There’s a Monkey on your Back: a Walk in Ubud’s Sacred Forest

Let go of the banana, lady!”, shouted the Balinese guard.

The lady-tourist wouldn’t give up fighting for her banana, bought at the forest entrance. She absolutely wanted to feed the baby monkey, not the heavy papa that had climbed on her back as quick as a lean lizard.

Let it go!”, shouted one more time the guard, trying to save her from being bitten. Finally the lady listened, saddened she couldn’t feed the baby monkey, while the big papa was already gulping down the small fruit.

Macaque monkeys in Monkey Forest, Ubud Bali.
Monkeys in the Sacred Forest, Ubud, Bali.

Any time of the day you pass through the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, in Ubud, Bali, you can spot this episode. Day in and day out tourists flock to see the playful macaque monkeys jump around and seem to enjoy being stolen food from their hands and backpacks.

The access to the Sacred Forest is a short walk uphill from our hotel. But the macaque monkeys claimed their playground way before the forest entrance, on the narrow streets, stealing food from the warung terraces. Another of their favorite activity is searching through the offerings to the Gods made by the Balinese women daily.

Macaque monkey in Ubud, Bali
Macaque monkey searching for food in the offerings to the Gods.

Before making our way into the forest, we notice at the entrance a bunch of local ladies selling “official bananas” to feed the monkeys. Official bananas?! OK. Talk about tourist trap. But actually, the bananas look quite different from the ones we are used to in Europe. A local guide tells us there are hundreds of types of bananas in Indonesia, and that this type, very small, like a baby banana, and mushy, is called pisang kepok in Indonesian.

All the tourists pass by the official bananas stall and buy them, with a naïve anticipation of playing with the monkeys the hide-and-seek-for-food game. What the banana ladies don’t tell people, though, is they won’t be able to hold on to them for more than a few seconds.

Entering the 27-acre Sacred Forest, we leave behind the smell of gas, car horns and the drenching heat of August. Musty, cooler air welcomes us, the lush vegetation spreads its fingers from every corner, and the only sounds around are the monkeys shrieking in their playful chase.

And the occasional tourist scream as a greedy monkey climbs unexpectedly on their head.

Macaque monkeys in Sacred Forest, Ubud
Family of monkeys in the Sacred Monkey Forest, Ubud.

On the central area where tourists have access, the paths are paved, but outside of it, it’s all wild. A jungle, on the outskirts of the Padangtegal village, where about 600 long-tail macaque monkeys live. We find out from a forest guard that monkeys come up to the touristic area in troops, by family, rotating the families that come to play and get food from the tourists.

What everyone knows as the Monkey Forest is actually a Balinese hindu site, dating from the 1400s. On its premises there also stand the Pura Dalem Temple, the temple of the dead, together with a cemetery and crematorium. The bright-green tree moss that covers them makes them look like forgotten places, though they are still used for religious ceremonies. Some other old gates, statues, and decorated short walls dot the entire forest and entertain our walk throughout the jungle.

Pura Dalem Temple in Monkey Forest, Ubud
Pura Dalem Temple entrance.

Strolling back to the central attraction, where the monkeys play, we take a break sitting on a bench among all of them, tourists and macaques, watching the show go on. It feels like a privilege to enter the monkeys’ wild territory. To have them sitting right next to you, living their life. Momma-monkey feeding her wide-eyed tiny baby, brothers cleaning one another, then playing loudly and harshly, following the unsuspecting tourists. One might mistake them for a bunch of naughty kids having fun. Except, they are wild animals, not really used to the presence of humans.

Macaque monkey in Monkey Forest, Ubud.
Macaque monkey eating a banana.

If you want your chance at getting attacked by a macaque monkey for a banana, or to spot an ancient temple that still functions after the balinese-hindu religion, you can find the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary at the address Jalan Monkey Forest, Padangtegal, Ubud, and click here for more information.

Or just look for the monkeys on the streets of Ubud. They are always close to the forest entrance, looking for something tasty to steal.

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