Come to the party in Lopburi where monkeys have a feast
Prepared by Harold Stephens
Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International
You no doubt have heard about the elephant round up in Surin, and the rocket festival in the northeast, and the water festival and a candle making festival—but did you ever hear of a festival for monkeys? Perhaps not because it's not very well known, but in late November each year, Lopburi, north of Bangkok, has a special feast for monkeys at Prang Sam Yot, to thank the monkeys for their contribution to the prosperity of the town. And what a feast it is. Buffet tables are laid out with peanuts, cabbage, watermelon, bananas, pumpkin, pineapple, boiled eggs and cucumbers. Thousands of Thais turn out to watch the spectacle on the last weekend in November.
The annual festival takes place on the last weekend in November and is a major attraction for locals and foreign visitors alike. Festivities include a monkey ‘tea party’ where macaques tuck into a spread of fruit, eggs, cucumbers and bananas all prepared in their honour. Last year the monkeys got through around 2,000 kilograms of food provided by locals who believe donating the food will bring them good fortune.
Lopburi is a 3-hour train ride from Bangkok via Ayutthaya and the festivities are centred around Prang Sam Yot, a Khmer temple north of the train station. Entrance is 30 Baht and you are given a stick that will help you ward off over-inquisitive monkeys.
But that’s not the only reason I am recommending a visit to Lopburi, or Lavo, as it was once known. Many tourists may remember it as a Monkey town but it is actually one of the oldest historical sites in Thailand that has gone through many changes and developments.
Located approximately 150 kms north of Bangkok, and not far beyond Ayutthaya, Lopburi has been inhabited since the 6th centuries AD, when it was called Lavo. By the 10th century the Khmers from Cambodia erased nearly all traces of Lavo culture. The Khmers did, however, make Lavo an extended outpost to their Angkor Empire when they built the Prang Khaek (Hindu Shrine). San Phra Kan (Kala Shrine) and Prang Sam Yot (Three-Spired Shrine) as well as the impressive prang at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat.
Then came the Sukhothai Kingdom in the 13th century and they in turn drove out the Khmers. Nevertheless, the Khmer cultural influence remained and is visible to this day.
We now come to the period that I find most interesting. In the mid-17th century King Narai fortified Lavo to serve as a second capital when the kingdom of Ayutthaya was threatened by a Dutch naval blockade at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. His foreign minister, who became known as Falcon, was a Greek sailor who rose to that mighty position through his ability to play off the French against the Dutch and British. King Narai built his palace in Lavo in 1665 and he died there in 1688. His foreign minister also had his residence in Lavo, and both sites, although in ruin, can be seen today. Out of this episode in Thai history came the draft of a book I wrote titled For the Love of Siam, which was published recently. It is a very beautiful tale of old Siam that's filled with adventure, romance and intrigue.
For this reason, after the endless months of research, I enjoy visiting Lopburi every chance that comes my way. The old town is walled and how pleasant it is to walk along the outside of the wall where young boys play ball, so unaware of the glory of their past. There are gun embrasures in the wall, where mighty brass cannons once pointed outward and huge gates, with their heavy doors hung on massive hinges, and studded with iron bolts. You enter a gate, any gate, and you can imagine King Narai returning from a royal hunt. Let me borrow from For the Love of Siam and tell you about Falcon, the Greek sailor, the first time he laid eyes on the king. Along with the masses, he was prostrate on the ground, forbidden to look upon the king as was the rule in those days.
“Falcon had hardly lowered his head when he felt the earth beneath him tremble, ever so slightly at first, and then more violently. It was more than he could endure. His curiosity got the best of him. He slowly raised his head, and then his body to a half-sitting position to where he could see over the crowd. A sight befell him that he never, not in his wildest imagination, expected. It was a sudden explosion of color and grandeur. And he alone was the only one among the mass of people to witness it. All others, as far as he could see, remained with their bodies prostrated and their heads down.
“Coming toward him was a magnificent elephant procession. It was dazzling beyond his comprehension. Dozens of elephants, no, hundreds, all brightly painted from their trunks to their backsides, were bedecked with fancy ornaments and with garlands of flowers, and upon these magnificent beasts were carved carriages fringed with gold filigree, shaded from the sun by bright canopies with trailing silk banners. The procession of elephants wobbled forward in a column of twos, shaking the earth beneath their feet as they trod ever so slowly and effortlessly along.
“Astride one of the leading elephants rode a bejeweled noble of high rank, and Falcon knew instantly he had to be His Majesty the King, the ruler of Siam. So splendid was his raiment of dress, so regal did he appear that there could be no mistaking who he was. Indeed, he was King Narai himself. On another elephant at his side sat an officer of high rank, which Falcon learned later was General Petracha, King Narai’s close friend since childhood. They were coming from the field and about to enter the city.”
In King Narai’s palace you can see the balcony upon which he stood when he gave audience to foreign ambassadors and dignitaries. You can visit the prison where Falcon was confined, and the window from which his young and devoted Japanese wife passed him messages just before he was executed.
There's much more to see reminiscent of King Narai and Falcon’s days. There are the remains of the king's elephant stables, with the palace water reservoir in the foreground. In the adjacent quadrangle to the left is the royal reception hall. Passing through more stables, you come to the southwest quadrangle with the Suttha Sawan pavilion in the centre. The north-west quadrangle contains many ruined buildings which were once an audience hall, that I mentioned, and various open-sided pavilions, and residence quarters for the king's officers
After King Narai's death in 1688, the palace was used only by King Phetracha, Narai's successor, for his coronation ceremony and it was then abandoned, for nearly 200 years, until King Mongkut ordered restoration in the mid- 19th century.
Other than King Narai’s site, a visit to Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat, directly across from the train station, is worth a visit. This large 12th-century Khmer wat has been recently restored by the Fine Arts Department. A very tall laterite prang still stands and features a few intact lintels, as well as some ornate statues. A large wihaan added by King Narai also displays a ruined elegance. Several chedis and smaller prangs dot the grounds - some almost completely restored, some a little the worse for wear.
Getting back to the monkeys of Lopburi, while monkeys frolicking on stone temples make for great photo opportunities, they are a real nuisance. Visitors too should keep in mind that these are wild animals.
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Q. Hi there, I’m approaching my retirement years and have for many years wondered what it must be like to sail around the South Asian seas on one of those exotic Chinese or Siamese junks. I’m guessing that Thailand would have trips like that. Do you know any websites or companies I could enquire to? I’d love to take my wife somewhere special when my working days draw to an end. Many thanks, Ren Weiscoff. Detroit, Michigan.
A. Dear Ren, You are in luck. A company called Thai Marine Leisure operates a fleet of authentic junks in Phuket. The other good news is that you can book a junk cruise through Royal Orchid Holidays. There’s a four days, three nights that departs Saturday (ROHA4A) and Tuesdays (ROHA4B). Marine Leisure also has a one-day trip aboard the Bahtra. I haven’t made the junk trip but I am looking forward to it one day. I wrote in detail about junk trips in my book TAKE CHINA that you may enjoy. I did take a photo of Suwan Macha, the junk for the four-day voyage, when I was in Phuket last. It looks like a fun trip and I know you will enjoy it. Happy retirement. —HS
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.