by Kate Heyhoe
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
4th Stop: Lopburi, Thailand
Ouch! That monkey pulled my earring off—and I can't do a darn thing about it. I watch as the lithe-limbed acrobat swings gleefully through the treetops, chattering in delight at his (or her) stolen treasure. The monkey, a long-tailed macaque, is one of today's honored guests at the Vegetarian Banquet for Monkeys. The feast may seem like a peculiarly staged tribute, but it's totally in keeping with the Thai belief that treating monkeys with kindness brings one luck.
Hosted by a local hotel owner, this odd eating frenzy takes place once a year in Lopburi, 90 miles north of Bangkok. The hundreds of area macaques have helped make this temple-rich town famous, and the feast is hotelier Yongyuth Kijwatananuson's way of honoring them—an act that in itself attracts even more tourists.
These notorious monkeys have no fear or shame. They hang around the town like bored young gangsters, taking advantage of unwary tourists in a split second. If you go to Lopburi, hang on to your valuables, secure your backpack, and lock up your jewelry. These intelligent, agile beasts are lightning quick, and readily abscond with cameras, eyeglasses, purses, sandwiches, soft drinks, and anything else that catches their fancy—including my earring! No wonder the townsfolk secure their windows and doors with heavy metal bars and thick deadbolt locks.
Here, in Lopburi's ancient Three Pagoda Compound, the intoxicating aromas of the banquet's dishes seduce me—before I realize that I am but a spectator to this royal feast. This meal is meant for monkey only, not man. Long red tablecloths host artistically arranged platters of sumptuous rice, noodles, fruits, and other dishes—including a few Coca Colas. Nothing is too precious for these primates.
Then suddenly the feast begins: the long-tailed guests leap into action—literally! To heck with elbows on the table, napkins on laps, and Miss Manners' mottoes, these jittery creatures land smack-dab on the table itself, devouring handfuls of each dish with nimble, staccato fingers until every last grain, peel, seed and weed is gone. A swarm of locusts couldn't do any better. In a matter of minutes, the feast is done, and the monkeys' bellies now look like my Uncle Harry's after a typical Thanksgiving dinner.
Apart from monkeys, vegetarianism itself is not especially widespread in Thailand, even though most Thais are Buddhists. However, the Mahayana Buddhist sect of Chinese descent do practice vegetarianism, and virtually the entire Chinese community of the Thai island of Phuket celebrate every October with their own Vegetarian Festival, abstaining from meat for at least ten days to purify themselves.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival sounds benign enough, yet the events are anything but: this feast is indeed for humans, although it's way more bizarre than the Monkey Feast. Throughout the town, people perform rituals to atone for past transgressions, ceremonies which put common daredevil acts to shame. Purified participants calmly pierce cheeks with needles (or even tree branches), climb ladders of razor-blade rungs, and walk leisurely over beds of hot coals—acts which are believed to have transmigrated from Indian Hindu practices rather than from Chinese Buddhism. Still, for the faint of heart (like moi), the festival offers plenty of other events that lack the masochistic mode, including Chinese operas, lively dancing, spectacular fireworks, colorful parades, and of course, sumptuous vegetarian feasts.
Not having tasted the actual Monkey Feast itself, I can't swear that the following dishes were ones offered to those precious primates. But if you want to create your own Vegetarian Banquet for humans, these authentic recipes from Thai experts will make any meal into a joyous, festive celebration for both hosts and guests—atonement rituals optional.
The Global Gourmet
Photo of monkey provided by permission from Osgood Ranch
October 1999 Itinerary...
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created October 1999 and modified August 2007
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