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No peace for the city

In Bangkok's war for peace of mind, the noise is winning. Are its citizens ready to surrender? Certainly not all of them

Published on July 25, 2007



No peace for the city

Utong Kovindha's peaceful life was wrecked 18 months ago when a construction piling, the first of many, was pounded into the ground for a skyscraper next door. Ever since, an unholy din of hammering has been her 6am wakeup call, and the blare of shearing metal goes on until bedtime.

It was noise that she'd heard before during her five decades in the neighbourhood. A few years back the prime-residential zone of Bangkok's Watthana district got more commercial, and condos started shooting up.

This latest construction project, though, was right on the other side of her fence.

Noise is everywhere in the big city, of course, and city dwellers adapt. Only when the decibel level really takes flight - as at Suvarnabhumi Airport - do they make some noise of their own.

Utong refused to tolerate the sounds of combat outside her own door and called 1555 - the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration hotline - and kept calling every time another bomb went off. She held the phone's speaker up to relay the racket of cranes groaning and metal plates clanging.

"I'm a calm person, but the noise kept me in a bad mood all the time," says Utong, a card-carrying member of the Quiet Bangkok Club. Then she adds, as if in confirmation, "It was as if I were in the midst of a battle."

Quiet Bangkok? Karaokes yodel, nightclubs thud, jackhammers tear up the sidewalks, honking and revving traffic stalls in the shadows of high-rise skeletons being fleshed out with a roar.

Seek solace inside a mall and there are non-stop announcements and TV sets blaring; head home and the Skytrain has its own avalanche of advertisements that bury every thought and conversation.

"Could it be that Thais have some sort of innate [spiritual?] ability to 'tune it out'?" an anonymous farang writes on Wonderfull.com.

It's more likely that most Thais put up with noise pollution simply because showing their dismay would be a sign of weakness. But that's most Thais.

The Quiet Bangkok Club was formed in 2004 to make some noise about noise, the preservation of health being a primary aim. Three years ago, member Panchalie Sathirasas was embedded in a construction war zone for six months and has suffered from the agonising auditory disorder tinnitus ever since.

Club member Oraya Sutabutr and hundreds of other residents of Mahaledluang, a community in Rajaprasong district, recently negotiated with the eight contractors erecting new buildings in their neighbourhood and won some key concessions to deafness. Working hours were drastically pared back.

Living up to its name, the club pays regular visits to peaceful places in the capital, such as Pathumwanaram and Rajabophit temples. There is a quiet Bangkok!

"We're so bombarded by technology these days that few people realise how much tranquillity we've lost," says Utong, whose precious moments reading and listening to music were stolen away by steelworkers.

Having an iPod surgically attached to your ear might be a solution to the outdoor-noise problem, but it's a cynical one, Panchalie adds.

"People are very much used to it," agrees Pol Lt Col Songkham Sa-ngiampaj, a veteran in the fight against air and noise pollution, "and not many take the threat seriously."

On any given day there are outdoor events throughout the city at which onstage emcees makes sure their voices are heard over the competition. The volume cannot, by law, exceed 70 decibels, Songkham says, but the understaffed and ill-equipped police rarely measure it.

"We have to assume that they respect the rules," he says.

The Pollution Control Department fielded 755 complaints last year from Bangkok residents, with noise ranking a distant third after foul odours and other forms of pollution. (Similar statistics indicate that noise isn't a big problem at all elsewhere in Thailand.)

The department has put its electronic ear to the ground along busy streets like Lat Phrao, Intarapitak and Prachasongkroh and came up with readings between 68 and 88 decibels. The numbers signify a poor quality of life - and they're rising every year.

The priority level of noise pollution is not rising, however. Asked about the racket at Suvarnabhumi, a top executive of Airports of Thailand Plc merely said it would take time for the neighbours to get used to it.

"How could a senior official say such a thing?" laments Panchalie.

"There is no such thing as adaptation for the ears," says Dr Pibool Issarapan of the Bureau of Occupational and Environmental Diseases, "only degradation."

All your poor ears can do, he warns, "is figure out if the sound is soft enough or too loud". They work like machines - "good" or "bad" doesn't register.

So you can't rely on your senses to protect your health, including your mental health. Constant and repetitive loud noise can cause stress as well as physical trauma. Panchalie keeps hearing a screaming sound in her ears and frets that she's "literally gone mad".

Utong got lucky - for two whole weeks. A steel bar from the adjacent construction site ended up in her yard, and when the inspector came round he spotted some illegal practices and shut down the project temporarily.

Lucky or not, Utong says, everyone has the right to complain. When their peace of mind is disturbed and their quality of life threatened, they don't have to put up with it.

"You have to stand up for yourself."

The Quiet Bangkok Club is online at www.geocities.com/quietbangkok.

....................................

Living in the heart of the city is like a dream. But it could also become a nightmare.

It all began around October last year when some 10 tuk-tuk were parking at night in the small soi where I've been living for the past two decades.

I don't mind sharing the public space but I do mind shaing the noise pollution from their engines made every night. Such noise creeps into my ears at the hours when I'm supposed to be falling into a deep sleep between 11pm and 2 or 3am.

I've been calling 1555 - the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration hotline, 191 and the Pathum Wan Police Station everyday, ensuring those noises are sent to the other end.

Days became weeks and then months, I received promises to check out and solve the problem. One morning, the district's environment department informed that the problem had been solved. The line of tuk-tuk was gone. But a few days later, they came back - even longer.

It's been almost a year now and the progress?

Those some 10 tuk-tuk have never gone for good. And they got more company. There have been a few more dozens of tuk-tuk and taxis occupying this 500-metre soi.

Then I should start calling 1555 again.

Living in the heart of the city is like a dream. But it could also become a nightmare.

It all began around October last year when some 10 tuk-tuk were parking at night in the small soi where I've been living for the past two decades.

I don't mind sharing the public space but I do mind shaing the noise pollution from their engines made every night. Such noise creeps into my ears at the hours when I'm supposed to be falling into a deep sleep between 11pm and 2 or 3am.

I've been calling 1555 - the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration hotline, 191 and the Pathum Wan Police Station everyday, ensuring those noises are sent to the other end.

Days became weeks and then months, I received promises to check out and solve the problem. One morning, the district's environment department informed that the problem had been solved. The line of tuk-tuk was gone. But a few days later, they came back - even longer.

It's been almost a year now and the progress?

Those some 10 tuk-tuk have never gone for good. And they got more company. There have been a few more dozens of tuk-tuk and taxis occupying this 500-metre soi.

Then I should start calling 1555 again.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai

The Nation

 


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