The Only Way is Up – Thailand’s Coconut Monkeys

Everybody loves monkeys don’t they. My first memory of a monkey was from the 1960’s TV series Daktari starring Marshall Thompson who played the role of Dr Marsh Tracy, a veterinarian working at a Study Center for Animal Behaviour in Africa. Two of Dr Tracy’s closest pals were a cross-eyed lion named Clarence and Judy the chimpanzee. Okay, a chimp is an ape, but back then in my childhood, Judy was a monkey to me.

All photographs in this post are from The First Monkey School’s photostream.

My interest in monkeys has been rekindled many times during my visits to Thailand. I have fond memories of walking among monkeys on Hua Hin’s Chopsticks Mountain and being near to them on a trip to Kanchanaburi’s magnificent Erawan Seven Tier Waterfall. Nowadays I don’t find them  so cute close up, their small size gives them speed and agility, and they also have amazing strength. Their teeth look rather sharp too. Judy never looked that nasty.

My interest in writing this post came about from a visit to Camille’s Samui Info blog and his post The coconut monkey at work. Camille’s post is about how he saw and photographed a coconut monkey at work whilst he was on Koh Tao (Turtle Island). Camille’s blog got me thinking and before I knew it I was deep into research about Thailand’s coconut monkeys.

Long-tailed or pig-tailed macaques (the same I believe) are used to farm coconuts on plantations in Thailand. The monkeys can live for over 25 years but need to be specially trained at an early age if they are to become coconut pickers at work heights of up to 20 metres or more. They may be young but if they want to earn a banana or two, they have to go to college and learn the tricks of the trade.

The Monkey Training College in Surat Thani, Southern Thailand, has been in operation since 1957 when the late Somporn Saekhow (1940-2002) started his monkey training school. Khun Somporn’s training methods were considered unorthodox and alien back in the late 50’s when he started training pig-tailed macaques (Thai ling klang) to climb trees, pick coconuts and toss them down to the ground. Mr Somporn had before seen many coconut monkeys being beaten by their handlers for under performance and picking unripe fruit. Somporn’s way was to train the monkeys in a positive and loving way.

First term at the training college lasts 3-6 months and costs the monkey owners 5,000 baht. Come graduation day the pig-tailed macaques have been taught how to select ripe coconuts and spin them free from their stems as well as how to free themselves if their rope attachment becomes entangled in the trees. The rope is used by the handler to guide the monkey to ripe fruit. Training places an emphasis on showing the macaques kindness and never punishing them for mistakes.

A well-trained male coconut monkey can pick over 1,000 fruits a day compared to about 100 from a fit and experienced person, and the monkey’s handler can expect to be paid about two baht for every nut from the owner of a plantation. At the end of the day somebody has to pick all those coconuts up.

Secondary School training at the college costs 25,000 baht and among other skills, the monkeys are taught to collect grounded coconuts and help put them in sacks or load them on a truck. In the long-term that saves the handlers from paying out on excessive labour costs.

High School is the monkeys finishing term and the trainers teach to the owners specific requirements. The cost for the high school classes wasn’t listed on The First Monkey School website but it does contain some excellent information on the history and training methods of the school. Click on the link to view.

The website also offers accommodation at the school for those who wish to make an overnight stay. Room tariffs start at 200 baht and refreshments are also available including a Beer Singha at 90 baht a bottle. I wonder if one of the high school monkeys part times as the waiter.

In 1993 Somporn Saekhow’s favourite monkey Khai Nui gave testimony to his master’s ability to train pig-tailed macaques. Khai Nui carried Surat Thani’s provincial flag in the opening ceremony of the Thailand National Games. Khai Nui also starred in many TV commercials and was with his master when a fatal heart attack struck Somporn Saekhow in 2002.

For those primatologists and monkeyologists (is that a real word) among you, I discovered a great article during my research about coconut monkeys which originally dates back to 1919 and old Malaysia. The online Natural History article Monkeys Trained As Harvesters documents the use of coconut and fruit monkeys by Malays in the early 20th century to way back in 2500 BC, where Egyptian rock paintings and carvings show monkeys employed to gather figs and palm fruits. Fascinating.

Finally, here’s my contribution to spoil a fascinating subject.

What job description would you give for a Monkey working in a tree?

Try and guess the punch line.

Answers in the comment box please.

