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Monkey business

One big monkey comes in and steals a thong right off a girl's foot, and then another comes in and rips off the other.

Forget TV's monkey gangs in India - the monkey gangs of Bali are on the rampage.

"They are cheeky monkeys," declares I Ketut Ariana, who offers his services as a guide at Bali's Uluwatu temple - a guide with a stick, that is.

Not that the monkeys come near us. I Ketut Ariana has been part of the temple for 30 years, since he was seven, and these Balinese macaques know him and he knows them.

In fact, he says, this part of the peninsula has become so dry (with rain seeming to fall all around, but not here) and food so scarce, that temple devotees now have to feed them three times a day.

"It is costing us a lot of money in bananas and cucumbers." Visitors are charged 35,000 rupiah (about $3.50) by these local temple guides, and the money is used for this food, he says, adding they had been giving them nuts but a monkey specialist came and said not to, as they were too dry, and might be adding to the aggression.

The monkeys might be cheeky - thieving and aggressive, even - but they are sacred.

And, though the elephant- headed Hindu god Ganesh is most prevalent in the temple, there are fine carvings of the monkey god Hanuman - looking very aggressive himself, it must be said.

There are about 300 monkeys at the temple on the western toe of the foot at the bottom of Bali - the Bukit - divided into three gangs, each run by a dominant male.

And they aren't backwards in coming forwards. It is the dominant male of Gang Three who came in on the first thong raid, and he now settles back to chew on its toe, showing his big fangs, as the girl still screams.

"And hats and earrings and perhaps 100 pairs of sunglasses a day," says I Ketut Ariana. And, indeed, there are sunglass arms scattered over the floor - bony remnants of the things being dissected.

Uluwatu temple was built in 1546 from coral and limestone blocks, one of the eight directional temples that are set around Bali on the points of the compass - north, south, east, west and the points between. At the centre of this compass is the Mother Temple of Besakih, on the slopes of Mt Agung.

Uluwatu temple is dedicated to Rudra, the god of the storm, the wind and the hunt. It is one of several temples that Pedanda Sakti Wawu Rauh, a priest who came to Bali from Java, built in the 16th century.

The temple (correctly called Pura Luhur Uluwatu) and its surrounds are considered particularly sacred sites; it is one of the Sad Khayangan, the island's six most important temples.

It is also well visited. Most people come at sunset, as the temple is set high over the Indian Ocean swells and reef breaks that have made Uluwatu famous with surfers, and there is a monkey dance show which draws crowds perhaps of 1000 people.

It is said the kecak, or monkey dance, was actually dreamt up in the 1930s by resident German artist Walter Spies for a movie. Up to 250 dancers perambulate in concentric circles, chanting "kecak kecak", while a dancer in the middle acts out a spiritual story. The kecak dance performances at Uluwatu temple are probably the most popular on Bali.

But I am glad to be here in the morning, when it's quiet and there are few people - just some of the Chinese and Korean groups of which I Ketut Ariana sees more and more in Bali.

I enjoy the quiet ambience, the carvings, the swelly ocean below, and the antics of the cheeky monkeys.

There are three small "swimming pools" for the monkeys, each gang claiming one, and Gang Three is having a ball in theirs.

They don't come near and don't bother us.

And, I think, it is more out of knowing I Ketut Ariana as he knows them. Not just because he has a stick.

  • *Tips for monkey moments * *

·Don't smile at them - showing teeth is a sign of aggression.

·If they grab something, you drop it. A tug of war can end in tears. Yours.

·Don't show fear. It encourages them to pick on you. In the face of monkey aggression, pick up a stick, stand your ground, wave your arms. If you feel you must retreat, face the monkey and back away slowly. (Don't turn and run.)

·Having food around monkeys is a bad idea. Feeding them is worse.

·If a monkey sees its reflection in a DSLR camera lens, it may attack.

·Monkey bites can be dangerous, through infections such as bacteroides, streptococci and enterococci. Scrub bites thoroughly with soap and bottled water. See a doctor. The Australian Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says there is a risk of rabies throughout Indonesia, in particular in Bali. "Visitors are strongly advised to avoid direct contact with dogs, cats, monkeys and other animals."