I was really looking forward to visiting the long-tailed macaques in Ubud’s Monkey Forest for quite some time! I had been here a few years before, bringing home some beautiful shots at the time. Over the past years, I have developed a better and deeper understanding of photography compared to back then and came to see and judge lighting and composition very differently. Not only has my style changed and grown if you will, but my equipment has also improved to a great extent reaching a point where my limitations are (almost) solely my own creativity and capabilities.
The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary lies in the heart of Ubud and probably almost everyone that has visited or heard about Bali, will have heard about that little famous place. In peak times this park is apparently visited by about 10.000 visitors a month (that is crazy!), according to its Wikipedia article.
The Sanctuary covers an area of 10 hectares and is home to three Hindu temples which were constructed around 1350 and easily impress visitors up to this day. The Monkey Forest is densely populated by trees of over a hundred species and home to about 500 macaques (as we were told by park staff). Fights and disputes among them are common: five major clans inhabit different parts of the forests and often need to cross ‘foreign territory’ which eventually leads to some tensions (resulting in some nasty biting, grabbing, pulling, threatening and loud monkey screaming).
Although the park is mostly fenced (which obviously doesn’t stop these agile little monkeys to leave), the macaques are often found outside the area jumping on and around nearby houses and shops. In fact, as we moved from the beautiful Villa Omah Lembu to another place right next to the Monkey Forest, we had them not only jump on our outdoor bathroom every morning, but they also stole one of Amanda’s shoes which we left outside overnight 😃 (memo: don’t leave your shoes outside).
The monkeys are fed sweet potato by an army of staff three times a day, but if you are keen to have one of them sitting on your head or shoulder, get some bananas in the park and feed them to the macaques (well, usually they rip/steal them out of your hand as you buy them 😃).
Most of the monkeys are really the opposite of shy and quite bold, so make sure your sunglasses, water bottles or other belongings are either hidden or well packed and cannot be taken, as that is one very regular activity of these naughty little guys. I have actually seen them jump on backpacks and open them – quite impressive.
Unfortunately (once again), plastic is a major problem here: as tourists bring in bags of chips and other stuff wrapped in plastic and some douchebags then dispose them mindlessly right within the park (damn it, can’t you keep your trash on you?) – many monkeys are seen munching on plastic or playing with empty plastic bottles. A sad sight and although there are plenty of signs discouraging the carriage of plastic bags, the all so careless tourists simply ignore that.
Bites do occur on a regular basis and the army of park rangers is equipped with slingshots to intimidate some of the boldest monkeys and prevent more serious injuries to happen. In fact, as you walk through the forest, you will frequently hear loud screams and shouts, probably because somewhere in the park one of the monkeys has yet surprised another frightened tourist, stolen a bag or jumped on one’s head.
We visited the park twice and had another 6 am early morning stroll around the park edges to get some interesting morning light scenes, as the park unfortunately only opens at 9 am and closes at 6 pm. So if you are up early, grab your camera and patrol around its fence – never too long until you hit a bunch of macaques.
While I was armed with my Nikon D810 (shoot images, not animals!!), Amanda was taking photos with her Nikon D5200. We kept swapping lenses using mostly the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 and the Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 and thanks to Ruben Solaz from Foto Verleih Bremen, I have the Nikon TC-20E III Teleconverter with me. In combination with the Nikkor 105mm (it doesn’t fit the 85mm), I was extremely pleased with the results! Ruben was kind enough to support my photographic journey here in Indonesia with the provision of this teleconverter – so a big shoutout and thank you to Bremen!
Adding the teleconverter to the Nikkor 105mm allowed me to get even closer to the monkeys without disturbing them (too much) in their privacy (i.e. having a lens literally IN their face) and although that meant I`d lose a little bit of light (instead of an aperture of 2.8 that makes the widest f-stop 5.6), the Bokeh and sharpness are still stunning. Equally important: I could compose shots differently by framing monkeys further away with lots of leaves and branches in the foreground. So definitely a big recommendation for anyone out there considering this purchase – I am a big fan!
I am not sure how full this park can be during high-season with about 10.000 people a month, but I think the amount of people we encountered there isn’t too disturbing and the macaques have still plenty of space to retreat to. The opening times also ensure enough freedom, i.e. human-free time and I sincerely hope the entrance fee of 50.000 Indonesian Rupiahs per person is put to good use. I am sure, that if I came back to Bali and stayed in Ubud, I would definitely visit again – for a photographer this is really a dream scenery with a billion photo opportunities!
Keep shooting and never lose your curiosity!
For more information head over the official Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest page!
Tom is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker and Marine Biologist specializing in conservation imagery & film, photojournalism, and promotional tourism work. Tom has won several awards, his films have been screened on film festivals throughout the world, and his images and stories have been published in dozens of articles in international magazines.
Tom is based in Suva, Fiji Islands and shares his workload between environmental assignments and promotional tourism work throughout the Pacific. In 2020, Tom founded Pacific Media House, a company offering photography & film services all across the Pacific.
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