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Most visitors to Bali go for its gorgeous beaches or to live out an “Eat, Pray, Love” fantasy. Regardless of the motivation, there’s one place you absolutely cannot miss: The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (aka Monkey Forest Ubud). It’s exactly like it sounds: A forest full of monkeys. Balinese long-tailed monkeys, to be specific. About 600 of them. Here’s how I ended up spending an unforgettable day with them.

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Monkey Forest is nestled in Ubud, which is in central Bali and about one hour from the popular resort towns of Kuta, Seminyak and Nusa Dua. I happened to be staying in Ubud, literally right down the street from this forest, so close in factthat monkeys were regularly hanging out at my villa, practically beckoning me to come visit their nearby home.

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Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

So one day I did. For the bargain price of US$3 (40,000 IDR), I gained admission to a lush and enchanting forest that is seemingly ripped from the pages of The Jungle Book. Towering trees form a shaded canopy over the walking paths, bridges, streams and temples nestled within this 27-acre forest sanctuary, where holy ceremonies are still performed by locals. I seriously had to pinch myself a few times and touch the trunks of nearby trees to make sure it was all real and not some Disney-manufactured setting.

Then there are themonkeys,the star attractions and the destination’s namesake. They are everywhere. EVERYWHERE. And they are not shy around humans. Vigilant guards roam the forest to make sure both the monkeys and the humans behave around one another. (We’re looking at you, selfie-obsessed tourists who get a little too close to monkeys who’d rather not be on Instagram.)

Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

Although the monkeys are wild, they have learned the ways of humans, which is both good and bad. I kept my distance at first, recalling my time in India when a gang of monkeys circled me as I clutched a bag of bananas I’d just purchased at a local market. Based on that dramatic experience, I knew how cunning and mischievous these creatures could be, even the cute baby ones. Do not be fooled by their cuteness!

Within a few minutes of entering the Bali forest, I saw one monkey try to rip a plastic bag from a man, then another try to open the backpack of a small child. In both cases, guards swatted the monkeys away. It’s a reminder to keep belongings hugged tight and to never swing plastic bags around monkeys who live among humans. Some have even learned the art of pickpocketing, because inside a human pocket are treasures such as food.

Pickpocketing and stealing aside, roaming the forest and watching the monkeys interact with each other brought me incredible joy. Once I got over my fear of being swarmed like I had been in India, I relaxed to observe the play-fighting, the grooming, the babies suckling on the momma monkeys and, yes, even horny monkeys getting it on. Everything is on display in this forest. Monkeys are just like humans if we had no rules and operated at ourmost basic instincts. I saw love, play, fear and anger swirled so presently into the personality of the place.

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I decided that I wanted to get a little closer. I was determined to get over the fear and panic I’d experienced in India because these monkeys seemed … cool.

There are official staff members within the forest who sell bananas that you can feed to the monkeys. For about US$1, I purchased a few bananas. It’s “feed the monkeys at your own risk,” however, even with attentive guards nearby. I saw one kid get pooped on and another woman get a wicked hairstyling by a cheeky monkey who apparently liked her locks. But that didn’t deter me. I handed a guard my camera phone then held up a banana. I didn’t have to wait long to attract a furry friend.

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Within 30 seconds, I felt a heavy weight jump onto my right shoulder and snatch the banana from my hand. “Ohmygodohmygodohmygod,” I silently said to myself. I could hear the monkey eating. I could feel its feet gripping my shoulder. At one point, this monkey decided to rest his left arm atop my head, and I could see his tiny black hand dangling in front of my eyes. This monkey was getting a little too comfortable.

Not wanting to turn into a human Lay-Z-Boy, I asked the guard snapping photos to kindly ask the monkey to leave my shoulder. I stayed calm as she goaded him off my shoulder with another banana. Then I checked my shoulder: No poop, thank goodness.

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Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

I survived and got a great series of souvenir photos, despite witnessing some comical and scary monkey encounters involving other banana-toting tourists. The risk paid off for me. (For those less lucky, there is an onsite emergency center, in the event of scratches or bites. There’s also a clinic for monkeys who might need some TLC; this is a conservation center too, after all.)

Before leaving the forest after a few hours of meandering, I walked past a photo shoot. A man and a woman, dressed in traditional Balinese attire, were being photographed, and camera-happy tourists gathered around the beautiful couple as they posed in the tropical paradise.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a monkey jumped down from a nearby tree into the photo shoot, remindingeveryone who the real star of the Sacred Monkey Temple Forest is and will always be.

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Erica Bray

Erica Bray

Erica is a practical free spirit who loves travel, yoga and ice cream. A Northwestern University-trained journalist with more than 15 years of experience straddling digital and broadcast media, Erica can be found doing handstands everywhere she travels -- even risking arrest in some cases. Learn about her at www.erica.media.

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