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I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

21 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    Martyn, I saw Camille’s post, fascinating subject for me, being interested in wildlife.

    I think you will find the the Long Tailed Macaque(Crab Eating Macaque)is a slightly different genre to the Short or Pig Tailed Macaque but no matter what’s a few feet of tail between friends 🙂

    Which leaves me with the job description, the only thing I could think of is that you would need to be nuts to do the work(sorry its early here).

  2. Talen says:

    Excellent piece Martyn. I’ll never forget a few years ago when a coconut monkey tossed a well timed coconut onto his masters head killing him…apparently the master had beaten him earlier if I remember right.

    I’d much rather see them in their natural habitat than being harnessed for labor because even though the training is amazing and they are treated well there have been a lot of stories of the monkeys being abused too.

  3. Paul says:

    Hi Martyn, I like monkeys as well. I worked in the old town in Lopburi for a couple of years though and this did away with the novelty value for me. Lopburi has a huge population of monkeys who roam around the centre of the town. You see them outside Tescos and they will often try and steal your shopping. I would often worry that they would jump on my motorbike and cause me to crash.

  4. Hoo Don says:

    Mike thanks for clearing up whether the long and pig-tailed macaques are one and the same. I wasn’t sure but I guessed wrongly. Perhaps you will take a visit to the training school, how far would it be from your home, about 200 km?

    If someone doesn’t get the punchline I’ll reveal it tomorrow.

  5. Hoo Don says:

    Talen I read the story during my research, it happened last year and here’s the link if anyone wants to read it–killing-aimed-coconut.html

    I’ve seen monkeys in more of a ‘natural’ habitat at Kanchanaburi’s Erawan Waterfall but they do still get a bit cheeky with the visitors, stealing food etc.

    I bet you’ve had a few cheeky monkeys shout “hello sexy man” at you in the city you’re currently residing in.

  6. Hoo Don says:

    Paul I’ve read a bit about Lopburi before but thanks for dipping into the personal experience box. I must visit Lopburi one day but I won’t be renting a motorbike there. That brings me to a question.

    Is Thailand’s national 100 metres sprint record holder from Lopburi because buying bananas at their Tesco store must involve one hell of a dash from the checkout to the car. Athletes eat lots of bananas don’t they, they’re great energy boosters.

  7. Catherine says:

    Martyn, once again, a wonderful post.

    What job description would you give for a Monkey working in a tree?

    A moving target?

    I’m going to disagree with your very first line.

    Everybody loves monkeys don’t they.

    Not me.

    And am I the only one here who does not like monkeys? They can be vicious creatures. Spiteful. Mean. Malicious.

    Where I used to live, they’d get into kitchens and homes and destroy anything they could. Cupboards opened, goods turfed out. They’d pee and poo inside as well. Kids would be chased down the road on the way home from school – some receiving nasty bites.

    I was attacked by a pack of monkeys in a park in Kenya. I already knew what they were capable of so when they headed to the van I rolled up the windows fast. I had gnashing teeth coming at me. First there were teeth bouncing off one window right after it closed, then at another.

    If the monkeys had gotten to my flesh… I can’t bear to say…

    I no longer own guns but I’d change my mind if I lived near marauding monkeys.

  8. Paul says:

    It could well be Martyn. Maybe they should stage a regular event there with man versus monkey. Or maybe they could have an episode of the Fear Factor with a contestant forced to march through the old part of Lopburi dressed as a banana.

  9. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine as I’m typing this I’m also taking down my Judy posters from my bedroom wall. I didn’t know monkeys could be such bastards. Sod it I’ll take down Clarence as well. However the lovely Cheryl Miller will stay up.

    Now to use your really amazing trick….drum roll

    …. Nowadays I don’t find them quite so cute close up…..

    I’ve not been attacked by them personally but I know they can be nasty buggers, their teeth, they could do a great trade cracking walnuts at Christmas time. I think I’ll also throw into the ring rabies and HIV. I’m a bit wary of them myself nowadays.

    Talking of Christmas and the turkey getting fat I’m sure you have seen this tweet from Richard Barrow this morning

    “holding umbrella as 300 kilo Thai woman is extracted from her apartment”…..

    Here’s a sad one, but of a similar weight…..

