Phetchaburi, Thailand (photo by Irina Stelea)

Stories from the hills of Phetchaburi #1

Phetchaburi city is one of Thailand’s oldest settlements. The few hills it has catch the eye in an otherwise flat region, and there are many interesting structures on them, so I make it my plan to explore these hills.

Hill #1: Khao Luang
A temple inside a cave

I depart early in the day for this hill (according to the travel guide the cave/temple opens at 7am). There is little activity at this hour on the long, stray-dog-ridden road that leads there, so I become an obvious target. Thai stray dogs have a peculiar defense mechanism: if you’re out at daytime, when there are plenty of people in the streets, they assume you’re a good person and let you be; but if you’re out at unusual hours, you must definitely be a crook, so they become aggressive beasts. I somehow zigzag my way through the first pack, but other loud and fierce dogs soon join. Even though I normally do not fear dogs, I get a bit alarmed and by the time I leave the pack behind my heart is pounding.

Eventually I reach the hill and proceed on an asphalt road that winds through a forest. There are 300 meters left to the cave. Another twist in the road and surprise: the place is teeming with monkeys. In other circumstances, that would have been no problem, but I had already been shaken by the encounter with the dogs. And unlike dogs, which I can read and anticipate quite well, monkeys are just a closed book to me. I tread carefully while keeping my eyes on the monkeys. They are busy grooming each other, and it’s this indifference that unsettles me. Suddenly one of the monkeys notices me, approaches and ominously hisses towards me. The others do not react, but this is the last straw and now I’m scared.

As I’m standing on the top of the hill, I can see the temple grounds right in front of me, empty and quiet in the morning sun – and a minefield of monkeys in-between. Going back is not an option either, because my fear has the face of a thousand monkeys riding a thousand dogs. I resort to cinema wisdom. A film once taught me that sometimes the best move is not to move at all, so I step down to the side of the road and just freeze. Twenty minutes into this self-induced paralysis, I hear the engine of a motorbike. “I’m saved,” I think. A woman with a big plastic bowl is driving up the hill. I smile to her when I see her, hoping that my smile will spell out my utter sense of terror. The woman just drives past me and stops the engine 20 meters ahead. Wrong choice of facial expression?

She calls out and empties the contents of the plastic bowl – heaps of noodles – onto the paved road. Suddenly an ocean of monkeys flows out of the forest from all sides. They throw themselves at the food and fight over it, seemingly disregarding age or hierarchies. The woman turns her motorbike around and leaves, and I am too distressed to even motion to her. In similar situations when my fear spiked out of control, I regained some sense of normalcy by recording what’s happening around. I take out my camera, imagining how I will then show the footage to everyone back home and have a great laugh. Monkeys fighting over noodles in the morning light – this is viral material!* The make-believe works, but not enough to help me budge.

More minutes pass, maybe 20. Then the situation anticlimactically flips. A monk and his escort of dogs cross the temple courtyard. The dogs chase the monkeys away, and I take advantage of the clear path and dash for the courtyard. I catch my breath on the edge of a dry fountain. The monk has vanished, the place looks deserted, the metal gate to the cave is locked. Some time later, a songthaew with a handful of Singaporean tourists pulls over in the courtyard. Their Thai guide looks at me in surprise and asks me how I got there. He waves a slingshot, same weapon the rangers on Tarutao used against monkeys. I tell him I walked over the hill.

“You mean you walked on foot? You never cross that hill on foot, you always take a car.”


*When I checked my camera later that day, there was no sign of any video with the monkeys eating the noodles. In my fear, I didn’t realize I hadn’t even pushed the record button. All I took was this photo when the feast was nearly over:

Monkeys on the way to Khao Luang temple, Phetchaburi, Thailand (photo by Irina Stelea)

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