If you’re ever in Thailand, in particular, Phuket, you’ll no doubt be lured by the many animal-focused tourist activities to partake in. Ride an elephant through the jungle! Take a photo with a tiger at a “tiger sanctuary“! Watch elephants perform at Fantasea! As animal lovers, we immediately knew that the latter two options were a definite no. “Elephant tourism,” on the other hand, including riding/bathing elephants, straddled more of a gray line (to be discussed in a much later post). There were elephant camps in Phuket, but according to a friend who had just visited, they were quite expensive. Our other options seemed like tourist trap elephant ride type places that cared very little for the elephant’s welfare. Ultimately, due to lack of research and interest, we decided to avoid anything elephant-related, sanctuary or otherwise.
So, Monkey Cave Temple (Wat Tham Suwan Khuha) it was!
one of my favorite things about visiting temples in Asia is petting temple kitties and pups
“Hey, let’s see what’s down this tunnel…wait, are those bats? Yup, those are bats.”
This bad (and smart) monkey figured out how to turn on the water spigot. He wasn’t really drinking it, he just wanted to play in it and spray other monkeys with the water. It made him scream with delight. Notice the little monkey watching from the rooftop.
this guy looked like he had some good stories to tell
post monkey cave tour: a two-hour couples massage package at a local spa
Do not stare into a monkey’s eyes
On our way back from touring Phang Nga Bay, we stopped by another tourist hotspot in Phuket, Wat Tham Suwan Khuha. Otherwise known as Monkey Cave Temple. Once again, we arrived at a time of day when there were very few tourists!
Outside of the temple, vendors called to us to buy bananas. As tempting as it was to get a feeding-a- monkey-a-banana photo, I’m a big believer in keeping wild animals wild when at all possible. Yes, these monkeys were fairly tame and used to people, but often times feeding wild animals, as tame as they may seem, actually makes them very aggressive. Not to mention dependent on humans for food. And not all humans are nice to animals. And not all animals are nice to humans.
A million years or so years ago, when my sister, mom, and I first traveled to Asia, we visited a different monkey temple in Malaysia. There were monkeys everywhere. Many monkeys snuck up behind tourists and grabbed food from their backpacks. Many of the people feeding the monkeys were soon overwhelmed by how aggressively food motivated the monkeys were. We didn’t feed the monkeys, but we did assume that these cute and cuddly monkeys were rather harmless. I approached a monkey and took his photo while my sister stared down a huge male monkey and laughed. Afterward, I noticed that the huge monkey was following my sister, unbeknownst to her, as she walked away. His mouth was open and he looked angry! In hushed tones, I told my sister to get out of the monkey’s path, and just as she did, he lunged forward. Later, we looked up this behavior and read that staring into a monkey’s eyes and showing one’s teeth is often seen as a challenge. Oooops. We had no idea.
We were pretty clueless tourists back then. While we are still pretty clueless, we are at the very least, more informed. Or at least when it comes to monkeys.
Golden Buddhas and caves
In the heat of the day, the natural coolness of the Monkey Cave Temple in Phuket was a welcome relief. Right after entering the hotel, we encountered the first, and largest, golden Buddha, relaxing on his side. Known as a reclining Buddha, it “represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations.”
Past the reclining Buddha, we climbed a series of steps that led to the other side of the cave. Lush with tropical foliage and surrounded by monkeys, it felt a lot more natural than the cave’s touristy entrance. We continued on the path to our left which took us into another part of the cavern and where we discovered a set of steep and slippery steps. From a distance, the path seemed easy enough, but in reality, climbing on barely defined, mud-slicked, notches in flip flops was an entirely different story.
Eventually, we both made it to the top and took a breather. People visit this cave in large part because of they want to see monkeys, yet for me, it wasn’t the most memorable aspect of our visit. This part of the cave, devoid of tourists and monkeys, possessed a quiet beauty. I closed my eyes and listened to the tropical sounds of nature around me — rustling trees, shrieking monkeys, chirping birds — and tried to imagine what it must have been like to have discovered this cave. Before the Buddhas. Before the monkeys. Before the tourists.
Phuket Monkey Cave Temple (Wat Tham Suwan Khuha) | COST: This spot is usually included in most tours of Phuket and/or Phang Nga Bay. As such, we didn’t pay for admission while at the cave, but if you were to visit on your own, there may be a very nominal entrance fee. | DESCRIPTION: This is another touristy spot in Phuket, but if you manage to arrive in-between the tour groups/buses, then you’ll have the place to yourself. Check out a few of the tours in Phuket and ask what time they arrive at the Phuket Monkey Cave Temple. Most tours adhere to similar time schedules, so for the most part, they will be there at the same time. There’s not much to see in the main cave besides the golden Buddha. I personally found the secondary cave to be more interesting to explore. As the name implies, there are a ton of monkeys, mostly at the cave entrance. While we didn’t feed them, we watched another small group attempt to feed a monkey a banana and it seemed totally disinterested, probably because they get fed so much throughout the day. If you want to feed the monkeys, you can easily find stray bananas and corn that people tossed on the ground when they realized the monkeys weren’t interested in posing for a photo with them. Vendors outside the main entrance sell everything from bananas for the monkeys and street food for tourists. If you choose to eat at one of the vendors, there are places to sit. Just watch out for the monkeys! Bathrooms on site for a small fee. | VERDICT: Worth a quick visit if on your way to Phang Nga and if you can avoid the crowds.
Leelawadee Massage Spa | COST: This is nicer than what you’d find on a beach in Phuket, but it’s still inexpensive compared to US prices. I can’t quite remember what we paid, but I think it was somewhere in the range of $40 per person for a two-hour couples massage? | DESCRIPTION: There are about a million spas with the same name and probably very similar services. Our driver/tour guide took us to this spot, and we enjoyed it. Our couples massage began with an herbal foot soak and was followed by a moderate pressure hour-long oil massage (I could have stood for more pressure in the massage – personal preference though). The final hour included some complicated facial stuff, which I personally didn’t enjoy as much as just a straight up massage. If I were to do it over, I would just go for the massage. | VERDICT: There are so many massage parlors and spas in Phuket, that it’s hard to say this was better than any of the others. This is, however, a nice and clean place, with a fairly inexpensive list of offerings. They also had free tea and pineapple jam cookies which we could not stop eating.
OTHER HUMANE ACTIVITIES IN PHUKET FOR ANIMAL LOVERS
Soi Dog Foundation | COST: No admission, but consider a donation | DESCRIPTION: If you’re looking for a humane alternative to performing elephants and tiger selfies, consider scheduling a visit with the Soi Dog Foundation. In addition to providing a shelter for dogs and cats, it also rescues dogs from the illegal dog meat trade. We didn’t get a chance to visit as the opening hours didn’t quite work with our schedule, but the Soi Dog Foundation (which also has cats), was one of the places we regretted not visiting. Street life for cats and dogs in Thailand is harsh and unforgiving and unfortunately, shelters are practically non-existent. On top of this, what shelters that do exist receive no government funding. Adoption rates are also low, as many of the larger dogs (and kitties as a whole) aren’t as desirable as, say, a toy poodle. Some day I would love to adopt a dog or kitty from Thailand, but for those who can’t adopt an animal or make the trip to Soi Dog, there are many other ways to help. Your money can go a long way in Thailand – a donation of just $25 can fund a life-saving surgery for a dog or cat. Also, if you are flying to/from Phuket to/from the US, UK, or Canada, consider becoming a flight volunteer. There is no cost to you, and everything is arranged by Soi Dog.