Chaiyo was tired of the monkey on his back. Really tired.
The beasts were everywhere. On the roof of his house, on the boats, on his market stall stealing his fruit, but none irritated him nearly as much as the one who jumped on his back as he made his way to the market each morning. On returning home he would grumble at length about the beast to his wife. “Chaiyo ja,” Suda would say, after patiently sitting through his tirade of daily monkey complaints, “it cannot be the same monkey. Monkeys are not people. They don’t bully, hold grudges, or remember. They are just animals. And they all look the same, how could you know it was the same monkey?”
Suda was wise in many ways, but in this Chaiyo knew his wife was wrong. It was impossible to tell this monkey apart from the others by his looks, they did all look alike, but it was the same monkey every day none the less. Of this Chaiyo was certain. There was something about this beast. A malevolence and cunning in its eye. The beast was incessantly hounding him, pushing him a bit more each time, never going to far, as if it was biding its time. What it was waiting for Chaiyo was afraid to guess.
The tribe had been warned not to settle here. The place they were headed to belonged to the Treeswingers, the Wisewoman had said. Bringing change to the monkey’s home, it would not end well.
The tribe’s elders had listened politely to the ancient woman’s warning and proceeded onward without even a moment’s consideration whether to heed her words. The tribe had been wandering for too long. The people were exhausted. They needed a place which they could make their home. The place by the river mouth – a river filled to abundance with fish – was by far the best spot the scouts had found. There were indeed a lot of monkeys around when they reached the place where they would found their village. They paid them no heed, as they set about felling trees to make space for their new home.
The monkeys watched from atop the trees, moving further out as a wide clearing opened up in the forest. A forest that had been dense and impenetrable for thousands of years.
The homes, boats, and other buildings were finished quicker than expected. The tribe settled into the calm, peaceful life they’d been craving for so long. Chaiyo wandered the land and found patches of lush, colorful – and previously unknown – fruits. He carried them back to town, built himself a stall on the open square in the center of the village and thereby started the market. Others soon joined him, with their own stalls full of foraged foods or constructed items. The village flourished. The pain and hardship of the long wandering was forgotten. Chaiyo was content. Everyone in the village was content.
It was not to last. The monkeys came back to lay claim to the town.
At first, they only jumped around, the noise they made while moving from roof to roof the only annoyance. Then, the screeching started. It kept up through most of the day, and night. The beasts became aggressive. They broke small items, tore holes in roofs, stole food, and started harassing everyone in town. Now, some people had even been injured. Many villagers had become afraid to leave their homes. Some whispered of leaving. And the whispers were growing strong.
The whispers turned into a roar on the morning Khun Mae died. Part of her kitchen roof caved in while she was standing beneath it. It might just have been an accident, but the monkeys had been on her roof – according to some the biggest and fiercest beasts yet – and the monkeys were blamed.
A meeting was called. Everyone in the village attended. Fear washed back and forth over the crowd like water in a swinging bucket. The vote to leave and give Krabi back to the apes was nearly unanimous. None voted against, only a few declined to raise their hand in favor. One of them was Chaiyo.
He was also afraid of the monkeys, and what they might do to him, his wife, and others, but he was tired of the wandering life. He was getting old. He liked this home they had built. He liked this place by the river. And, he knew something no-one else did.
Chaiyo had wandered further and wider around the area than anyone in the village. Everywhere he went there had been monkeys watching him, following him, annoying him. Everywhere except for one place: a cave, about two hours walk northeast of town. Whenever he neared the cave the monkeys grew quiet – nervous even – and when the mouth of the cave became visible through the trees, there wasn’t a monkey to be seen or heard.
The first time it happened he took it for random luck. But after the same thing happened a second time, and a third, and a fourth, he realized something must be going on at this cave. A few days later he learned exactly what that was.
A tiger lived in the cave. A great striped beast. Just seeing it from a distance made Chaiyo grow as quiet and jittery as the monkeys hiding in the treetops. The tiger became aware of Chaiyo’s presence and, almost nonchalantly, looked his way. Their eyes met, and a feeling of primal awe struck Chaiyo. The likes of which he’d experienced only once before, while sheltering from the greatest storm in his lifetime – a force of nature besides which he felt less than insignificant.
During his hasty retreat back to the village, all the old stories told about animals being more than animals replayed vividly in Chaiyo’s mind.
With everyone packing up and the exodus to start tomorrow morning, Chaiyo prayed that he wasn’t imagining thing and the tiger was indeed an ancient spirit. He made his way to the cave as fast as he could, hoping speed would stay his fear. He ran up to the entrance and almost ran straight on into the cave when he felt a presence just a few arm-lengths ahead of him. In the darkness, the tiger was waiting for him.
