Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary Photography Guide

“Where monkeys and humans interact…sort of”

 Photo by ZPhotoo

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Do not run, do not panic, and for the love of God, do not look a monkey in the eye. These are some of the basic rules for visiting the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest, one of Bali’s must-visit destinations. Picture an overgrown forest of ancient Balinese sculptures covered in vibrant green moss. A place where light dances among towering trees, the golden rays manipulated by unseen spirits playfully pulling on vines like puppet strings. It is peaceful, serene and beautiful, or would be if it wasn’t full of monkeys.

Wide View of the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary - Photo by Fabio Achilli
Wide View of the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary - Photo by Fabio Achilli

The Ubud Monkey Forest

At least 600 hundred Balinese long-tailed macaques call the 27-acre Ubud Monkey Forest home. Flitting among the high canopy above they swing from vines, pillage the forest floor for fruit, and terrorize the tourists. The Monkey Forest is well known as one of the must-see destinations in Bali. Tourists flock by the thousands to be among their primate cousins in this “wild” space rich in colour and ancient artifacts.

The three forest Hindu temples date from the 14th century and are spread throughout the protected sanctuary that is the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest. The forest itself sits unassumingly in a bustling Balinese village. Owned by the local town, it serves as a sanctuary as well as a spiritual and economic centre for the local community. It is a place for prayerful worship and quiet reflection for the local community and a place for fantastical whimsy for foreign visitors.

Long-Tailed Balinese Macaque Monkey On the Move - Photo by McKay Savage
Long-Tailed Balinese Macaque Monkey On the Move - Photo by McKay Savage

Attack of the Macaques

Drawn by the novelty and the promotional photographs of adorable baby macaques, the tourists arrive in droves. But, from the moment the visitors finish paying the fees to enter, it will become apparent they are unprepared. Despite their number, the tourists will be overwhelmed. The Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest belongs to the monkeys, and the monkeys know it. While humans may have come to see the monkeys, the monkeys understand the humans are there to be looted.

Backpack toting tourists ar the target of clever monkeys who seem to coordinate a raid. A wide-eyed younger monkey approaches pensively from the front, posing adorably for Instagram photos while the older, wiser ones will attack from the rear. Deftly opening backpacks and pilfering their contents, liberating whatever strikes their fancy. Sunglasses, water bottles, house keys; all are fair game to the monkeys. The monkeys live well by these raids and are masters of manipulating the naivety of their guests.

And then there are the fools who buy the bananas.

When you have a banana, the monkeys know, and they are on to your games. They will climb you; they will scratch you, pull your hair and sometimes even bite you to get your bananas. And when they have stolen your bananas, you will still smell like bananas. Any smart monkey knows, when you cannot see the banana, there still might be a banana, so it’s worth it to check. The banana toting tourist will be accosted long after being liberated of their potassium rich cargo. Don’t even think about bananas. The monkeys will know.

A Long-Tailed Balines Macaque and child in the Ubud Monkey Forest - Photo by Jannes Glas
A Long-Tailed Balines Macaque and child in the Ubud Monkey Forest - Photo by Jannes Glas

Totally Worth It

Somehow the trepidation you will feel as you scan the forest above for grey ninjas ready to pounce will be worth it. The ethereal forest light, the beautiful sculptures and the penetrating gaze of the monkey denizens of this sacred forest make the humid tourism hell, magical. This place is worth the visit.

The photographer who is well prepared and wise enough to give respectful space to the mothers as they tend to their young will be rewarded with amazing photographs. The macaque monkeys can be found lounging on richly detailed sculptures of themselves, creating juxtapositions of art and nature that can be found in few other places on earth. In-person, the forest is frenetic, frightening and fabricated. In photographs, however, it is other-worldly and appears ripped from the pages of a Victorian explorer’s personal diary.

Sculptures at Entrance to the Monkey Forest - Photo by shankar s.
Sculptures at Entrance to the Monkey Forest - Photo by shankar s.

Photographing Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest

Flying to Bali

Begin your journey by flying into the Bali Airport. Also known as the Denpasar airport or Ngurah Rai International Airport, it is the second busiest airport in Indonesia, and there are no shortages of flights to it. Once you arrive at the airport, however, plan a 1.5 -2 hour trip to Ubud. If you’re from the US, Canada, UK, etc. you will need a Visa. The good news is that you don’t need to apply for the Visa before arrival, the bad news is that they only take cash. It will cost about USD 25, so make sure you have some money on you when you arrive. The Visa will let you stay in Bali for 30 days, so make the most of it.

From the Airport to Ubud

Next up is getting some local currency at the ATM and then getting a Taxi. Taxies are not hard to find, and when you exit the airport, you’ll see a bunch of taxi drivers in colourful blue shirts. Find the Official Taxi Desk and pay the fixed price to Ubud. The Taxi Desk will give you a ticket that you can give to one of the taxi drivers.

Why do we recommend taking a taxi? Well, driving in Indonesia is not for the faint of heart. If you’ve ever completed a driver’s test, you’ll need to forget everything you know before you drive anywhere in Indonesia. The roadways are full of uncontrolled intersections, lane markers are a suggestion, and throngs of scooters will swarm to fill every available space. Sure, renting a motorcycle or scooter is an option, but you’re going to need pretty good health coverage if you attempt it.

Once you arrive in Ubud, there are several hotel options. For the luxury traveller, there is the Four Seasons Resort, a sight to see on its own and the perfect place to relax and be pampered. For the more budget-minded traveller, there are tonnes of hostels and cheaper guest house options.

Visiting the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest

As with most touristic destinations, plan to arrive at the Monkey Forest either early or late in the day. The park is a famous Bali destination and lines will form when the park opens at 8:30 am. Alternately, you can choose to arrive later in the day. Give yourself about 3 hours in the park for shooting minimum and remember it closes at 6:30 pm. As with any location like this, arriving early or late in the day will create better opportunities for light.

What to Bring to the Sacred Monkey Forest

The first rule of Ubud Monkey Forest, don’t bring anything you cannot lose. Camera and some money for admission should be it. Next, make sure your camera is firmly attached to you. No one wants to lose an expensive camera body. Assuming you want to bring extra lenses, keep them also in a securely sealed carrier that is also attached to you. Do not bring water bottles, purses, sunglasses, etc. unless you are okay with donating them to the local macaque population.

Shooting in the Monkey Forest

Keep your distance. The most amazing shots will be those where the monkeys are relaxed and lounging. Using a longer lens or teleconverter will make this a pleasant outing of capturing the human-like expressions and moments between the monkeys and their young. Keep your distance and capture the monkeys as naturally as possible.

The forest is thick and humid and on certain days and these conditions can create some stunning mist and light play between the trees. So check the weather. Also, don’t avoid the park if it’s raining. Rain keeps the tourists away and creates some unique photo conditions.

Since the park opens at 8:30 it is unlikely you’ll be able to get the early sunrise rays. However, depending on the time of year, you may capture some golden hour shots since the park is open until 6:30 pm. The lush greenery of the space will complement well the golden tones cast upon the grey monkeys. So before you go, check the sunrise and sunset times in Ubud.

Don’t Buy the Bananas.

Seriously, don’t.

Close Up of Moss Covered Sculpture at Forest Monkey Sanctuary - Photo by Matt Hulland
Close Up of Moss Covered Sculpture at Forest Monkey Sanctuary - Photo by Matt Hulland