MONKEY BUSINESS: A Meditation on the Balinese Monkey


A trip to Bali without seeing monkeys is difficult to pull off even if you had set out with the intention to do so ahead of time.

Monkeys are everywhere. At restaurants and hotels and homestays. On the beach and in the jungles. Statues of monkeys. Signs telling you where monkeys are and signs telling you how to avoid them. And so it is a bit of a Rorschach Test as to whether or not you think this is a marketing-brochure highlight or a governmental travel advisory.

Upon arrival, the first thing you notice concerning the native monkey hordes is that the Balinese rarely refer to Monkeys in the plural or with any articles attached. It’s just MONKEY.

You first chalk this up to mistranslation. But after spending enough time interacting with these screeching tree-banshees, you conclude that the grammatical error is actually intentional.

This is because the Balinese understand that MONKEY is not a divisible thing. Rather, MONKEY is an essence. A state of animal-ness. An uneasy ambient vibe that saturates the air when MONKEY is around. There is a palpable tension between Monkey and human. Both seem to be in a bit of a disagreement about who exactly runs the place. After all, it’s not MONKEY’s fault that a hotel got built on top of their tree-lined, beachfront home. At the same time, I don’t think MONKEY is too bothered about this. In fact, they seem all too eager to terrorize a guest if it means a free breakfast crepe or two.

The whole set up is very unlike a safari or zoo where the boundary lines between host & guest are clearly drawn. Instead in Bali, if MONKEY does attack you or steal your belongings, it’s a bit ambiguous as to who the defendant in the case is. Some law-of-the-jungle Stand Your Ground policy is at play. From MONKEY’s P.O.V., you’re trespassing on their property, and so it’s all fair game.

This is why the hoteliers and taxi drivers will incessantly remind you of the monkey-decorum protocol, solicited or not. Hear the protocol enough times, and you get the uneasy sense that it’s in fact, MONKEY who runs the show.

Don’t stare at them in the eyes.

Don’t eat food around them.

Don’t feed them.

Don’t wear jewelry.

Don’t use your cell phone.

Don’t make loud noises.

Don’t Move.

Don’t breathe.

Don’t even exist.

It all feels a bit overkill, at least until the stories start trickling in.

“A girl yesterday offered MONKEY a bite of her candy. MONKEY wanted all of it. The girl refused to hand all of it over. MONKEY bit her in the head.”

“A guest last week left their cell phone out on the table. MONKEY grabbed it. She offered MONKEY food for her cellphone back, MONKEY threw her cell phone on the ground, jumped on her shoulder, stole the food, and slapped her in the face.”

There is no shortage of these anecdotes in Bali. All of them only made more sobering by the fact that a monkey bite can carry with it tetanus, rabies, and even simian herpes virus B.

And yet, in spite of the compelling evidence incentivizing one to steer clear, an urge to bond with my common ancestors persisted throughout my Bali sojourn. Amused and entranced by them; the Jane Goodall impetus to devote your life to studying these creatures started to feel sensible, rational, enviable even.

For every monkey-on-monkey rape, I bore witness to, just as common was to encounter its behavioral opposite. Displays of cooperation. Trading food. Sharing Food. Playing. Laughing. Roughhousing. Napping. A mother monkey cradling her baby in her arms, feeding it, stroking its forehead. The whole melodrama was equal parts disarming and unnerving.

You soon wonder how one is supposed to position themselves in relation to MONKEY. An animal far more “conscious” or “aware” or “human” than any other creature one might typically encounter outside of a zoo? An animal whose entire manneristic repertoire lands just a little too close to home.

To be clear, the reaction elicited when watching MONKEY is not necessarily, “How cute! How adorable! How cool!” It is something a bit more conflicted and layered. It’s the feeling that this creature is thinking thoughts. Or more succinctly, that this creature knows it’s thinking thoughts.

Being in the presence of MONKEY gives rise to an uncanny sense that you share something elemental with them. Now you, yourself aren’t entirely sure what that “something” is, but you get the feeling that MONKEY knows a lot more about it than you do.

After 11 days of this “feeling” hovering around you, 11 days of watching MONKEY traipse about on your balcony staring at you while you eat breakfast, the “feeling” grows into full-blown paranoia.

“I think this monkey knows what I’m thinking?”

