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Wait! That looks like monkeys running around in the food.

Every year, the town of Lopburi in Thailand hosts a special outdoor feast. The guests of honour climb all over the food, steal treats from each other, and toss their leftovers onto the ground. After the meal, some of the guests show their gratitude by pulling hair and stealing earrings from the hosts while others make love in public.

The guests at this annual extravaganza are the town's estimated 600 monkeys. They are Lopburi's blessing and its bane. According to legend, the hero of the Ramayana epic rewarded his friend and ally, Hanuman the Monkey King, with the fiefdom of what is now Lopburi. Centuries later, monkeys still rule the area around the town's two most sacred sites: The picturesque Khmer ruin of Sam Prang Yod and the nearby shrine of San Pra Kan.

At this year's feast, spectators entered the Sam Prang Yod grounds in the morning to find a huge plate - seven metres in diameter - covered in festive red cloth. In years past, the food was placed on as many as 100 small tables. The switch to this year's single plate was for both symbolic and practical reasons. While the total amount of food was the same as the previous year, a single table is more symbolic of the continuing economic difficulties in Thailand. Another factor is monkey psychology. Tourism director Ms Eumporn notes that with smaller tables, larger monkeys take ownership of an entire table, refusing to share even though the table has more food than they can possibly eat. "Just like humans," she says, with a sigh.

As spectators watched from the ground and monkeys watched from high up on the ruins, the town's high school students marched to the temple carrying brightly coloured banners. When the magic moment arrived, the single giant plate was unveiled to reveal a bounty of brightly coloured fruits arranged in enticing patterns around a centre of flavoured rice. The Thai dancers danced, the photographers photographed, and the monkeys seemed unsure of what to make of it all.

Slowly and cautiously, some of the braver monkeys climbed down off the ruin, grabbed some fruit and scampered away. As the monkeys came to understand the nature of the bounty before them, more and more came crawling down off the ruins and the feast began in earnest.

Some sat contentedly munching on the fare...

...while some went hungry, trying to greedily chase others away from the hoard of food...

Have a Coke
...and others just sat and had a drink with their buddies.

After the monkeys ate their fill and the feast wound down, monkeys and humans alike strolled the temple grounds, often interacting.

Throughout the compound, fascinated youngsters handed peanuts and water bottles to the ever-acquisitive monkeys. The sated monkeys played, fought, nursed their babies and humped as fascinated humans continued to watch, feed, photograph, and in rare instances, pet them.

As the heat of the afternoon descended on the scene, the crowd began thinning out. The day trippers headed back to Bangkok, the foreign tourists to their hotels, the Lopburi residents home to eat their own meals. The ancient and majestic Khmer ruin of Sam Prang Yod ended the day as it began: fiefdom of the monkeys.


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Many thanks to Ray McClure for suggesting this target.