  10. Hoo Don says:

    Paul thanks for the Fear Factor quip, that gave me a good laugh and believe me that’s difficult to do this morning. I’m starting the dreaded nights this evening. I’d take some bananas to give myself some night energy but they give me horrendous indigestion. Even worse than cider does.

  11. Catherine says:

    Martyn, there was a vicious monkey attack on a British women just last month in Krabi (google monkey attack Thailand).

    Apparently, monkeys go after women and children the most.

    Yes, I did see that tweet from Richard. HOW does someone reach 300 kilos? Christmas… is coming faster than I’d like. but… drunk elephants taking on electric polls? What is the world coming to?

    (congrats on your drum roll 😀

  12. Arjen says:

    Hi Martyn,

    a very nice story!

    One small mistake noted, there is a big difference between long- and short tail macaque. The first one are not suitable to train. In Thai language, when they want to tell someone he is stupid or lazy, they call him (in Thai) the word for a long tail macaque.

    May we put a link to your blog on our website?

    Thanks and best regards, Arjen Schroevers (husband from Somjai Saekhow)

  13. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine I googled and found an article on the monkey attack on Monkey Beach on Phi Phi Don Island. The woman was lucky the boat crew came to her rescue, she’d have been better off sticking with the main tour party. Fear comes back and ‘bites’ you sometimes.

    I also read your link and stocked a few of the tips on monkey attacks, having the coolness to carry them out if an attack ever happened might be another thing.

    I’d like to visit Lopburi one day, but it’s not too near the top of my must see list.

    Have a good day, it’s raining that very fine drizzle here, looks set for the day. A few beers for me, sleep and then the start of a set of nights awaits me. Still that’s more bearable than a monkey attack.

  14. Hoo Don says:

    Arjen thanks for your expert information, it confirms what Mike wrote in his comment earlier. I guess I should have a long tail as well according to your Thai saying.

    I’d be delighted if you put a link on your excellent website, I really enjoyed reading it and hope one day I will get down your way and visit your training school.

    Cheers, Martyn

  15. Hoo Don says:

    Here’s the monkey joke punchline, it’s rather corny.

    A Branch Manager

    “A branch manager oversees a division or office of a large business or organization, operating locally or with a particular function.”

  16. Catherine says:

    Martyn. I agree. That is corny 🙂

    Btw – You mentioned several days ago that bananas give you heartburn. I assume you are eating larger, western types? Chiquita / Delmonte?

    If you can find the small bananas, ones like we get in Thailand, then you might not get stomach problems.

    Oh. And they need to be ripe. Bananas sooth the stomach, but the unripe ones contain proteins that our stomachs cannot digest.

    I was sick for six months and my doctor put me onto that one. Like you, I was desiring what bananas gave me, but the western ones were a pain.

  17. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine it’s very rare I eat bananas now. The last one I ate in the UK was last year a few hours before I left for Heathrow on a trip to Thailand. On the coach to the airport I had bad indigestion and I was actually sick in the departure lounge toilets.

    I’m glad you told me about the smaller Thai bananas because I’ve eaten a couple in Thailand since and not had any problems. I’ll try some more on my trip next month and test the water. Thanks.

  18. Camille says:

    Hi Martyn.

    Nice to see my post inspired you to write a very insightful post about coconut harvesting or branching out, so to speak.

    There are a few monkey training schools on Samui but to me they look more like tourist attractions than anything else, especially with Samui’s focus shifting away from the harvesting of coconuts.

    Hope downtown PTY is being good to you.

  19. Arjen says:

    Camille is right,as far as I know are all other monkeyschools places to attract tourists. uit can see monkeys riding bycicle, and playing ball games. this you won’t see on our place. you can see only the things the monkey need to learn to become a coconut collecter, even in Chiang Mai is a monkeyschool, while there are hardly coconuts.
    regards, Arjen

  20. Hoo Don says:

    Camille your post certainly did inspire me. I’d been interested in writing a post about the coconut monkeys for a while but had put it to the back of my mind. I really enjoyed reading your story and it kick-started my interest again. The more I researched the more I got into the post.


  21. Hoo Don says:

    Arjen thanks for visiting again.

    Camille knows Koh Samui like the back of his hand, he’s lived and worked there for many years. It’s a shame that some of these schools and other animal centres get eventually turned into show parks, but I guess the people involved have a living to make. You have just got to hope the animals don’t get mistreated.

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