The Secret of Monkey Island, China

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While the bulk of tourists to China no doubt clamber for the history of the Great Wall or the natural beauty of the panda sanctuaries, there’s more to China than the conventional. I already highlighted a few of these spots in my previous post on the subject, but Monkey Island rates a mention too.

girl with a monkey
Brenda takes her life into her hands and gets up close and personal with a local. Photo by Tracey Long.

It’s not just the island’s population of gibbering, poo slinging monkeys (Macaques, specifically), either. The scenic chair lift ride from Hainan’s mainland to the island is a breath-taking treat all of its own, providing spectacular views of daily Chinese life as you soar over fishing villages, floating restaurants, and farms still being worked as if they weren’t a part of the world’s largest economy.

A visit to Monkey Island won’t be at the top of any Chinese itinerary, but if your travels are going to take you to the island known affectionately as ‘China’s Hawaii’, it’s worth a look.

Return to Hainan

I’ve timed my arrival in China pretty bloody well. While I did miss the month off that accompanies the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), I arrived in time for a four day holiday in celebration of Tomb Sweeping and an upcoming week off for what I can only figure out is ‘Golden Week’.

I’m still not sure what that celebrates, but I won’t complain.

My original plan was to tag along with my friends Jenny and Kara for their planned rail trip along the Qinghai-Tibet line from Shanghai all the way to Lhasa in Tibet. But those plans were dashed when we were advised that the Chinese government is currently charging upwards of 1000 RMB (around $150) just to get into the country. Couple that with 1200 RMB for the train ride, God knows how much for a flight back from Lhasa, and more on top of that for food and accommodation.

With those plans dashed, I turned my eye back to my Top 10 Different Places to Visit in China and picked out a location that looked suitably fun and laid back.

My choice? Hainan.

Getting to Monkey Island

It was August of 2008 and my friends and I were in dire need of an escape from crowded Korean life. Much like I do today – I maintained a circle of friends populated almost exclusively by women.

So it was that myself, Brenda, Rebecca, and Tracey headed off for a week of sun and surf in tropical Hainan province in the south of China. And while I did touch on my week there in a previous entry about China’s tropical paradise, I perhaps didn’t do justice to the weird little corner of China known as ‘Monkey Island’.

While the bulk of our days were spent sipping poorly made cocktails on white sandy beaches, we did find a day or two to get out and see a bit of what Hainan had to offer.

Sanya Beach
Beautiful Sanya Beach. Photo by Tracey Long.

A Monkey Island adventure starts with a ride on China’s longest trans-oceanic ropeway. That’s right you cross the ocean in something called a ropeway.

Don’t be too alarmed, though. The ropeway is a bit of a misnomer – as you’re reading a modern chair lift akin to those you’d find at your local ski slope.

The 2.1km ride moves along at a brisk pace and whisks you away from the more built up mainland towards Nanwan Island. Below you the land sprawls out in a charming tapestry of farmland, shanty villages huddled along the coast, fishing boats out in search of their catch, and – finally – the lush tropical vegetation that borders the monkey sanctuary.

Fishing village in Hainan, China
One of many quaint fishing villages along the Hainan coast as viewed from the ropeway to Moneky Island
Ropeway to Monkey Island, Hainan
The ropeway descends towards Monkey Island
An abandoned hut on Monkey Island
The monkeys have taken over! Turn back! Turn baaaaack!

It’s not quite ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park’, but the hooting and hollering of the resident monkeys still sends a bit of a primal chill up your spine as you descend from the canopy and down towards the sanctuary proper.

The skyway ride weighs in at a cheap 60 RMB return (around $10 Australian) and is a bit of fun on its own. Entry to the park is a further 68 RMB, which still scrapes in under $11. In essence, it’s dirt cheap to visit Monkey Island.

Welcome to Monkey Island

If your visit is anything like mine, you’ll need to fight your way through a press of Korean tourists before you can see the local wildlife. But once you’re out in the sanctuary’s gardens and grottos, there’s no shortage of ‘friendly’ locals to interact with.

A curious little fella steadfastly ignoring my requests to 'say cheese'

Signs around the park warn visitors not to approach the monkeys too closely or corner them, but the more inquisitive take the decision out of your hands as they come within a few feet to see what these strange new visitors might be. The majority are mostly curious, but my poor friend Tracey got a bit of a fright when one of them decided to scream in her general direction.

The monkeys are free to roam the park as they desire, so it’s not uncommon to come across one on the path or not notice one until it’s standing at shoulder level and leering out at your from the trees.

Macaque in a tree
A cheeky macaque eyes us from the trees. Photo by Tracey Long.
The mislabeled 'Darwen' statue at Monkey Island
The mislabeled 'Darwen' statue at Monkey Island

For those wanting a more up close and personal experience, there are regular live shows in which trained monkeys wow the audience with their intelligence before they patiently pose with tourists brave enough to have a smelly primate perched on their shoulders or lap. Me? I’m right at home with all things hairy, so I ambled up and posed with a pixieish pair who were quite enamored of my hairy arms.

monkey man
I make a few new friends on Monkey Island

The treatment of the monkeys isn’t quite as bad as you might expect if you’ve been to a Chinese (or Korean, for that matter) nature reserve concerning animals. The monkeys are mostly left to their own devices, although the performing ones are chained up and that might be a bit jarring for some.

Oh, and fair warning: don’t leave anything unattended! The monkeys are not shy at all, and I lost a bottle of Coke to one of them. I dread to think what might have happened had I set my camera down.

A Bite to Eat

Had I known it at the time, I’d have stuck around the island for a bit of post exploration seafood. Hainan is famed for its seafood and the island boasts a fishing village on the coast where you can eat seafood fresh from the ocean.

Seafood in Hainan
Fantastic fresh seafood! Photo by Tracey Long

While I didn’t have the pleasure during my 2008 visit, I can definitely vouch for the quality of Hainan seafood. Fresh lobster, crab, fish, and squid are not only readily available – but far cheaper than you’ll find back in the West. A feast can be had for the price of fish & chips back in Australia.

Making Monkey Island happen for you

Most hotels and resorts in tourist friendly Sanya will offer tours to the island, but these typically come with a bit of a mark-up.

Grab a cab and have them wait for you while you’re on the island and you’re looking at around 250 RMB for the return trip. Most taxi drivers typically speak more English than I’ve found here on the mainland, and the hotel staff will be able to write down where you need to go in Chinese if you’re not comfortable with the language.

If you’ve got a holiday rental apartment or something of the like, the fall-back is the old ‘point at your Lonely Planet and pray’ technique. Most cabbies should know the place though.

Monkey Island definitely isn’t a full day trip, so go early and explore in the morning before having lunch at the village and heading back to catch the afternoon sun and a few cocktails on the beach.

TripAdvisor ranks Monkey Island as Sanya’s #1 attraction, and I’d say it’s a pretty fair assessment. I certainly enjoyed my laid back days on the beach more, but Monkey Island still sticks with me even (close to) four years on.

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