A Morning with Monkeys, Mandala Suci Wenara Wana, Bali Sacred Sanctuary
Remember, you are in their territory. You are the visitor. You are the foreigner. Remember that and you will emerge unscathed.
Understanding your place is how to approach a visit to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (Mandala Suci Wenara Wana), 27 acres of jungle-y forest in the northern suburb of the Balinese city of Ubud. With over 10,000 visitors each month, the sanctuary is one of the most popular tourist attractions on the island of Bali, Indonesia. However, this place may not be for everyone because this is not a zoo. These monkeys are wild animals, not pets, not toys.
Do not panic. That is rule No. 1. Rule No. 2, Do not run. Not to be outdone by Rule No. 3, Do not look the monkeys in the eye. Still not sure of what we are getting into, we pay the 50,000 IDR entry fee (about $5 US) each to enter the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, before confronted by this giant sign of rules. Following the rules will keep us safe because the forest belongs to the monkeys. This is where they live, where they eat, and where they raised their families. They determine your acceptance.
The monkeys are Balinese Long-tail Macaques. Macaques are a subspecies of primate referred to by scientists as “Old World” monkeys and, although related to all of us primates, they are not as closely related to humans as apes. Macaques however, are as prolific as humans in their coverage of the earth, found throughout Asia, from Japan to India, and in northern Africa and southern Europe. Balinese macaques have long skinny tails and soft hair with a strip of light brown on their backs, grey on the sides, and almost white on their bellies and faces. The have exposed ears and tuffs of hair that make all of them look like they have beards and mutton chops. Their faces are pink to tan. Park brochures say there are over 600 monkeys living in the forest in five different social groups. Sometimes, these groups become territorial and fights break out, especially in the dry season when groups have to cross through territories to reach the stream that runs through the forest.
To reach the forest, we ride an Uber through the congested streets of Ubud. From Nusa Dua, it takes an hour and 20 minutes in the back of a Daihatsu, but costs less than $20. Our driver turns from a narrow street into an expansive parking lot dropping us off at the round open structure that is the new visitor’s center. From here you walk through a rock tunnel to enter the forest. Before entering the tunnel, you encounter the giant rule sign.
While the monkeys are fed a diet of sweet potatoes and fruits daily, a popular tourist activity is hand feeding the monkeys bananas. Guests can buy them from carts around the grounds. If you choose to do this, you must let the monkeys take the food and don’t pull your arm away. Monkeys will grab and jump on you to get the bananas and get annoyed if they can’t reach it. Some staff are available to help you get the perfect monkey-on-the-shoulder Instagram shot, but not many. Staff also ask that you don’t feed the monkeys peanuts, cookies, biscuits, and bread as these things are bad for them.
Not wanting to risk even an accidental monkey bite or scratch, we didn’t bring or buy any food. However, I carry a large beach bag with our belongings. It didn’t contain food, but monkeys felt the need to inspect it just to make sure. Curious about the bag, monkeys would jump on it (instead of me) and try to get inside. They pulled the zipper, but couldn’t quite get it, and would give up and drop off. My husband, however, found himself covered in monkeys more than once, on his head, shoulders and arms. Once the monkeys figured out we didn’t have any food, they would leave us alone, but each social group had to figure that out. As we passed through a new territory, new monkeys would check us out.
Plastic bags are not allowed inside either. They are a hazard to the monkeys and get caught in the trees. Since plastic trash is a pollution problem Bali, this is important to observe.
While monkeys are the main focus, the forest is amazing on its own. The village of Padangtegal owns and maintains the land and it is their spiritual center. This sacred ground has three temples, each serving a different purpose. The structures have been dated to 1350 AD; about the same time the Black Plague ravaged Europe and the height of the Ottoman Empire. Not much has changed although the city of Ubud has grown up around it.
The large main temple, Pura Dalem Agung, honors the god Shiva, “The Recycler” or “Transformer.” Visitors are not allowed inside, but the low walls and gates allow us to peek. Old aptly describes the temple because the statues and walls are covered in bright green moss and trees grow in its midst. Statues of monkeys surrounded the perimeter.
A smaller temple is Pura Beji , a place of purification dedicated to the goddess Gangga. The third temple is Pura Prajapati and adjacent to a cemetery. Cremation is how the Hindu depart this realm, but here it happens in mass ceremonies every five years. Until then, those who’ve passed on are buried in the forest until the next cremation ceremony. Creepy? Sure, but that’s how they do things here. While humans keep to the paved paths at the cemetery, the monkeys roam freely throughout the graves, each one marked by a small tomb stone.
The sanctuary is also a stunning nature center. Ancient trees that block the sun provide a home to the monkeys and make this a true jungle. Udayana University in Denpasar has identified 115 different tree species and the palms and bark of some trees are used in special temple ceremonies.
Because it is a jungle forest, it gets hot. A good idea is to bring or purchase bottled water while exploring and covering the entire forest takes a few hours. During our three-hour visit, we climbed stairs, crossed old wooden bridges and heard a variety of languages spoken. Some areas are teeming with monkeys lounging around steps and walls or playing on the paths. Other areas appear empty until a branch moves in our peripheral vision. The monkeys are just as intrigued by us and we are of them. While in the midst of it, we forget that this forest of monkeys resides within a metropolitan area. It truly is a sanctuary, for us and the monkeys.
The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is open daily from 8:30 AM-6 PM and new entrees stop at 5:30 PM. Adult fee is 50,000 IDR and Children 40,000 IDR (about $5 and $4 US).There is a first aid clinic for people and an animal clinic looks after the monkeys. There is also a concession area, picnic tables, restrooms and craft vendors. The street adjacent the sanctuary is full of artisan shops, jewelry stores, massage salons, restaurants, and even a few boutique hotels. Statues of monkeys even line the street.