Bright Lights, Big City…and Blaring Noise

 |  February 25, 2010

Mark your calendar right now – International Noise Awareness Day is coming April 28th. Chiang Mai will be promoting this event to the max, with speakers ramped to ear-splitting levels. Yeah, that’s how we do it here.

Now in Bangkok, on the other hand, there’s a group that might be raising a little cane at the slightest whiff of sound. And who might these contrarians be? The Quiet Bangkok Group (QBG). No joke, they’re real. Led by a US-educated lecturer in English literature at Thammasat University, Oraya Sutabutr is making waves in Bangkok with her activities against the tsunami of sound inundating the city.

To say that she and the 50-odd members of the QBG are relentless in their pursuit of quiet takes the tag ‘so much to do, so little time’ to a new level. They’ve had articles published about them in The Nation, The Bangkok Post, Matichon,, and been chatted-up on ASTV and Dr. Valerie’s Morning Talk.

It’s a movement whose time has come. In Bangkok, noise levels have reached epic proportions coming from a number of major sources: Around-the-clock construction sites; loud whistles for traffic management; mall, BTS, and outdoor event loudspeakers; and high decibels in cinemas.

In truth, solving noise problems may very well be a less permanent solution than ongoing temporary abatement. Successful efforts of a Quiet Bangkok, or a yet-to-be-born Quiet Chiang Mai, are not genetically encoded – ‘quiet DNA’ has yet to be found by the Genome Project. It’s re-education all the way, generation by generation, club by club, village by village. Give up already? Don’t…just yet. The Quiet Bangkokians might have some tricks up their sleeve you can use.

Blowing in the wind

Think of ‘blowing’ as (maybe) past tense. The QBG has recently introduced its Whistle Free Zone campaign and, you won’t believe it, but they’ve had success. Not total, but substantial. Here’s how it works in Bangkok: shopping malls, schools, hospitals, apartment complexes – you name it – hire security companies to handle their traffic management. And the guards just love to direct traffic by blowing whistles as loud as they can. One day, they blew once too often and came to the attention of a QBG member. Now it gets interesting.

“Your building has been identified as excessively noisy due to whistles” – so begins the direct, yet nice-nice letter sent to a building manager under the aegis of Oraya as president of the QBG. The persuasive carrot? “We have been issuing Quiet Bangkok Awards for building owners who convert their buildings to Whistle Free Zones. We would like to nominate you for one of these awards.” The bogey stick? A place on the Top Ten Most Dangerous Noise Polluters list.

And it’s not just the official group effort that’s getting a response. Individual members have had a go at contacting offenders by themselves. One intrepid soul called the Customer
Service section of The Mall Group to complain, only to have a helpful Thai lady say, “it is impossible to stop the whistling as it is a Thai custom.” Undaunted, the QBG member pressed on to write a letter to the GM of The Mall Group and, to his surprise, the GM responded by saying that whistles would be replaced with light batons – Thai custom notwithstanding.

In 2008, the Pollution Control Department monitored street noise in 23 locations across Bangkok. Noise levels exceeded an acceptable limit of 70 decibels in all locations.

QBG is on a roll; the power of the pen is strong. To date, group and individual activity has resulted in six major locations agreeing to suspend whistles, among them Siam Paragon and Central Group.

Let ’em eat somtam

“If you don’t like it, move.” A decade or so ago, a non-smoker might have complained about secondary smoke only to receive this response. Now, no person in their right mind would make such a comment to a non-smoker. Similar should hold true for noise. Why? Because recent research has shown that noise is not just a personal nuisance but a health hazard.

Dr. Suchitra Prasansuk, laryngologist at Siriraj Hospital, director of the Bangkok Otological Centre, advisor to the World Health Organisation, and QBG member, states that “human ears can, in general, tolerate only 80 decibels…It has been reported that being exposed to noise at 105 decibels can, theoretically, damage the hearing nerve or eardrums and may lead to permanent hearing loss in the long run.” And whistles? They come in at about 120 decibels.

And it’s not just a health issue. “It’s also an invasion of another’s right to silence and privacy,” Oraya believes. There’s more. This remarkable lady also thinks that “a culture of reading and writing goes along with quietness and slowness” – to say nothing about meditation being the heart of Buddhism.

A low awareness level among Thais of noise as a health issue and of silence and privacy being an individual right, probably explains why almost all of the active members of the QBG are farang. Oraya says “this shows that many Thais don’t care or don’t think they can do much about any kind of problem in their lives.”

Honk if you love peace and quiet

Obviously, Chiang Mai doesn’t have the urban density of Bangkok, thus our noise issues emanate from different sources. We do have, however, those gotta-love-’em village fairs, open-air karaoke and club noise. And don’t forget those annoying songtaew blasting ads for Muay Thai roaming the streets like so many bull elephants.

Now, anyone living within earshot of a karaoke bar will tell you it’s enough to drive you to distraction. “It’s a Thai habit to tolerate,” Oraya explains, “so they prefer to let problems continue…then we witness ordinary people snap and turn violent.” This is precisely what happened in Songkhla recently when a crazed resident killed eight members of a karaoke-playing house next door. Somebody hasn’t been reading Psychology Today.
In Bangkok, QBG has employed a strategy of approaching a noisy club as a small group and having a sit-down. Sometimes this has worked; other times…

Let’s just say (totally theoretical) that you’ve closed the club down and believe you’ve attained a victory of sorts. But no-o-o. Like those slinky toys of childhood, the club will close only to open again under a different name but with the same management and, needless to say, the same noise level. This legal loophole has been honed to a best practice in Thailand.

But for Quiet Bangkokians, accepting noise is not a contest – they’re just not going to take it anymore. And Chiang Mai?

Silence of the lambs

Do you hear it? I can. That faint but persistent ‘ba-a-a, ba-a-a’ reverberating throughout Chiang Mai like a mantra. The lambs, aka sheep? That would be us, both Thai and foreigner who declaim alike their hatred for all karaoke and village fairs but yet, when asked if they would like to do something about it, switch their response to, “Oh, I go to bed so early, I don’t hear a thing”.

What is this ‘thing’ that’s not being heard? Loudspeakers so loud you would think refrig-size amps had been surreptitiously placed right inside your bedroom while you were out. This phenomenon of ‘let’s pretend we don’t hear it’ is either a revisit of the mass delusion that afflicted nunneries in the Middle Ages, or denial is a cultural norm so entrenched it’ll take generations to ferret out. My vote is the latter with a little dollop of the former.

So Chiang Mai, here’s your take-away lesson for today: Silence implies consent.