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Primates — monkeys, gorillas, apes, lemurs, and gibbons among them — are some of the most charismatic creatures of the animal kingdom and are our closest living relatives. Acrobatic, intelligent, and with family units similar to our own, it’s easy to see how captivating and charming monkeys can be.
There are over 600 species and subspecies of primates around the world, and more than half of them are considered vulnerable to extinction. One way to help is to actually respectfully and responsibly seek them out on your travels. When tourists plan vacations to interact with animals in their natural environments, it proves that wild spaces are valuable — and not just for farmland and timber. Here are five destinations to see primates in the wild — just don’t feed the monkeys (unless it’s encouraged).
Arashiyama Monkey Park, Japan
Along the banks of the Katsura River just west of Kyoto is the village of Arashiyama. Dating back to the eighth century, this charming community of temples, shops, and tea houses is situated among groves of cherry trees and a lush bamboo forest. It’s also adjacent to the well-loved Arashiyama Monkey Park. Located at the top of Mount Iwata — aptly nicknamed “Monkey Mountain” — the park is accessible via a staircase winding through thick forest (signs congratulate the stamina of visitors who make the trek once they reach the top).
But it’s worth the 20-minute climb: the Arashiyama Monkey Park is home to roughly 120 Japanese macaques, or “snow monkeys,” a medium-sized, brown-grey monkey notable for being the northernmost non-human primates on Earth. Visitors can wander the sanctuary, ask the helpful handlers questions about the park’s residents, and observe these charming primates as they play, groom, and eat.
While the macaques are wild and native to the area, they congregate at this scenic mountaintop for the food. Staffers provide the monkeys with fruit and nuts, and there’s even a safe space where you can purchase monkey-approved snacks to feed the macaques through a screen. While the park is open year-round, getting there in the spring and summer is the best time to see the cute baby monkeys.
Cedar Forest, Morocco
Ifrane, Morocco’s temperate mountainous province, is home to swaths of cedar forest — an area that couldn’t be more different than the nation’s desert lowlands and bustling cities. This region is home to the only species of macaque that lives outside of Asia — Barbary macaques, also known as Barbary apes. To see these creatures in action, start in the town of Azrou, nestled in the Middle Atlas Mountains. The primates call the nearby cedar and oak woods along the N13 road home.
The best way to see the Barbary macaques — a medium-sized, yellow-brown monkey with thick fur — in their natural habitat is by hiking through these dense woods. But, as this population of monkeys has become tolerant of humans and used to being fed, you’re also likely to spot them at roadsides and wherever you see people and parked cars. You can look at the monkeys, but don’t feed them. These populations exhibit health problems and violent behaviors that less tame Barbary macaques in more remote places do not contend with — and it’s because of human interference and unnatural diets.
In fact, these monkeys are endangered, with Morocco's and Algeria’s populations shrinking due to habitat loss and fragmentation (the species is extinct in Tunisia). Fortunately, the Moroccan Primate Conservation Foundation is working to restore woodlands and educate both locals and tourists on the right ways to interact with these charismatic creatures.
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Indonesia
Located in the town of Ubud in central Bali, is the Sacred Monkey Forest. Here, a population of about 500 monkeys reside among a complex of sacred temples and burial plots. The monkeys are Balinese long-tailed macaques — a subspecies of the common long-tailed macaque with grey-brown fur, light-colored bellies, and facial hair. The males have mustaches and the females have full beards.
The macaques in the Sacred Monkey Forest come and go as they please, allowing visitors a unique opportunity to see them eat, play, and groom without cages, bars, or grates. In fact, the furry residents of the forest are revered as a spiritual part of this sacred space and as living manifestations of Hindu monkey gods. Though uncaged, the monkeys are tended to by locals who also maintain the property and make sure visitors respect the primate residents (making eye contact can be seen as a form of aggression) and supply only sanctioned monkey snacks — usually fruit.
The oldest temple in the forest dates to the 13th century, but other structures, bridges, and statues — many rebuilt or expanded — date from different eras and even the present day. These landmarks dot the reserve, which is composed of 27 acres of lush forest home to over 80 different species of trees, along with a myriad of birds, reptiles, and other critters.
Kinabatangan River, Borneo
The Malaysian state of Sabah is home to about 11,000 northeast Bornean orangutans — shaggy primates with reddish fur and impressively long arms. Notably, Bornean orangutans are the third-heaviest primate and largest tree-dwelling mammal on Earth. Many live in dense rainforest lining the Kinabatangan River alongside pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, and a host of colorful birds.
Cruising along this waterway offers the best chance of seeing wild orangutans in Borneo. These guided boat tours depart from smaller villages in the remote jungle, often in the evening, when animals are most frequently bathing and feeding in the shallow water. Another bonus is that these river tours happen to be the most comfortable way to see the rainforest.
While the Kinabatangan River is one of the best spots to check out orangutans and other wildlife in Asia, it’s worth noting that Bornean orangutans are critically endangered. Habitat fragmentation and development of land for agriculture is degrading this once pristine region and has a profound effect on animal abundance and health. The World Land Trust is working to preserve and reforest wildlife corridors between existing preserves, before more land — and orangutans — are lost to palm oil plantations. Your visit helps — tourism dollars make wild spaces as valuable as plantation land.
Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Named after its centerpiece mountain, Khao Yai National Park is just two and a half hours north of Bangkok. Established in 1962, the expanse is part of the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, which was named Thailand’s first national park and is an official UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spanning over 2,000 acres, the park features the largest remaining monsoon forest in Southeast Asia in addition to dense jungle, craggy peaks, green valleys, and a network of waterways and waterfalls. Wildlife abounds — elephants, hundreds of species of birds, exotic reptiles, and of course, the park’s famous gibbons, all call the park home.
Four species of white-handed gibbons (also known as lar gibbons) thrive within Khao Yai National Park. It’s the best place to see these tiny, acrobatic apes out and about in the wild. Because they’re tiny and live entirely in trees (one nickname for these gibbons is "Spirits of the Trees"), gibbons can be hard to spot. However, they’re known for their loud calls and songs and are most vocal in the mornings — making it easy to know where to look.
That said, there are some groups of gibbons within the park that have become acclimated to humans (especially those who feed them) — so it is sometimes possible to spot these charismatic creatures near parking areas. Feeding them should be avoided though — human food is not healthy for gibbons, and seeking it out causes them to become aggressive (and even steal). And, since they’re an endangered species, it’s best to leave them be.