Remembering Kuala Lumpur’s Monkey Man

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Monkey in Malaysia

Have you ever been under the illusion that the rules somehow don’t apply to you? I was definitely in such a mindset when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, back in August of 2010.

I’d just set off on the road indefinitely, having left my job teaching English in China for a life of location-independence. I was only about a month into my journey, but after all I’d overcome to get there, I didn’t think anything could stand in my way.

Certainly, not a little monkey wearing pajamas.

“I wouldn’t photograph him if I were you,” my friend Refie urged me. In spite of how much I respected him – we barely knew one another, but his family had agreed to host me during my trip to Malaysia – I found myself annoyed by his nagging, not to mention baffled.

I unlocked my lens and zoomed in close on the adorable little critter. “Why do you say that? Is he going to try and steal my camera?”

Before Refie could respond, however, I felt a heavy hand clamp down on my shoulder. “No, but I am!”

I turned around to see a man, who didn’t look particularly different than any of the other men shuffling through the busy street market – except, of course, for the fact that he was practically foaming at the mouth with rage.

“That is my monkey,” he ripped the camera from around my neck, and held it up high over his head, “and you can’t photograph him without paying me.”

I turned back to Refie, my heart pounding, my palms sweating. “Is that really his monkey?”

“The guy’s kind of an institution here,” Refie nodded.

Only a few seconds had passed since the man stole my camera from me, but all kinds of emotions were going through my mind. Well, mostly fear. Would he destroy my camera? And, once he was done with that, would I be next?

I decided to play it cool, although I feared the worst. “Can I please have my camera back?”

“Delete those pictures,” he said, and moved the camera – which he placed around his neck for collateral – in front of me. “Now! Delete them, or I smash this, and your face!”

My fears confirmed, I flipped through the dozen or so photos I’d taken of the monkey, then pressed the “Trash Can” button after viewing each of them.

I scrolled back the other way to show the monkey man I’d complied with his rules. “They’re gone, see? Can I have it back now?”

He practically threw the Nikon at me, and slapped me upside the head. “Little bitch – don’t come back here again!”

Shaken, and also a bit stirred, I frantically scurried away from the scene of the near-crime. It took me a moment to locate Refie, who’d long before (well, relatively, considering again that all this chaos transpired in a matter of moments) escaped to spectating distance.

“You told me so,” I put my arm around my friend, “I get it.”

Ever compassionate, Refie didn’t mention a thing of the sort. “I’m just glad you’re OK – sorry about the photos.”

“Why are you sorry?” I smiled wide, and directed Refie’s attention to my camera screen, where I displayed a proverbial money shot of the little primate.

His jaw dropped open as we walked away from the street market and toward the Petronas Twin Towers. “How did you manage that?”

“I flipped through the pictures quickly as I deleted them,” I explained, “and made sure to flip past this one. When I ‘showed him’ that they were all deleted, I simply went the wrong way back into my photos.”

Refie sighed. “Hm, that’s clever. Or dishonest.”

“I learned my lesson, I think,” I said, and placed my lens cap back on – I was going to abstain from photography for a hot minute. “I think I’ve been under the impression lately that I know everything, but I didn’t know that people like this guy – who, let’s face it, is probably among the bottom 1, maybe 2 per cent of dangerous people in the world – exist.

“So, I must’ve known, like, less than nothing before now. And now I know nothing,” I brought my camera up once more, and glanced fondly at my monkey picture – the only one that survived the incident. “Well, except for how to con a con man.”

 

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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