How do I say ‘infernal’ in the context of the cacophony of noise that arouses me from my bed each morning without sounding like I’m 95 years old? Life in ‘The City of Angels’ starts early, I’m talking 4 am early. Bangkokians ( yes that is what they call themselves) begin their working day well before sunrise. It’s as if the entire city has awoken itself by that time and is shaking with activity. There is no escaping the sound of motorcycles revving up, truck engines being readied, neighbors calling out to one another, the voices echoing off concrete walls like the sounds of an alpine horn that carry’s over the mountains. It takes no time at all for the dogs to become agitated and begin to bark as they will continue to do for the rest of the day.
I live beside a busy logistics company that begins to load containers on to flat-bed trucks at sunrise, but only after performing a company wide Japanese style exercise routine in the work yard to the blasting tune of a Thai-Pop princess belting out the latest hits. The instructor/leader seems to love one particular song and plays it so repetitiously that I am sure I’ll never get it out of my head, ‘yeah yeah, yeah yeah, yeah yeah….yeah’.
There is no city plan or community zoning in Bangkok so forget about trying to locate yourself away from any type of acoustic annoyances. You are just as likely to have an outdoor disco/all night bar/itinerant concert venue set up in the vacant lot you’ve chosen as a next door neighbor as having a fireworks factory set up on the third floor of your residential building. The mayor of this magnificent city recently made a rare public apology for the lack of an official city plan that has led to this somewhat chaotic splatter. The statement was so quintessentially Thai, after all he has been in office for twenty three years!
Don’t forget the Thai obsession with giant powerful stereo systems installed in their brand new pick up trucks. This phenomena is ubiquitous, you can not escape the midnight to 3am concerts no matter where you go. If your building has street parking or rents out spaces in the garage you will have a haven for mechanical enthusiasts who will of course choose the early hours to work on their cars, simultaneously shouting back and forth, blasting the music, and revving the engines. Car alarms bother you….forget about it. In the background there are the pretty sounds of temple chants, birdsong and the street vendors who ply their trade along the small streets by ringing bells or tooting little horns to announce their presence to the housewives who may need something.
Bangkok is a big noisy city. If you are a light sleeper be prepared to fight back with some kind of non pharmaceutical defense. Ear plugs are my favorite, although they take some getting used to. You can not lock yourself away behind closed doors or windows and try to let the air-conditioner motor lull you into a false sense of security. First, your electricity bill will eclipse your rent as power is ungodly expensive here. Next, there are constant power outages and brown outs that will cause the units to fail followed by the building rattle of a generator powering up and sounding like they are testing jumbo jet engines in the basement.
‘Catching 40 winks’ is a metaphor for the sleep you may get at night between the bar noise, the concerts and the general affairs that come with living in a city that is home to near 15 million people. In spite of that, the closeness of it all starts to grow on you after a while. Maybe that’s why the Thai people sometimes seem a bit frantic, they’re all sleep deprived, just kidding. The cool early morning hours are when Thai’s like to kick up their heels. After all it is just too hot for much physical activity during the day. Thai people love karaoke and house parties, which they indulge with great frequency. Don’t be surprised to hear several renditions of ‘Happy Birthday’, sung in both English and Thai, sometimes simultaneously, coming from different directions, throughout the night. Staying in a downtown hotel is no sanctuary, that’s where all the disco’s are centered. The sonic boom boom boom of the Euro-inspired trance music until the 4:30 am closing will assuredly find it’s way into your dreams.
In North America where sleepy time is encouraged as a sacred right and inscribed into law, this level of activity would result in bad blood, fist fights, gun play, police action, threats of liability exposure, admonitions, law suits, repercussions, sanctions, expensive legal action by strata councils and evictions. Here in Thailand, people have learned to live with one another. Noise in North America breeds hostility and aggression, here it has evolved into a sense of belonging. These are all the sounds of belonging to a community. During the day, the city just roars out it’s presence with a wall of unabated noise. There is no denying where you are. There is no telling one sound from another at mid-day. For me. it’s like the sound of being under a crashing wave. I love this infernal place.