Staying Safe Around Monkeys

Safety Tips, Avoiding Trouble, and What to Do If You Are Bitten

monkeys in asi
Photo by Greg Rodgers

Knowing how to stay safe around monkeys may come in very handy while traveling in Asia. Many tourist areas are inundated with curious monkeys, mostly macaques, that may take an interest in you and whatever you are carrying. Hint: they love expensive cameras!

While most interactions with monkeys are fun, possibly even hilarious, lots of tourists in Asia end up being bitten every year. Any scratch or bite from a monkey requires medical attention, possibly even an expensive series of rabies shots. Save yourself the trouble by being prepared.

Monkey Encounters in Asia

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 so that your next encounter doesn’t turn ugly:

  • Watch out for the alpha males: The larger, gray-haired monkeys are often the most likely to turn aggressive. 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! That bag of nuts buried deep in your pack may be a reason for monkeys to want to grab hold. And monkeys aren’t just interested in food; they’ll even grab water bottles.
  • Don’t fight for your belongings: If a monkey has already latched onto a strap or something you are carrying, it may already be too late. Never play tug of war with a determined monkey; they don’t fight fair. A monkey may scratch or bite you to make you drop something. If food isn’t involved, there’s a good chance that a monkey will just drop whatever they took from you anyway.
  • Watch out for your camera: Monkeys love 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.
  • Never feed them: You shouldn’t be encouraging unnatural behavior from wildlife by feeding them anyway, but feeding monkeys is particularly risky. You may be attacked if the nibbles are being handed out too slowly, and the rest of the troop may overwhelm you for additional food.
  • 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 mind of a deranged monkey.
  • Limit your interaction: While the monkeys at tourist attractions are conditioned to be around humans, don’t encourage additional cheekiness by trying to hand them something or to provoke some sort of response for the cameras.

What to Do If a Monkey Grabs Something

Drop it! Although encounters rarely turn violent, there is a high likelihood that a monkey will grab onto something that you are carrying. Playing tug of war with a determined macaque may cause them to scratch your hand. Avoid presenting a temptation altogether by securing straps; hide anything (e.g., water bottles, dangling clips, 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, it is imperative that you stand your ground. Monkeys follow a strict hierarchy of respect and may 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 weaponry. Back away slowly while still facing the monkey, but maintain your aggressive posture.

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 and a zero-survival rate if not treated. Even small scratches can quickly become infected (monkeys do regularly handle their own feces, after all).

Begin by scrubbing the scratch or bite for 15 minutes in warm, soapy water to slow the spread of infection. Apply antiseptic 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. See some interesting facts about orangutans that will make you appreciate their plight.

  • See a list of places to encounter orangutans in Asia.

Monkeys don’t always go after things on your person. They’ve been known to regularly enter guesthouse rooms via opened windows to create epic messes. People sometimes return from swims only to find out that their bags left on the beach had contents dumped and investigated.

Monkeys are incredibly smart and wisely hang around snack areas in national parks. Be vigilant around food and drink carts and open-air restaurants that are situated close to the jungle canopy.

Some popular places where you’ll certainly encounter monkeys include: