As we approached Monkey Beach during our Thailand holiday in 2016, I felt excitement at the idea of spending some time with wild macaques.
With our guide’s warning not to feed the monkeys ringing in my ears, we rowed up to the shore.
But I didn’t even get to step foot on the beach before monkeys lunged into our kayak, with one swiping at my eye, while two bit my hand and foot – breaking the skin. At least I’d closed my eyes and just got a nick on the eyelid.
Excited by the prospect of food but with nothing to eat immediately visible, they clearly decided that I was a tasty snack instead.
I was a shocked. After three months in Thailand, I’d seen monkeys being playful, but never aggressive.
Everything was over in about 10 seconds. I just remember hearing shouts from the tour guides – which must have scared the monkeys off – some expletives from my friend Ben, and a few angry monkey squeals.
For some reason, the other two people on the kayak escaped the macaques’ attentions. Maybe they smelled my fear.
We were unable to leave the beach immediately because the rest of the group were getting photos so I became snappy and argumentative. There wasn’t a lot of blood, but I was shaken.
When we got back onto the main boat, we made our way back to Phi Phi island and a guide washed my wounds with an alcoholic disinfectant.
But then a Spanish guy on our boat told me I needed to immediately get checked for ‘rabia’. I didn’t need Google Translate to work out what that was. I tried to laugh it all off though.
I’d skipped the rabies vaccine before the trip on the advice of a friend who said it left her arm numb for weeks. Scared of injections and happy to find the slightest excuse to avoid them, I did so.
That was a mistake.
As soon as we got back to Phi Phi, I headed straight for the clinic. In such a small town, finding it was the most straightforward thing all day.
The staff, worryingly, were accustomed to people coming in with monkey bites. A doctor explained to me in perfect English that many monkeys in Thailand carry rabies, and it has a 99.9% mortality rate. That’s the highest of any known disease in the world.
It was simple. If I wanted to be sure I’d live, I needed treatment immediately.
The good news: there was post-exposure treatment to inject immunoglobulin – blood cells, which fight off invasive viruses and bacteria – to combat any rabies cells that had entered my bloodstream.
The bad news: The treatment would cost the equivalent of about £1,000 and my insurance wouldn’t pay up. Oh, and the small matter that it had to be injected straight into the wound.
That’s right, they wanted me to pay £1,000 so they could stick a needle in my eye.
I weighed up my options. I barely had 1,000 baht – about £25 – let alone £1,000. I can still hear my mum’s confusion on the phone as I burst into tears without any clear explanation.
Thankfully, with her only child in danger so far from home, she maxed out a credit card and I went in for the treatment less than an hour after arriving at the clinic.
It was horrible. A nurse did the injections in my foot and hand and it felt as if she had dragged the needle across the wound – ripping it further open. The pain was excruciating.
Paralysed with fear she’d go through the eyelid and I’d lose my sight, I started crying again.
Thankfully, the final injection was left to their most experienced doctor. After a tiny scratch on my eyelid, he simply said, ‘all done’ and that was it.
My eyesight was intact and – overwhelmed with relief – I cried some more.
Coming out to the waiting area, I was glad to have a friend waiting for me and ready to take me to the nearest bar for a stiff drink.
Looking back now, being attacked by monkeys seems pretty funny. However, at the time, it was terrifying. And I don’t just mean the attack. Back then, the thought definitely crossed my mind that rabies could almost be preferable to an injection in the eyelid.
Thankfully I never found out.
After a course of five more injections over the next two months in Thailand and Sri Lanka, I was rabies-free.
Though there was no lasting trauma, I do things differently when I travel now. The first is that I get good travel insurance and all necessary jabs – though I’ve never been anywhere since that requires a rabies vaccine. I’m also much more sceptical of animal attractions.
I don’t blame the monkeys – I’d be pissed off if tourists encroached on my home every day.
No matter how cute and cuddly they look, they’re called wild for a reason, and should be treated with respect.
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