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MONKEYS HAVE BEEN AN integral part of the workforce in Thailand since time immemorial, and not just because they are paid in peanuts. These friendly little creatures can be seen, mainly in the South of the country, scrambling up the trunks of coconut trees and throwing coconuts to their masters on the ground below.

Recognizing both the intelligence and comedic value of the monkey, enterprising Thais have long-since established monkey schools throughout the kingdom for the entertainment of both Thais and foreign visitors alike.

Chiang Mai's original monkey school was established in the Mae Rim district by former army sergeant, Tawee Pantachang. This small, friendly man, who left his home in Sukhothai some thirty years ago to settle in Chiang Mai, bought land in Mae Rim with a view to growing fruit and vegetables. However, the economic crisis of the late nineties created serious labor problems for Khun Tawee, and he faced the possibility of financial ruin. Never one to run from a problem, he went South and bought his first two monkeys, which he brought back to Chiang Mai and trained to help him pick tamarinds. The success of this venture led Khun Tawee to buy more animals from Southern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam; he now has a troupe of more than thirty monkeys and four gibbons at his school in Mae Rim.

The retired soldier saw the entertainment value of his animal workforce, and Chiang Mai's first Monkey School soon opened its doors to locals and the burgeoning tourism trade. All of the monkeys at the school are male; the presence of just one female has proved to be a distraction from work or training; so much for equal opportunities in the workplace!

Sergeant Tawee hired trainers from the South, who specialize in teaching the monkeys to perform tasks ranging from coconut picking to riding bicycles. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, love and the patience of a saint to train these little creatures. But most monkeys are ready to take to the stage after about two months with their trainer. The animals are well looked after and enjoy regular visits from a local vet to ensure that they are in the best of health.

People wishing to have their own monkeys trained can bring them to the school where, for a small fee, they will be allowed to train alongside "the professionals". So, if your macaque is mooching around, or your gibbon is glued to the television, bring them to Sgt. Tawee's team for some good, old fashioned basic training.

For those of you who just want to see the monkeys in action, here's how to get to the Monkey School: Take the Chiang Mai-Faang Road (route 107) out of the city, until you reach its intersection with the Mae Rim-Samoeng Road (route 1096). Turn left here and drive for about 5 kilometers, past the snake farm and the patrol station until you reach a sign (in Thai) for the Monkey School, on your right.

Entrance fees. You can also buy a bag of fruit with which to feed the monkeys for 20 baht per bag. The address : 296 Moo 1, Mae Rim-Samoeng Road, Mae Raem area, Mae Rim District, Chiang Mai. Tel : 053-298818 or 053-860547.

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