The Luxury Resort Where Millionaires Mingle With Monkeys
“Charles is a bachelor monkey educated in England, and I wondered what it would be like if he got to design his own apartment,” said Bill Bensley, the zany U.S.-born resort architect behind the striking Cheeky Monkey nightclub at the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula in central Vietnam. “So he has papier mâché sculptures of his friends all over the apartment, and portraits of his ancestors.”
Sure enough, among the many monkey heads on the wall of the fictional Charles’ library-cum-bar are simian interpretations of Michael Jackson and Harry Potter. From paintings on the wall it also turns out that the young monkey's European ancestors include Winston Churchill and Napoleon, in monkey form, obviously.
Painstakingly created in Bensley’s studio in Bangkok, the decorative elements in Cheeky Monkey line a two-stage dance floor that looks more like a monkey's cage, with ropes, swings and transparent floors (almost certainly designed for girl monkeys). Through the backdoors are wildly decorated karaoke rooms, a banana-themed cinema, and many restrooms decorated with—wait for it—more monkeys.
However, bizarre as it might seem, there's a good reason for this fantastically whimsical chimp chic.
“These forests are full of monkeys,” said Bensley. “They're docile, elegant, beautiful animals and they almost never come down from the trees.”
He's not talking about common macaques, but troops of brightly colored Red-shanked Douc (pronounced “dutch”) Langurs that live in the mountains surrounding the resort.
These are a different class of monkey. Up to four feet tall and with big eyes, yellow faces, rusty-red legs and long, impressive tails, the Doucs are among the most graceful and curious of all the primates. Although they survived the Vietnam War (U.S. soldiers called the Son Tra Nature Reserve behind the resort that's their home “Monkey Mountain”), there are only a few hundred doucs remaining in the area. They're classed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Their decline is largely down to local habits.
“During construction we had to enforce very strict rules for the construction guys not to touch the monkeys, because they're endangered, but also the natural food for some people in the area,” says Bensley. Parts of the Doucs have also been used to make medicines.
The best way to see them – and to learn about the work of the highly active Douc Langur Foundation (DLF) – is to take a rainforest tour (in a Vietnam War-era jeep, naturally) around the Son Tra Nature Reserve and up to Ban Co Peak.
“The DLF work closely with the rangers to stop the hunting of the monkeys,” says Van Hong Hia, a researcher at the DLF, which helps local rangers destroy traps placed around Son Tra. The project is having a lot of success. “Three men were sent to prison for murdering and torturing douc, the first time ever in Vietnam,” he says. “In 2007 there were about 200, but in 2014 we counted 680.” Research differs, but everyone agrees; the Doucs are on their way back.
He knows exactly where to go to find them, and after an hour's walk through the rainforest I spot some movement in the canopy. I'm soon eye-to-eye with a Douc, which gazes at me from behind a branch. I click a camera, fumble with some binoculars before it starts to pour a hard rain, but I insist we stay a little longer. I'm making eye contact with a Douc, and it's hard to cut short this precious encounter.
“They're so friendly,” says Hong Hia, handing me some binoculars. “We haven't recorded any cases of them fighting, even when different families stay and eat at the same place—they are so different to other monkeys.”
Monkey Mountain is also home to macaques and long-tail monkeys, but only the Doucs' bright colors, huge eyes and lovable manner are worth standing in a downpour for.
Back in the resort, I notice that the shop sells soft-toy Doucs with all proceeds going to the DLF. Then I see something through a window within the vast, lush “wild zone” at the very heart of the project. First I see one Douc leaping through the trees, then a second, a third—and even a couple of babies. Again we make eye contact; they seem more like curious cats than monkeys. To any nature-lover, this zone adds a seriously impressive extra dimension to what is otherwise a high-end resort.
“We wanted to have a green lung in the middle of the resort that was impossible to build on in the future,” said Bensley, but it also happens to be—for me—the resort's main attraction. Local conservation groups have identified about three groups of 12 Doucs that live in the vicinity.
“We are the guests here,” said Bensley.
So isn't the building of a luxury spa resort on the Doucs' home turf irresponsible?
“At the beginning when they built the resort we were worried that the forest would be destroyed, but now I think it's good because it means the wildlife is protected in the whole area,” says Hong Hia. There are no vehicles in the resort itself, aside from golf carts, but there are monkey bridges across the road to provide a safe link to the forest beyond. “I love nature and I'm so happy to see Doucs roaming around the resort.”
Guests are told only to refrain from feeding them and to keep their doors closed.
Most of the guests don't seen bothered, but for me this is luxury travel at its most impressive. Where else can you venture out in the late afternoon and have a magical moment with an endangered monkey?