Speaking softly is considered as a sign of good manners in Thailand and conversations tend to purr along. One of my recent visitors remarked that listening to Thais speaking together is like listening to the voices of angels. Thailand’s love of noise tends to express itself outside personal verbal interactions. Thais have a knack for sleeping and usually would not complain about noise in the first place but they can be extremely good at making it.
Whether in downtown Bangkok or out in the countryside, Thailand is always ready to send a motorcycle without a muffler, a rooster or a pack of fighting street dogs under your window at the least opportune moment.
While exploring Thailand you can often find yourself stuck in a fog of white noise. Karaoke machines blare, shopping centres blast piercing tunes from every stereo on sale in the store. Pick-up trucks roam the streets selling every item under the sun from the back of them. Stereo speakers appear in the strangest places. Loudspeakers are mounted on every roof so that bargain prices can be announced over the other clamor. Microphones are put to use at all times. Street vendors sometimes come armed with bullhorns. If no amplifying device is at hand, they simple shout their prices. Add to this the numerous bells, whistles, songs and horns being used to announce their arrival in the area and yes, you have got yourself a real racket.
One of my absolute favourite features in the landscape of Thailand’s noise is the infamous traffic guard armed with a whistle. There are hundreds of them. They can be found in every parking lot, major intersection and shopping area. Their job, as I understand it, is to help traffic flow smoothly and to help people park. What they actually do is blow their whistle all day long. As you turn into their parking area, they greet you with a series of shrill whistles. As you park, they whistle. If you put the car into reverse, they tweet away. As you pull out they give a couple more good blasts. What message the whistling is supposed to deliver is a mystery indeed. Out of 95 identical shrills, which one means stop and which one means go exactly?
Thailand’s traffic creates a reverberation of chaos. Trucks, cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, boats and busses can all be relied on to clank, chug, churn, and squeal away. The sound of traffic is often as chaotic as the traffic itself. An interesting unspoken rule is that no matter how much noise your personal vehicle is making, how horrible the traffic jam is or how brutally the driver in front of you just cut you off, honking your horn would be considered an extremely rude thing to do. If a honk is absolutely needed it should be given in a very short manner.
A few months ago I spent a week in a rural Thai village. Although this may sound peaceful and relaxing, it was the largest auditory adventure of my life. Bamboo houses were tucked close together, meaning when one house had a karaoke party, domestic dispute, decided to practice playing guitar or watched television, all the neighbouring houses more than knew about it. I couldn’t get up and shut the window because there was no window to shut. Staying in rural Thailand means that you go to sleep with the whole village and get up when the whole village decides you will or in my case, when the local market opens and closes.
The local market located not so greatly near where I was staying had made the recent decision to become louder. The town committee organised some loudspeakers and stereo equipment and proceeded to put them into full use at 6 a.m. every morning. Wonderful earsplitting entertainment consisting of news and the same three tapes played over and over blared throughout the day and into the night.
Neither my two friends nor I could sleep no matter how we tried. Our earplugs failed us. We would stagger up a dirt road every morning to go eat breakfast at a friend’s house with bags under our eyes. We schemed about how to disconnect the loudspeaker. We wondered how anyone could sleep. We asked opinions about the noise. “The committee decided that the village would like it and it would not be polite to complain about it,” was one answer. Other people seemed confused that we would be asking about it in the first place.
As I sat in the living room desperately waiting for my coffee, I looked down at my friend’s table and saw his daughter’s book on it. The title: “Life In A Noisy Village”, written in English, although the text was in Thai. Through my haze of exhaustion I gave a heartfelt chuckle. Woeful and wondrous, Thailand’s sounds are indeed part of its charm.