You can't even hear yourself think

Wasant Techawongtham

If ever you have to talk on the phone or even face to face with someone on the streetside, you almost have to shout to have your voice heard, and you have to strain your ears to hear the other person. The noise on Bangkok's streets is just horrendous.

If you want to escape the street noise, do you go into a shopping centre? It may be less noisy inside, but it may not be less annoying. As you walk around, noise issues from shops with loud speakers blaring. In the supermarket, you hear product jingles and amplified noise telling you what are the best buys of the day. In the food court or restaurants, noise bounces off the non-acoustic walls, creating echoes that ring in your ears. There is no escape. You simply cannot walk, shop or eat in peace.

Everywhere in big cities like Bangkok, noise envelopes us like another layer of skin. City administrations have tried to tackle all sorts of environmental problems- dirty air, foul water and garbage. But noise? It's as if they don't hear it.

It would be wrong to assume that people are not bothered or irritated by noise even though Thai people seem to have an incredibly high tolerance to it. There are ordinances against excessive noise. But rarely are they observed. Pick-up trucks fitted with sound systems roam the city streets from early morning to dusk, and in a high volume pitch their wares, advertise movies, fairs and boxing matches, or urge people to vote for a certain political candidate.

At night, music blares from private homes and roadside karaoke bars. If you have visited a temple fair recently, you will know what loud noise is.

Few of us work up the nerve to complain. It's no fun confronting the noise-maker. And complaining to the police does not always help.

Scientific studies have found that noise induces various physiological and psychological effects. Sustained exposure to excessive noise leads to hearing loss, high blood pressure and ulcers. Psychological effects include annoyance and poor sleep. This adds stress to our daily lives. It could in some circumstances ignite violence. A stressed-out father could, at the sound of a crying baby, fly into a rage and hurt his child. Fights can break out between neighbours even without the exchange of words.

At the least, noise leaves people with no peace of mind. That's why places of worship or where people practise meditation demand silence, and homes in quiet neighbourhoods are the most desirable. No one wants to live close to an airport or a factory or a construction site.

Noise deprives us of concentration and the ability to appreciate the beauty of the environment. Loud music may be enjoyable in a concert hall, but in a national park or on a public beach, it is not just out of place but ruins everything one wants to enjoy. But the authorities at some of these places seem to be deaf to the din made by noisy visitors.

What is it that makes Thai people so fond of noise that they can't live without it from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed? I can only surmise that it has something to do with our culture. Ours is an oral culture. People like to talk, and few like to read. That may be why mobile phones sell like hot cakes.

The oral culture might have been taken to an extreme. It suited a time when the world was much quieter and people kept company by talking to one another. But times have changed. The world is now filled with noise, both audible and inaudible. This culture needs to change. We need more peace and quiet.

Against this backdrop, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and Thailand Environment Institute are launching a week-long campaign on noise reduction. It will kick off with music and a talk on the ''beauty of silence'' from noon next Sunday (May 30) at Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit 22.

Join it and add your voice to making people aware of this pollution. Silence is not just golden but beautiful as well.

* Wasant Techawongtham is Deputy News Editor, Bangkok Post.

Source: Bangkok Post, 21 May 2004, COMMENTARY, P.11