Chaiyo stumbled and fell to the ground. He scrambled into a kneeling position, head bowed in deference. He did not know what else to do. He started to speak – to babble really – through panted breath. He told the tiger about the hardship of the tribe’s wanderings, about settling in Krabi, about felling the trees, about the monkeys and their destructive ways, about Khun Mae, about the fear, about the exodus tomorrow, about his home, his wife and his wish to stop wandering. When he was finally out of words, Chaiyo finished with “help us, help us please.”
Silence answered. A silence in which the powerful presence of the tiger seemed to become a physical force, pushing outward from the cave. Chaiyo concluded that he must be insane. Rambling to a tiger, thinking it would understand him. He waited for a roar to come from the pitch-black cave, followed by the savage teeth that would any moment now end his life.
No roar came out of the darkness. Nor words. It was more like a feeling invading Chaiyo’s mind. He surrendered to the feeling, got up, and started walking back to the village.
The great tiger followed.
Almost every step of the two-hour walk, Chaiyo had to use all his willpower to keep from running in terror from the overwhelming savage power walking behind him. The forest held its breath as the man and tiger passed.
The village was in chaos when man and tiger arrived. Clothes, squashed fruit, and broken items lay scattered across the streets. Several homes lay in ruins. The monkeys were everywhere. They were in a rage, jumping around, screeching, hissing, throwing fruits and branches, tearing at buildings that still stood. Some villagers were trying to scare them off with sticks, but most sat cowering in buildings and corners.
The tiger stepped past Chaiyo and into the village. Monkeys and villagers became aware of the tiger, and the cacophony of sounds died down almost instantly.
All except four monkeys – the largest monkeys Chaiyo had ever seen – that stood on the poles at the corner of the market. They resumed their screeching, and started to taunt the tiger, pounding their fists on their chest, making louder and louder sounds. As the rest of the village watched, too afraid to move or breathe, the tiger walked down the street and stopped in front of the four monkeys. The monkeys, maybe feeling safe atop their poles, kept screeching and taunting.
The tiger roared. A deafening roar that would echo in the villagers’ ears for days to come. The four monkeys froze. Moving about wildly before, they were now still as stone.
Then, the monkeys started to change. Chaiyo saw it happening, yet still found what he was seeing impossible to believe. The monkeys’ black fur turned gray, as did their feet, their face, and their eyes. The tiger’s roar had turned the monkeys to stone.
The tiger turned around and slowly walked out of the village and back toward its cave. Chaiyo, and all the other villagers stood in awe and watched it leave. When the tiger was out of sight and the trance had been broken, the villagers noticed that all the other monkeys – hundreds of them there had been – had retreated. Not a single monkey remained in Krabi Town. And not a single monkey has come to Krabi Town since.
Many generations of villagers visited Tiger Cave to pay their respects, to offer food, to pray. Many generations have seen or heard the tiger, but as civilization progressed, the sightings became fewer and fewer. At some point, the sightings stopped altogether, and over time the story of the tiger changed from truth to myth.
Krabi Town grew, prospered, and changed beyond recognition from the simple village it was at its beginnings. Yet the four stone monkeys still stood on their poles on what was now called Maharaj Alley. Modern life came to Krabi, things like electricity and cars. Paved roads, traffic lights, hotels, Seven-Elevens. Krabi Town is now the capital of an entire province. A crowded place, much frequented by tourists. Most of them pass through Krabi Town on their way to nearby beaches. There they encounter monkeys. Considered cute, until they steal water bottles, wallets, and cameras. The monkeys are restless, and prone to lash out. They can be found in great number all around Krabi, except in Krabi Town. There only four monkeys stand, and these are Monkeys of Stone.
Stone is patient, stone is ageless. As the power of the tiger wanes with each passing generation, the Monkeys of Stone bide their time. And the first cracks are starting to appear.
My own story of Krabi Town
I have been to Krabi Town almost as many times as I’ve been to Thailand. The town is mostly a way station for tourists coming from or going to the immensely popular islands in Southern Thailand. Tiger temple is visible from the banks of the river. A golden buddha sits atop a hill reflecting the sunlight. Far below it lies a cave with old paw prints on the walls. Legend has it a great beast used to live there. Folklore around the world is filled with stories of animal spirits and mythical beasts, it’s easy to imagine one of them to be true.
A lot of monkeys roam around Krabi, much to the delight of the many camera-equipped tourists also roaming around Krabi. I’ve never seen a monkey in Krabi Town though, except for the four stone monkeys standing atop traffic lights on town’s main intersection.