“I know for a fact that monkey family is plotting to kill us in our sleep tonight.”

“But like, if you really think about it, Planet of the Apes is not that far off.”

Your brain even goes to places like “If you did have to fend off an attack from an entire monkey pack, I don’t think you could bat them away, even with a machine gun. They move too fast. You’d probably need like a grenade launcher or something.”

The paranoia eventually gives way to the admission that we just don’t know what our relationship to this creature “should be.” Friend or foe? Submissive or Dominant? Co-equal in a sort of dolphin vs. whale kind of way? Hostile roommates stuck in a long term lease? “Look, I’m not going anywhere, and you’re not going anywhere, so let’s just try and make the best of this.”

There are plenty of insights available for gleaning here concerning moral philosophy, consciousness, and animal rights that run deeper than this essay is equipped to dive. But witness enough forced monkey copulation before lunch, and these sorts of ethical problems will confront you whether you want them to or not.

Kumbakarna Laga statue in Eka Karya Botanical Garden, Bedugul, Bali

Something worth considering regarding the entire Balinese monkey saga is the relationship the Balinese themselves have to MONKEY. The Indonesian island chains are home to Java Man, one of the oldest known sapient fossils on record. One might reasonably assume then that after 1.5 million years, surely an orderly relationship would have naturally emerged amongst the tailed and un-tailed inhabitants of the island. The Balinese and MONKEY must have settled into some symbiotic cohabitation agreement by this point.

But that would only be half true. What is more accurate instead is that the Balinese and MONKEY live under a sort of hostile truce. On one side of the ceasefire is MONKEY, continually testing the boundaries, always trying to see what it can get away with. On the other is the Balinese, who both at once revere MONKEY by way of Hindu deities like Hanuman yet also see MONKEY as the dangerous, insouciant trouble-maker it is. A source of power and magic, yes. But also, not to be trusted, ignored whenever possible, and watched from a distance.

I, for one, am a proponent of MONKEY’s hostile rule over the island. It serves as a not so subtle reminder to any overconfident and boorish tourists that you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. There are no rules and regulations and safety protocols in place to save you. You can’t sue anyone or hold anyone liable if MONKEY decides to turn on you. You can’t innoculate yourself or protect yourself completely. So, be respectful and mindful of your surroundings. And remember, you are just a guest in this paradise. Lest you forget this, well, it’s not the Balinese who will remind you of it. That would be impolite. They simply will innocently smile and turn their backs while MONKEY has its way with you.

And herein lies one of the core truths of Bali; it’s safe in a Hobbsian way but deceptively dangerous in a Darwinian one. The Social Contract in Bali borders on the idyllic and the Balinese are impeccable hosts. Hospitable and gracious and courteous almost to a fault. So much so that if you happen to notice any of your belongings missing, it is far more probable that a monkey has hijacked them than any local Balinese.

But this sense of paradisical safety, an Adam and Eve before the fall of man type of safety, lulls tourists into a false sense of security regarding the physical dangers of Bali. Angry Monkeys and rabid dogs, daily scooter accidents, sea snakes and bull sharks, stonefish and sea urchins and jellyfish, jagged shallow reefs pushing powerful waves against 100ft+ cliffs, dengue fever, the list goes on. This is what keeps Bali exciting.

Banded Sea Krait: Their bite is ten times more lethal than a rattlesnake, and there is no known anti-venom. Luckily they are quite shy.

If Bali were to lose these small Darwinian hazards, if it were to try and over-sanitize itself for the sake of tourism, it would be sacrificing some of its soul. Giving up what makes Bali so appealing in the first place, all to appease the gods of tourism. And so maybe it is the case that the presence of MONKEY let’s the local Balinese play the role of uber host, emanating perpetual kindness and sincerity, while still keeping the tourists on their toes. Keeping the tourists from taking over the place.

As tourism continues to gobble up a more significant share of GDP for Indonesia while more and more infrastructure and amenities and safety measures are erected in its name, perhaps the words Monkey and Tourist will soon become distinctions without a difference for the Balinese?

A source of power, yes. But not to be trusted and ignored whenever possible.

Also, don’t look them in the eyes or they might give you herpes.

Culture, Media, Tech, Science. Also Dogs. Instagram&Twitter @Robhealy__

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