Rebekah Sheppard

A week at the Monkey Forest (Don Chao Poo, Phana)

4 – 8 March 2013

MONDAY

My first day here, and we start the day by feeding the monkeys unhusked rice.

It’s a bit nerve-wracking, your first time, throwing the rice down and all these wild monkeys of all different sizes come running towards you. But the nervousness fades as you quickly learn that they are just interested in the food! I noticed that they can be a bit aggressive during feeding time, with the larger monkeys chasing off the smaller ones, while the smaller ones pull each other’s tails!

Later on I get the guided tour of Phana by another volunteer. The town is so small that the tour takes all of 15 minutes! Locals were excited or surprised to see us in their town, with lots of friendly smiles and waves coming from them. I also get shown how to change the monkeys’ water supplies in various locations around the forest.

Evening comes and Lawrence takes us on Roosting Watch. This is at dusk, when all the monkeys call each other, round up and get ready to climb the trees for a night’s sleep. I feel the monkeys were a bit more aggressive at this time, with two monkeys chasing me away when I got too close. I learn from Lawrence that the Alpha Male monkeys are the last ones up in the trees of an evening, and the first ones to come down each morning. So it must be a protective thing, or that I am new and the monkeys need to get used to me, or maybe both?!

TUESDAY

Today we taught a class of small children some Basic English at our Study Centre. The Thai children are so sweet, polite and eager to learn. They also like to have fun! So the workshop learning is done with lots of demonstrations, laughing, smiling and running around.  The kids pick up what we teach them very quickly, it’s impressive. At the end of the lesson, they all thank you, with some of the young girls giving us a cuddle and telling us we are beautiful !

Another part of today, like most days at the Phana Monkey Project, is surveying the monkeys. This includes counting and monitoring them, for behavior, injuries, and looking out for Humpies and Short Tails. We spot one Short Tail and three Humpies. The humpies have this name due to the hunch backs they’ve acquired, for which reason; we are trying to find out. They’re kind of cute looking and remind me of some OAPs back home! But they are still agile! Lawrence informs us that one of the Humpies was pregnant and he was eager to see if the baby would have a hump too, but unfortunately, the baby didn’t make it.

We also noticed a monkey with a skin condition on her back; she also insists on walking around everywhere on two legs like a human, this was pretty funny to watch!

We only spotted approx. 200 monkeys today, which is alarmingly low.

WEDNESDAY

Today was a really enjoyable day.

We start the day with a three hour English Workshop at The GSN (Continuing Education) Learning Camp, where we join forces with two girls who are teaching English in Phana from The Project Trust. Everyone, we and the students enjoyed the class I think, lots of smiling again, and one particular student didn’t want to go for break, as he insisted on one more game of Bingo! At the end of the session the school treated us to lunch at the fancy restaurant in town, which we were all very grateful for.

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With the morning over, Antonio, a fellow volunteer, and I went into the forest to check on the monkeys and replenish their water buckets. After this, I decide to spend my afternoon monkey watching. I spotted three Humpies, with one of them only having a small hump forming. A few locals visited and were feeding them, so there were monkeys galore everywhere! I thought I should just sit on the floor and let the monkeys come and investigate my bike, so they could get accustomed to it, as well as me.

They were so funny to watch with my bike! So cautious and wary, yet too curious to leave it. They would go to chew the spokes, eyeing me the whole time so that I began to get where the phrase cheeky monkey came from! I even thought one monkey was going to ride off with my bike as he sat on the saddle, but he just wanted to chew it.

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Watching a Thai couple feed another group, I have a pregnant monkey come and sit right next to me, oohing and aahing whilst raising her eyebrows at me. Think she was nicely asking me for some food. The Thai couple invite me over to sit and help feed with them.

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At first I was a bit hesitant. I’m a bit nervous of monkeys, as I was bitten by a Chimp when I was five, but to be fair I did stick my hand in his face, and maybe I need to get used to them, and them to me!

It was so wonderful. They were all around, leaning on you to get to the food. The little ones would snatch a piece of sweet potato and run, whilst the big ones would calmly take some and sit there in front of you munching away. One Alpha Male tried to snatch the big bag of food, but when the Thai lady waved her knife and shouted at him, he calmly sat back in his place. I was shocked and truly believed that would be fighting talk to him, as I’ve seen them be aggressive to similar behaviour, so they must know and respect this Thai couple, or he really wanted some more sweet potatoes!

On my way home, I unfortunately came across a dead monkey on the side of the road, with a long ribbon attached to his foot.  I tell Lawrence, and we think a local had found it and brought the monkey back to his home to rest. I go back to see if the body is still there, but it’s not.

THURSDAY

Today is clean up day!

Lawrence, Liz and I take on clearing out the lock-up shed, where we store equipment and bikes in the forest. Liz was hoping to catch a scorpion, but all we get is the most humungous spider carrying a load of eggs. Insects are her thing apparently, not spiders!

Once completed the lock-up looks so organized, that we can’t help being pleased with ourselves. Off we go to top up the monkeys water supplies and burn some wooden rubbish and straw mats that we don’t need from the lock up anymore. We also pick up stray mats we found around the forest to burn as well.

As we are filling up the water buckets, the usually ever-wary smaller monkeys slowly approach me.

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When they start playing with my toes and staring at me, I think they are starting to get used to me now! Then Charles, a monkey known to like to climb us humans, comes along, clambers up Lawrence, sits on his head and chews the string on his hat. Bored of Lawrence, he then flies off him onto me! Where Charles decides to groom my hair, use me as a climbing frame, playfully bite me, and casually sit on my shoulder as I was walking around doing my business with the water.

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When he got down, I had to admit, I wanted him back up again!

But he is a wild animal, so it shouldn’t be encouraged really.

Back to business, we set about making a fire for the rubbish and straw mats. I’m quickly reminded that they are wild animals, as an Alpha Male really tells us off, one by one, when we get too close for his liking. Baring his teeth and fangs, whilst advancing towards us to back us off! We think he wasn’t too comfortable with the fire. We stay with the fire till it burns out, making sure it doesn’t spread to a forest fire and that no monkeys get too close, as lots come by to check it out.

FRIDAY

If I thought yesterday was clean up day, then I was wrong! Today is clean up day, as all us volunteers spend the first half of the day cleaning the forest.

We started by doing litter duty, two of us picked up litter on one side of the forest, whilst the other two did the other side. It’s not as bad as I anticipated, and was good to venture down a path I’d never been down before, and to get to know Liz a bit better. It’s a bit of a shame that people do litter the forest, but I’m told it’s getting much better, and I think the monkeys have a lot to blame for some of the rubbish too!

A group of students visit the forest while we are cleaning and want to help out, which is great. They were teenagers and I was really impressed, as I’ve never seen a teenager volunteer to do litter picking in my life. So fair play to them.

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I rake out leaves from the little pond I have become attached to and refill it with water, as the monkeys also love the pond and to splash about in it too. The others change the bins and water supplies.

Once we are all done for the day, all us volunteers, plus Robyn and Claire from Project Trust, head into Ubon town for the night, eat dinner and visit a couple of bars to experience how Thai people relax at the weekend. We also planned to visit Khong Chiam to see the Mekhong River that runs from Tibet, which is quite impressive, and it becomes a  river of two colours at Khong Chiam where it is joined by the River Mun.

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