkeys may even climb onto your shoulders. Don't panic and don't reach for the monkey, it will jump off when it is ready.
In places with a large monkey population such as Krabi, Thailand and the Batu Caves in Malaysia, monkeys may decide to rummage through bags left unattended on the beach. More than one tourist has come in from a swim to find the contents of their backpack scattered all over the beach. Yes, monkeys do know how to work zippers!
A monkey bite, no matter how trivial, can quickly turn dangerous. Monkeys are regular carriers of rabies; even the ones not rabid can create dangerous infections and fevers thanks to the high level of bacteria in their mouths.
Macaque monkey bites have been known to cause infections such as Bacteroides, Fusobacterium, Streptococci, Enterococci and Eikenella Corrodens - all are as unpleasant as they sound.
Every bite must be checked by a local doctor who will probably recommend getting a tract of painful and expensive rabies vaccinations. You have little choice, rabies has no early symptoms and is fatal if not treated immediately.
What to Do if You are Threatened by a Monkey
If a monkey acts particularly aggressive, stand your ground, wave your arms, or pick up a stick if there are any available. If you must retreat, back away slowly while still facing the monkey; running or showing fear will boost their confidence rather than causing them to back down.
What to Do if You are Bitten by a Monkey
Monkeys bites should immediately be scrubbed with clean water and soap for 15 minutes. Seek help from a doctor who will probably start antibiotics and may suggest measures against rabies.
Any bite or scratch from the claws requires medical attention.