Over 4,000kg of food and 3,000 macaques make for one hell of a party. Grab a table at the Lopburi Monkey Buffet Festival
I love monkeys. If you learn one thing from reading this blog, it’s that I’m bananas for primates.
I often base my travels on where I can see interesting monkeys and apes.
I’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to see endangered species, unusual breeds, and places where unique monkey cultures have evolved.
Primates have been the highlight of some of my greatest adventures.
I first saw photos of the Lopburi Monkey Buffet Festival in the early 2000s, and was desperate to see it first-hand.
When I finally got my chance to join the feast, this brash celebration of nature’s Artful Dodgers didn’t disappoint.
Lopburi is around 150km northeast of Bangkok. The city was founded in 648 AD, making it one of Thailand’s oldest settlements.
The Khmer Empire once controlled the city, and built a number of important buildings that are still standing today.
Lopburi’s historical sites such as the Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat temple and Lopburi Palace are a fine alternative to the ancient attractions in Bangkok or Ayutthaya.
But as Lopburi isn’t on the traditional tourist trail that includes Bangkok’s Grand Palace, the bridge over the River Kwai and Similan Islands, few travellers make it here.
Which is a shame, as Lopburi has its own cheeky charm.
Long-tailed macaques are common in the city centre, and the authorities estimate that there are more than 3,000 in town.
The monkeys are notorious for stealing from local shops, pickpocketing tourists, and causing power outages by chewing through electricity lines.
But as Lopburi’s macaques have become a draw for foreign travellers, their bad behaviour is tolerated.
After all, monkey business is good for business.
The epicentre of simian life in Lopburi is the ruined Khmer temple of Phra Prang Sam Yod.
If you visit the temple at any time of year, you can get close to its audacious inmates.
But if you come in November, stick around for the world’s best monkey party.
The monkey master
The Monkey Buffet Festival was founded in 1989 by Yongyuth Kitwattananusont, a local hotel owner.
During the festival, Kitwattananusont is easy to spot as he wears a banana-yellow jacket, covered in signatures scrawled by foreign visitors.
Kitwattananusont decided to celebrate Lopburi’s monkeys because of the visitors they bring to the town, but he also wanted to pay homage to their mythical past.
According to Thai legend, the city of Lopburi was given by Hindu diety Rama to his devotee, the monkey king Hanuman.
All monkeys in the city are believed to be descended directly from Hanuman, giving Lopburi another excuse for throwing Asia’s biggest monkey bash.
The first Monkey Buffet Festival was a small affair, with a few tables of goodies for the temple monkeys to devour.
But over time the banquet has grown into one of the region’s most beloved events, and now attracts tourists, TV crews and photographers from around the world.
Around 4,000kg of fruit, vegetables, candy and drinks are demolished at the festival each year.
Once the feast is over, there’s barely a banana skin left.
I arrived in Lopburi the week before the festival. A mix-up in dates meant I arrived at the wrong time, but I extended my trip and stayed in Thailand.
I couldn’t come this far and miss the main event.
The temple is normally quiet, with only a handful of visitors. But on the day of the buffet a festival atmosphere sweeps through town.
Giant monkey statues are erected at the temple entrance. Carnival games are set up in the grounds. Traditional dancers entertain visitors.
And there’s food and drink for everyone – both primate and homo sapien.
Before the festival kicks off, the normally fearless macaques skulk in the shadows and watch visitors pouring in.
Around the temple grounds are dozens of tables piled high with food, each laid out in decadent designs.
The air is sweet with the smell of fresh fruit, and the smell of vendors cooking popular Thai snacks is overwhelming.
How the monkeys manage to restrain themselves is a mystery to me.
After speeches by local dignitaries and Yongyuth Kitwattananusont, the crowds rush to the temple entrance.
Here a table is set up, laden with food.
The monkeys on the temple roof lick their lips and hoot in anticipation, but none of them makes a move until the alpha male approaches the table.
After giving the hundreds of humans watching him a puzzled look, the powerful male sniffs the fruity smorgasbord and rips off a chunk of mango.
As cameras furiously snap, the troop leader gorges on sweet treats, oblivious to the crowds that have come to see him.
Moments later the alpha male is joined by his second-in-command, who turns his ass to the crowd and buries his head deep in a tray of oranges.
Then all hell breaks loose.
Monkeys fly from the shadows and descend on the banquet. Beautiful displays are destroyed in seconds as boisterous macaques pile onto the tables, furiously stuffing their chops and fighting for treats.
Younger and less confident monkeys hang around the fringes of the action, biding their time until the chaos calms down or they spot an opportunity to grab a snack.
But they don’t need to worry – there’s plenty for everyone.
The bravest monkeys stake a spot near the biggest piles of food, and squat on the tables until they’ve had their fill.
Others grab as much food as they can carry, then retreat to the safety of the temple buildings.
But monkeys that choose a takeaway need to be vigilant. There are hundreds of hungry hands grasping for goodies, and adolescent macaques have no qualms about thieving from their younger siblings.
As the spectacle unfolds, it’s hilarious to see the monkeys battling with food packaging.
The tables are strewn with chocolates in wrappers, bottles of water and cans of fizzy drink. Watching the monkeys finding inventive ways to get their paws on the food is hilarious – but I wouldn’t like to be the person who has to sweep up afterwards.
The organisers also play tricks on the greediest monkeys, and soak tasty treats in blue food dye. The monkeys guzzle regardless, but it’s easy to spot them afterwards as their hands and chops are stained a delicate shade of teal.
The organisers also freeze food in blocks of ice, and make the macaques work for their dinner.
The monkeys gobble throughout the morning, and as human lunchtime approaches the temple grounds are strewn with wrappers, bottles, squashed fruit and rainbow-stained tables that look as if they’ve been vomited on by a unicorn.
Once the monkeys have filled their bellies, most take a siesta.
Every dark corner of the temple is occupied by napping macaques, each lost in a fruit coma.
As the human crowds begin to drift away, the clean-up begins. By tomorrow morning, everything will be back to normal.
Or at least what passes for normal in Lopburi.
Check out the full Lopburi Monkey Buffet Festival photo gallery.