Cute and funny, yes — but also very cheeky and unpredictable. Knowing how to stay safe around monkeys is useful in Asia where they run rampant in many tourist hotspots.
Every year, numerous travelers receive bites and have to go for injections. Usually, poor choices on the part of the traveler are to blame for the derailed interaction. Any scratch or bite from a monkey requires medical attention, often an expensive series of rabies shots.
Don't worry: Most encounters with monkeys are fun, possibly even hilarious, but you should know what to do if things turn ugly.
Curious monkeys, especially macaques, may take an interest in you and whatever you are carrying. Hint: they love expensive sunglasses!
How to Have a Safe Monkey Encounter
The monkeys in tourist areas are accustomed to interactions with humans and may even appear friendly, but sometimes the situation can change quickly.
Here are a few tips for staying safe around monkeys in Asia so that your next encounter doesn’t send you to the clinic:
- Watch out for the alpha males: Monkeys are tribal and follow their own hierarchy. The larger, gray-haired monkeys are often the most likely to turn aggressive if they feel their status as alpha is threatened. Be particularly mindful when an alpha monkey moves in to investigate what is going on.
- Keep food and drinks away: Monkeys have a keen sense of smell and can detect your trail snacks whether they are opened or not — seriously! Don't think you can keep any food item hidden. That bag of nuts buried deep in your pack may get you more attention than you like. And monkeys aren’t just interested in food — they’ll even grab water bottles.
- Never feed them: You shouldn’t be encouraging unnatural behavior by feeding wildlife anyway, but feeding monkeys is particularly risky. You may be attacked if the nibbles are being handed out too slowly. The rest of the troop may overwhelm you for additional food even if you don't have any left.
- Don’t fight for your belongings: If a monkey has already latched onto a strap or something you are carrying, you're better off dropping it. Never play tug of war with a determined monkey; they don’t fight fairly. A monkey may scratch or bite you to make you let go of something. If food isn’t involved, there’s a good chance that a monkey will just drop whatever they took from you anyway. Better yet, don't tempt them with anything in the first place! They especially love grabbing sunglasses off the top of travelers' heads.
- Watch out for your camera: Monkeys are keen to grab onto dangling straps, especially if an expensive SLR is on the other end. Although monkeys are very photogenic, be careful when using large lenses around monkeys — seeing their own reflection in the lens may trigger an attack.
- They aren’t smiling: Don't flatter yourself: Those cute macaques aren’t smiling at you or your camera; baring teeth is an act of aggression. Your friendly smile in return could potentially be misinterpreted as a threat in the deranged mind of an irritated monkey.
- Limit your interaction: While the monkeys at tourist attractions are conditioned to being around humans, don’t encourage additional cheekiness by trying to hand them something. The same goes for provoking them to get some sort of response for a picture. Simply photograph them and then move on with minimal interaction.
What to Do If a Monkey Grabs Something
Drop it! Although encounters rarely turn violent, monkeys often grab onto anything they can. Playing tug of war with a determined macaque may cause them to scratch your hand. Even a small scratch is at risk of infection; you'll take especially good care of the wound to avoid antibiotics.
Avoid presenting a temptation to monkeys altogether by securing straps. Hide anything (e.g., water bottles, dangling clips, jewelry, and shiny sunglasses on your head) that may spark curiosity.
What to Do If You Are Threatened
When a friendly monkey encounter begins to go wrong, standing your ground is imperative. Monkeys follow a strict hierarchy of respect and may even chase you down if they detect fear.
Instead, make yourself larger, shout and wave your arms, and arm yourself with a stick if possible. Be careful when lowering yourself to pick up sticks or rocks to use as a weapon — doing so puts you on their level. Back away slowly while still facing the monkey, but maintain your aggressive posture and make noise.
What to Do If You Are Scratched or Bitten
Every scratch or bite from a monkey should be examined by a medical professional. While this seems like overkill and an inconvenience on an otherwise-great trip, rabies has no symptoms (until it's too late) and a zero-survival rate if not treated.
Even small scratches can quickly become infected. After all, monkeys do regularly handle their own feces.
Begin by immediately scrubbing the scratch or bite for 15 minutes in warm, soapy water to slow the spread of infection. Apply antiseptic (keep some handy wipes in your travel first aid kit) and then seek medical advice as soon as possible. Your doctor may administer antibiotics as a safeguard and will advise you on measures against rabies.
Places in Asia for Monkey Encounters
Monkeys in Asia come in all types, sizes, and temperaments. While macaques are the most common species of monkey that you’ll probably encounter, orangutans, langurs (including the funny-looking proboscis monkeys), gibbons, and spider monkeys all call Asia home. Orangutans are among the many endangered species and can only be seen in Sumatra and Borneo.
Monkeys don’t always go after things on your person. They’ve been known to enter guesthouse rooms via opened windows or the balcony then leave an epic mess. Travelers sometimes return from swims only to find their bags dumped on the beach and contents investigated.
Monkeys learn quickly. They hang around snack areas and kiosks. Be vigilant when eating in open-air restaurants. Monkeys even make raids on cafes in the Menara Tower, Kuala Lumpur's "space needle" structure in the middle of the city!
Monkeys and tourists mix in many popular destinations around Asia. You're almost guaranteed to meet monkeys at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, in Ubud on Bali, at the Batu Caves in Malaysia, and pretty well all over the islands of Southeast Asia.