Monkey on your back may be a hackneyed expression, but there’s nothing trite about it when it happens to you. Besides, it was all about the bananas.
My story begins on the Gulf of Thailand, where my husband, Ellis, and I spent three nights at a seaside resort—a relaxing interlude between the bustle of Bangkok and the charm of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s provincial capital.
We traveled from Bangkok by bus, arriving around noon. We ate at an open-air restaurant a block from the bus terminal, the kind of place where the waitress goes barefoot, the bathroom is a hole in the floor behind a curtain, and a stir-fry with chicken and cashews costs less than $1.50 US. Afterward we bought fried bananas dipped in powdered sugar from a street vendor. Freshly made on a sidewalk stove, the banana chunks were sweet, crunchy and creamy—the best I’ve ever eaten. They were also the biggest bargain: a bagful for 10 baht, the equivalent of a quarter.
With our bellies full and our bodies cool now that we’d escaped the heat and humidity that blankets Bangkok, we hailed a songthaew, an open-sided mini-bus that transported us the last couple of miles to the Kaban Tamor Resort.
We felt even better when we checked in. Flowers sprouted everywhere, and lush greenery carpeted the grounds. Our room stood alone, one of about two dozen mushroom-shaped chalets that dotted the property. Large, round and light-filled, the room’s centerpiece was a king-sized bed topped with rose petals in the shape of a heart. A basket of fragrant tropical fruit—guava, jujube, rose apple and, of course, banana—awaited us. A sliding glass door led to the swimming pool and then out to the sea, which lapped softly on the sand at low tide and slapped hard against a retaining wall when the tide was high.
But our favorite feature wasn’t part of the resort. It was the 65-foot golden Buddha that stood at the end of Takiab beach, hands forward facing and fingers held up in a gesture of peace.
We visited the Buddha several times a day. We also swam, had side-by-side massages, enjoyed meals with an ocean view and dinner shows. We ventured outside the resort, too, to a neighboring road where virtually every home had a Spirit House—a shrine to a protective guardian—outside its door. One night, we heard amplified voices and walked into a religious festival with a small market alongside it. I bought three yards of an elephant-print fabric, holding up three fingers and an outstretched arm to convey the quantity to the saleswoman.
On our last day at the resort, while Ellis swam laps, I took what I thought would be my final walk to the Buddha. Only this time was different. A rhesus monkey, about two feet tall, sat silently at the Buddha’s broad base. I blinked, surprised. And then there were two, then three, and suddenly a whole troop of monkeys. I pulled out my camera and clicked away.
Excited, I ran back to tell Ellis. That’s when I discovered the reason for the gathering. A squat old woman sat just down the walkway, with bunches of Thai finger bananas for sale. She smiled at me, pointed to the fruit and gestured to the monkeys.
I would’ve loved nothing better than to feed them. But I was clad only in a bathing suit and sarong, with a room key and camera on my wrist. I had no money. “I’ll be back,” I pantomimed, pointing down the beach and holding up my forefinger in what I hoped she would realize meant “just a minute.”
I practically flew down the sandy beach and reached the pool, then gestured wildly for Ellis to climb out.
“You’ll never guess what I found!” I told him, flashing digital images of the monkeys. “A woman’s selling bananas to feed them. We’ve got to go back. Right now!” Ellis threw on a towel and sandals, I ran to our room and grabbed some Thai coins and we were off.
When we arrived, no monkeys could be seen. I was devastated. But my disappointment was short-lived. Curious and no doubt hoping to be fed, the troop reemerged, squealing, one or two at a time.
Delighted, I paid the woman and grabbed a bunch of the little bananas. I started slowly, pulling off one banana at a time and tossing it toward the monkeys. They were so excited I felt like the Pied Piper. But just for a moment.
As the monkeys drew closer and their numbers swelled, their aggressiveness grew, too. One little fellow tugged impatiently at my sarong like a toddler yanking on his mother’s skirt. Without warning, a bigger monkey—the leader of the pack?—leapt onto my back!
“Do they bite?” I hollered to the banana seller, momentarily forgetting she didn’t speak English.
Panicked, I bent over as far as I could, hoping the intruder would jump off. When that maneuver failed, I tossed the remaining bananas as far away as I could.
And just like that, the monkey abandoned me. After watching him (or her) race toward the treats as the other monkeys jockeyed for position, Ellis and I headed back to the resort, laughing all the way. In time, the monkey-on-my-back story—with the picture Ellis took as proof—became one of my most unforgettable travel memories.
Luckily, I survived intact. The monkey on my back didn’t bite or scratch or leave any other physical mark. But a couple of years later, during a visit to the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, I discovered that the brazen Thai monkey had left a small psychological scar. As tourists rushed to buy bananas to feed the Balinese monkeys, I hung back. Sure, I was happy to see them and to watch them eat. I didn’t even mind seeing the monkey-on-your-back experience repeated—as long as the back in question wasn’t mine.
BIO: Helen Lippman is an avid traveler. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Hadassah Magazine, and GoNomad Travel, among other publications.
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