Ubud. In the depths of the Monkey Forest. Narrow shafts of silvery sunlight reaching tentatively down through the canopy of branches above my head. Brightening the eerie shadows cast by the trees. Remnants of the rain lying in irregular puddles on ground. Catching the light. The eyes of the monkeys encircling me searching my body for something tasty to steal. Leaving me feeling more than a little uncomfortable as memories of a trip to Thailand fifteen years earlier surged through my nerve endings…
…a short trip with a friend to the province of Kanchanaburi and a boathouse high up the River Kwae Noi. That’s the ‘little’ River Kwae as opposed to the ‘big’ one spanned by the infamous bridge. Scenically stunning, plenty of greenery, reputedly good food. Close to the border with Burma so demographically interesting. Possibly not the safest place in the Kingdom at the time due to cross-border skirmishes between insurgents of different factions. But there is nothing like the possibility of a little danger to add spice to an adventure.
Unusually for Thailand we departed on time. Early on a Thursday morning. In a small white minivan. Overloaded, noisy and smelling of gasoline. No rear view mirrors, nor air conditioning. Somewhat bald tyres and a driver with a penchant for speed. Of both types. His eyes were so bloodshot it was a miracle he could see through them. His foot glued to the throttle. It took a while for the landscape to stop moving when we paused for a tea break. Needless to say we arrived at our destination early. A little the worse for wear. A kilo or two lighter due to the sauna-like conditions in the van. But in one piece and that was all that mattered.
The location of the houseboat was breathtakingly beautiful. A tall rocky cliff rising from one side of the swirling brown river. Draped with vines and creepers and trees. On the other bank, a narrow floodplain that carried the dirt track we arrived on. Backing that was undulating jungle in a myriad of textures and shades of green. Birdsong echoed in the wind. Hot sun. Not so humid. After the traffic jams and pollution of Bangkok this was surely the closest thing to paradise that could be found without a plane ride.
Accommodation was simple but adequate. Natural materials. A small bedroom with a terrace on the river and in an adjoining room a large earthenware jar held water for washing. Company around the dinner table was lively and interesting. A polyglot of nationalities. All well travelled with plenty of tales to share. The die was cast that first night over a fair few beers. Daytime in our separate groups, night time all of us together. A dozen or so new friends. Eating. Drinking. Laughing.
Sunset, day two. A jungle walk with a local guide. Just he, my friend and I. Simple instructions. Watch out for snakes – wear heavy boots and socks. Beware the legions of mosquitoes – drown in citronella or DEET and wear long pants and a shirt with long sleeves or prepare to be a mobile blood banquet. Take a camera and put a torch in your pocket. Oh, and by the way, duck if you hear a fast, whistling kind of a sound. It could be a bullet. On that cheery note we set off into the bush.
As the sun set so the sky pinkened. A delicate blush that deepened to rose and then strawberry before darkening into a clear golden blueness. Creatures of the daylight gave way to those of the night. Out came the flashlights. Off I wandered. Lost in thought as I followed in the footsteps of the two whispering shadows in front of me.
My mother always said that as a child I could fall over the pattern in the carpet because I never looked where I was going. Evidently nothing changed as I got older because in my reverie I walked smack bang into something. Warm. Furry. Large. And very strong.
A monkey. A long-armed gibbon to be precise. Swinging from a branch by one hand. Don’t know who was more surprised, me or he. No doubt whose reactions were the quickest though. Upon contact with me he wrapped his back legs around my neck and wound the fingers of his free hand into my long wavy blonde tresses. Pulling me into him and yanking down hard on my hair. You do not need to be an expert in monkey anatomy to figure what part of this animal’s body my face was now firmly clamped to. Trust me. It was most definitely a male.
I couldn’t scream. I wasn’t able to open my mouth. Not that I would have wanted to anyway. All I could do was stamp my feet. And then only a couple of times as my monkey captor saw this as a signal to pull my hair even harder.
My friend and the guide returned and on seeing the scene before them burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter. No thought of rescue. Oh no. Laughter and then photography. Unbelievable but true.
All in the meanwhile the joke was wearing very thin as far as I was concerned. And so was my hair. I wanted out. We are only talking about a minute or two here. Maybe not even that long. But when you have your face thrust into a monkey’s genitals a couple of seconds is a lifetime. I reached up and began pulling at the fur and skin on the monkey’s back. I have a wonderful black and white photograph of this moment. I look at it now, more than a decade on, and I laugh. I laugh out loud until my sides hurt. But at the time I was scared. Very scared. Because the more I pulled, the more he thrust. Seriously unpleasant I can assure you.
My admirer eventually released his grip on me after being hit several times about the body with a stick. I am not one who likes to see cruelty to animals but at this stage I cared not what they did to this monster to extricate him from me.
With nary so much as a backward glance he swung up into the tree and was gone. I fell to the ground in a state of shock and as all true women in such a position would do, I began to scream. Obscenities. At my friend and the guide. This, of course, served no purpose but to rekindle their laughter and as we all know, laughter is contagious. It didn’t take long before my screams changed to giggles. And from giggles to belly laughter. Tears streamed down my face as I gave thought to what this monkey business must have looked like to an observer. A comedy script writer surely couldn’t have penned the scene any better.
It just goes to show that every cloud has the possibility of a silver lining. Even though we might not see it at the time.
And that we never know who, or what, lies around the next corner as we journey through our lives.
One thing’s for sure though. Be prepared to be surprised.
Comments to: email@example.com
© Jacqueline Le Sueur 2007
You can read all past articles of Whispers from the Rice Fields at