Last Wednesday was International Noise Awareness Day, although if you live in Bangkok you could be forgiven for being blissfully unaware of this momentous occasion. It's hardly a revelation, but it's desperately difficult to escape noise in Thailand. You can't go to a department store or supermarket these days without being assaulted by an incessant babble of sales pitches from ladies with microphones, promoting anything from skin whitening creams to absurd looking lingerie.
At one mall in Bangkok last week a number of people were trying to listen to senior monks giving a sermon on the true meaning of the Songkran festival. Unfortunately the men in robes were drowned out by a woman with a microphone only 20 metres away, promoting some sort of moisturising cream. It seems the message of Songkran is that whoever makes the most noise prevails.
Out on the streets you can't do much about the racket, apart from strangling those fellows who insist on blowing whistles for no apparent reason. The reality is that Bangkok is a noisy metropolis and admittedly, a silent Big Mango would seem quite creepy.
Seagulls and samlors
Certain noises are particularly annoying and every year lists come out about what are regarded as the most irritating sounds.
The lists vary greatly, but bawling babies are always right up there, along with pneumatic drills, scraping fingernails on a blackboard and silly mobile phone jingles. Other irritants include car alarms, barking dogs, Gangnam Style impersonators and a Bangkok speciality, backfiring samlors. One British poll even named seagulls.
In Bangkok, at least you can safely rule out seagulls from the list of irritations, although readers in Hua Hin or Songkhla might be of a different opinion. Anyway, one has to suspect that if someone is going to complain about the sound of seagulls they would complain about anything, even noisy butterflies.
Don't bellow, dear fellow
There was a time when the sounds of vendors plying the sois were quite pleasant. There would be the tinkling bells of the ice-cream man, or the wooden clacking from a noodle vendor, sometimes accompanied by a polite squeak form the cart's klaxon.
Some vendors simply used their voices and you immediately knew what was coming down the soi. There was one old fellow who had a splendid voice and would bellow out "Kuey-teoow!" in a manner that would not have sounded out of place in an opera.
Unfortunately these days we are subjected to pickup trucks with dreaded loudspeakers. On one occasion I was woken up early in the morning by speakers from a truck selling that hairy fruit with the unpronounceable name ngor, otherwise known as rambutan. I stormed out into the garden to remonstrate with the fellow, only to find the maid was already there, buying basketfuls of the wretched ngor and rendering my protests ... err ... fruitless.
Chimes of freedom
Readers may recall that shortly after Suvarnabhumi airport opened there were complaints by residents in the vicinity about the racket made by the planes. Apparently the free ear plugs handed out by the authorities weren't working.
The Airports of Thailand (AoT) came up with some interesting solutions seemingly based on the principle, fight noise with more noise. Among the suggestions was installing wind chimes. Now, in a battle between wind chimes and the screaming engines of a 747 taking off, you don't have to be Einstein to work out which will come out on top.
Another suggestion had a bit more potential - install a karaoke set-up in the house. The racket that emerges from a karaoke session might be enough to at least redirect one's attention. There would be so much noise, no one would bother about the planes. Nice try.
It will come as no surprise that it wasn't long before residents returned to pills and earplugs.
Taking the rap
Of course one man's noise can be another man's music, depending on individual tastes. Crutch is more likely to put up with very loud Pink Floyd than a very loud Britney Spears or mind-numbing techno-pop. It is whether it intrudes or not that is the problem. I remember having a pleasant doze on a secluded beach in Koh Samui many years ago, interrupted by a couple with a ghetto-blaster. It wouldn't have been so bad, but they were playing Boney M.
One festive season in Bangkok, I came across a teacher who was looking quite shell-shocked. He explained he had been supervising the students' year-end dance and had just suffered four hours of non-stop, very loud rap music. He is by no means a conservative when it comes to musical tastes, but an evening of rap had left him a disoriented wreck.
Down by the river
I recall staying at a friend's house on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok some time ago, thinking it would be very peaceful and soothing - water lapping at the side of the house, maybe the gentle chugging of a rice barge.
Of course, I didn't get a wink of sleep courtesy of the long-tailed boats that seemed to roar up and down all night. It was a similar tale at a lovely khlong-side house in Thon Buri. It felt like sleeping next to a Formula One track.
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Correction: In last week's column the new South Korean president's name was incorrectly spelled. It should have read Park Geun-hye. We regret the error.
About the author
- Writer: Roger Crutchley