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San Phra Kan and Phra Prang Sam Yod|Phra Prang Sam Yod Lopburi, Thailand

In central Thailand’s provincial capital of Lopburi, about 150 kilometers north of Bangkok, the last Sunday in November is reserved for the Lopburi Monkey Banquet. The world’s wildest dinner party is held in honor of these long-tailed macaques, who have become integrated into local society despite their pick-pocketing tendencies and mercurial attitudes.

Monkey Business

To understand the significance of this banquet, one must first appreciate the role monkeys play in Lopburi culture. These fellow primates are part of society, having free reign of the town and the ability to enter public buildings and traverse roads like any other citizen. They can be a nuisance, stealing from locals and tourists alike, and are generally mischievous and destructive. The townspeople have a firm belief that they bring good luck and fortune, however, and thus are patient (at the very least the monkeys bring fortune in the form of tourist baht, the local currency).

The veneration of monkeys dates back to the monkey deity Hanuman and his monkey army, who saved Sita, the wife of Lord Ram, from the clutches of a demon. Since then, the Thai people have viewed monkeys as descendants of this heroic deity and continue to respect this petulant creature. Among those who worship these monkeys is Yongyuth Kitwatananusont, the owner of the Lopburi Inn. In front of his hotel is a large monkey statue, which he has been using as a symbol for many years. Business has been good for both him and other people working in the tourism sector, and after attributing his success to the monkeys, he decided one year to create a buffet for them. The first one took place in 1989, and it’s taken place annually ever since.

The festival starts at 10am, amongst the overgrown Khmer ruins that the monkeys call home. The Phra Prang Sam Yot temple, located on Vichayen Road about 200m from the railway station, is easy to find. The preamble consists of musical performances and human monkey dances (a scene of which you can witness for yourself in the documentary Baraka ). After a speech by the Governor of Lopburi, the monkeys are then invited down to eat from the buffet tables. Initially shy, the monkeys are surprisingly well-behaved, even timid, in view of the hundreds of spectators gathered to watch them eat off long tables draped in red cloth. Invitations are attached to cashew nuts and distributed among the macaque guests, while chefs prepare an abundant spread including sticky rice, tropical fruit salad frozen in ice blocks and an egg-yolk dessert known as thong yod.

Food Fight!

Eventually the monkey diners get acclimated to the curious spectators, and suddenly they’re dancing on the tables, throwing soda at each other, flinging pudding and causing a ruckus. The lavish feast soon vanishes, most of it inside the satisfied monkeys' bellies, though a fair amount ends up on the ground, leaving the luncheon guests to conclude their wildly unhinged behavior by swinging up a few branches to take a treetop nap.

While this is one of those strange festivals that ranks up there with the likes of the El Colacho baby-jumpers or the Kanamara Matsuri penis festival, it’s also a rather simple and pure one that really speaks to a central aspect of Thai culture. The significance of monkeys in throughout Thai history and the fact that they are able to co-exist cannot be overstated. In monkeys we see a harrier, exaggerated version of ourselves, and are reminded that no matter how different we are, tolerance brings good fortune to all.

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