“They are just so cute!” During our last tour of the Angkor Temple complex outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, we saw a lady sit down on the steps near a group of curious monkeys. As the monkeys approached, people in our group wanted to join in the fun. Being the killjoy that I am I quickly moved our group to a safe distance away. Before you could blink, a monkey was crawling on the lady who sat down. The next second he was on her head grabbing a handful of hair and her shiny sunglasses. As she reached up to try to protect the glasses, off the monkey jumped with the glasses and bits of her hair. She was lucky that all she lost were the glasses and a handful of hair!
Monkeys are everywhere in Asia. In Nepal, we have seen a monkey rip an ice cream cone out of a 5 year-old’s hand leaving her crying but basically unharmed.
In Malaysia, we have seen hordes of monkeys descend on parked motor scooters and rip them apart looking for food. In Bali, they are almost pets with locals selling bananas to tourists to feed the monkeys. Monkey bites are more common than most realize. One study had 13 Australians flying home every month to get rabies treatment. Most from Bali and most of those for monkey bites.
Even in highly developed areas like Singapore, you see signs like this.
The biggest fear of a monkey bite is rabies. From the mammals to be worried about in Asia, monkeys rate number 3 behind dogs and cats. Some say that it is rare to be bitten by a rabid monkey because if a monkey is infected, it would die very quickly (like 20 days). But and this is a huge but, if you are infected with rabies and not treated, it is almost 100% fatal. So even if the statistics are on your side, if you are bitten by a monkey, you will end up getting the shots to avoid an agonizing death.
What turns into a cute photograph or wildlife experience quickly turns into a vacation-ruining nightmare. If you are bit, you are going to get a series of painful shots. – In many cases, doctors have migrated away from the really painful shot into your abdomen in favor of the more expensive shot surrounding the bite and then one into a large muscle – ouch!! Even if you have had the rabies vaccine, you will still get shots, only fewer of them. Nevertheless, your holiday is most likely over having to spend at least the next few hours in a hospital/doctor’s office and hoping they have rabies vaccine on hand. After the first shot, you will likely have to go to a big city or even your home country to finish your series of shots.
Wow! We have painted a pretty bleak picture of what happens if you get bit by a monkey, but if you follow some of the guidelines below, you can avoid all that messy monkey bite stuff.
These are the things not to do when you encounter wild monkeys:
- Don’t carry plastic bags as monkeys have been conditioned to know these contain food. Monkeys will aggressively take your bag if they get the opportunity. The same applies to soda/water bottles.
- Do not feed them. They become accustomed to the food and lose the fear of humans. They will also become more and more aggressive. They may not be happy at you feeding them too slowly, or the pack may show up and want theirs or you may run out of food before they thought you should. Just don’t feed them.
- Don’t try to pet them or let them crawl on you. The reasons for this should be obvious. If they end up crawling on you, stay calm, don’t reach with your hands to get them off and let them get off on their own after they tire of crawling on you.
- No flash photography as they may become aggressive.
- Don’t make eye contact. Eye contact make be interpreted as a hostile sign and they may become aggressive.
- Don’t smile at them as showing your teeth may be misinterpreted. If they are showing their teeth, it is not a smile it is their way to say back off.
- Don’t fight to hold on to whatever they have latched onto – they don’t fight fair and will scratch or bite you to keep whatever it is they want. Most likely, after they have a taste of your sunglasses or whatever they will drop them 50 yards down the road.
- Like encounters with other wild animals that are being aggressive, you want to make yourself appear larger and if possible pick up a stick or have your hiking pole ready. Back away slowly. Don’t turn your back and run – don’t show fear!
Overall, monkeys make great photographic subjects. The vast majority of encounters with monkeys are fun and harmless. Keep these rules in mind when traveling in monkey country and enjoy!
Jon and Carol are owners of Vista Adventure Travel specializing in small group tours to incredible places.