Lopburi, Thailand (CNN) — It's a Friday afternoon on a Thai public holiday in September, and local tourists are out in force in the small city of Lopburi.
The attraction? Some 4,500 crab-eating macaques that roam this ancient capital's streets, many of which occupy the crumbling Khmer-style Phra Prang Sam Yod -- aka Monkey Temple -- in the city center.
The primates not already munching on snacks wait for the tourists to purchase bags of the fruit, seeds, peanuts and -- their favorite -- sugary drinks from one of the vendors that line the parking area, train track and nearby roads.
Patience isn't the macaques' style. Some quickly climb up the tourists' bodies to grab the goodies and run.
Others stealthily rip open the bags that hang from visitors' hands, seeds falling to the ground as their cohorts rush in to grab their share of the spoils.
Nearby, a tourist from Bangkok rushes toward one monkey that has snatched his pair of sunglasses, which the animal quickly drops upon realizing it isn't edible.
A macaque drinks from a plastic container in front of Lopburi's Prang Sam Yod temple in June.
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
But the vendors are used to their tricks, and have ways of keeping them at bay.
"How do we adapt? We just sell our stuff as normal, but when they come close, trying to steal things, we will use a slingshot and pretend to fire a shot," says Anekchart, a fruit vendor near the temple.
"They will just run away. We don't even have to put a shot inside."
How did they get there?
Phra Prang Sam Yod was constructed in the 13th century in a heavily forested area. Originally a Hindu shrine built in the classic Bayon style of Khmer architecture, it was later converted into a Buddhist temple.
As the town grew up around the site, the monkeys of the forest remained.
And the locals didn't mind. The macaques were believed to be living representatives of the Hindu god Hanuman, thus viewed as symbols of good luck.
But few are feeling all that fortunate these days.
Though the monkeys have always been a part of local life, putting the city on the global tourism map, steady population growth has made their presence increasingly challenging.
Narongporn Doodduem, regional director of Thailand's Department of National Parks and Wildlife, tells CNN Travel they only started tracking the population in 2018.
As of the end of September 2020, there are now 9,054 crab-eating macaques -- also known as long-tailed macaques -- in Lopburi province, with 4,635 in the capital city of the same name.
Narongporn says it's impossible to deny that a population spike in recent years has "ruined the livelihood of local residents."
The monkeys are known for their bold behavior, invading homes and businesses to steal goods, ripping at everything from car windshield wipers to house window screens, leaving trails of waste behind them.
"People cannot even use rain water collected from their own roofs because of monkey feces, and many also cannot grow crops as they would be destroyed by monkeys," says Narongporn.
The Covid effect
The coronavirus pandemic has just exacerbated this longstanding problem.
With Thailand currently closed to international tourists, the monkeys in the main tourist center -- once accustomed to daily feasts -- now must make do with what the locals and domestic weekend travelers feed them.
"There are three main groups of monkeys," explains Manus Wimuktipan, secretary of the Lopburi Monkey Foundation.
"They live in an abandoned cinema, near the local Muangthong Hotel and in the tourist-frequented Prang Sam Yod area. Besides these three main gangs, there are multiple small groups that are scattered around town."
Each group protects its territory fiercely, he says.
This is what happened in March. According to Manus, "the incident took place because the monkeys from at least three gangs all saw a person bringing in bottles of sweetened fermented milk. And every group wanted them because they like this kind of drink very much. And that was the start of the fierce fighting."
Officials say it's the consumption of these sweet drinks and other junk food that is a big part of the overall problem. And it's not all being directly handed to them either.
"The monkeys have begun to wait at garbage bins at shops and department stores where humans dump all those tasty foods and snacks," says Manus. "They have become addicted to human food because it is tasty."
A veterinarian sterilizes a monkey in Lopburi on June 21, 2020.
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
In addition to rotting the monkeys' teeth, these sugary foods and drinks are also causing them to breed more often.
"I have tried to educate tourists and locals about the importance of not feeding monkeys food that's high in carbohydrates and sugar -- this has contributed to the growth of the population in Lopburi significantly," says Narongporn.
"Naturally, the monkeys would be able to give birth once a year due to the limited amount of food they can find in nature. But city monkeys are consuming food all the time and as a result they are able to give birth twice a year."
In an effort to tame the population, the province recently wrapped up its biggest sterilization campaign yet.
"This year we sterilized 1,200 monkeys in Lopburi (916 of those were in the city), a new record. Normally we would do around 400 monkeys a year," says Narongporn.
They've been receiving complaints for years, he says, but it hasn't been easy to get everyone on the same page in terms of how to best sustainably combat the issue.
This year, however, support has been widespread.
"I used to receive a lot of resistance from monkey lovers every time we've tried to get in to sterilize monkeys," he says.
"Some wanted to move these monkeys out of Lopburi city totally, but the problems are where do you move them? Who will be taking care of them? What to do if they die or spread disease? It would be just like dumping one's garbage in another's house.
"But now it has changed. I am receiving a lot of cooperation from locals -- including those in the tourism industry -- to solve this problem sustainably."
Monkeys jump onto tourists during the annual "Monkey Buffet" in Lopburi on November 27, 2016.
TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Though the monkeys might be causing difficulties for locals, they are still celebrated as a local icon.
Officials have confirmed to CNN Travel the annual Monkey Buffet Festival will take place at Phra Prang Sam Yod on November 29, as the country has not reported a locally transmitted Covid-19 infection in several weeks.
As part of the festival, the city puts out a huge spread of food and drinks for the monkeys to feast on, an event that in normal years attracts both local and international tourists.
Coexisting with the monkeys
The owners of this Lopburi auto parts shop have learned to coexist with the monkeys.
Not everyone is finding it difficult to coexist harmoniously with the monkeys.
Staff in one auto parts shop across the street from the "Monkey Temple" have learned to adapt and now welcome the macaques' presence.
As we enter the shop, several monkeys sit quietly on counters and shelves. A small macaque sleeps on a red cloth on a counter.
Pathitpan Tuntiwong, 63, is the owner. He was born and raised in the city, and says he feels sorry for the animals.
His family feeds them daily, and allows the smaller, weaker monkeys -- "They've been kicked out of their herds," he says -- to come into his shop during the day, some even hanging onto the shirts of staff's backs as they go about their work.
"We have taken their habitat away, that is why the problem continues," says Pathitpan.
"Their population has increased rapidly. It has risen to the point where people can't take this anymore. I have been living in this spot for over 60 years. I have gradually put up protection to keep them out of my home and continuously adapt.
"They just don't know where to find a source of food. There are no trees around, there are no water sources. Their quality of living is bad. We are helping as much as we can."
A macaque makes itself at home inside a Lopburi autoparts shop.
While speaking to us, Pathitpan is interrupted mid-sentence as a chaotic scene breaks out on the road in front of his shop. A pack of monkeys has jumped into the back of a pickup truck that's idling in traffic, and quickly starts rummaging through a pile of large cooking pots and other containers.
The truck occupants get out and swing at the animals, unsuccessfully attempting to scare them off.
"They're clearly not from here," laughs Pathitpan. "People in our neighborhood know better than to drive down this road with a truck loaded up like that."