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A recent news item in Thailand reminded me of how differently Western and Eastern cultures perceive noise. While Westerners take the concept of noise pollution very seriously, it is a notion that has yet to gain a foothold in Asia’s mountains of credence. Well, that may be about to change as at least one disgruntled Thai has taken it upon himself to put his foot down and demand the right to silence.

Noise, no matter how inappropriate, is accepted with indifference in many Asian cultures. I have sat on overnight Indian buses trying in vain, along with everyone else, to get some sleep while the bus’ cranked up amplifier blasted out the latest Bollywood scores through disproportionately small speakers while, despite their rudely invaded attempts at sleep, nobody made the faintest whimper of complaint.

On one of my first trips to Thailand, I was made painfully aware of Thai people’s lack of sympathy to others when it comes to making a noise, an indifference that was matched only by the lack of reaction from the victims of the audio assault. In the early hours of a Bangkok morning, a speaker system the size of Belgium began to pump out what can best be described as elevator music right in the middle of all the homes, hotels and guest houses of Phra Athit Road.

This was no teenage rampage, no raving lunatics on drugs. If it had been, I’d have got up and joined them. No. This appeared to be a family get together, a wedding party maybe. The music just didn’t fit the profile of early morning rebellious revelry. No-one was raging either for or against any machine as far as I could tell. I was confused and somehow more curious than annoyed.

I leant out of my hotel window but couldn’t locate the exact source of the commotion. Why was nobody shouting at them? Why weren’t the police being called? Surely there must be a law against love ballads before dawn. I gave up, went back to bed and never did find out any more about that party, but I have since learnt beyond doubt that Thai people do not consider noise pollution to be an issue worth getting upset about. There wouldn’t be half as many karaoke bars if they did!

This brings us closer to our main story, karaoke. Why do we have karaoke? I mean, seriously, why? People who can’t sing, still can’t sing just because they are drunk. In Thailand the many karaoke bars are more often than not fronts for ladies of the night to ply their trade, but people still insist on singing there.

When I was an English teacher and still living the “bachelor in Bangkok” life, the mamasan of a Japanese escort bar in Thaniya Plaza had enrolled for a course of English lessons at the school where I worked. When her course was complete, she invited her three teachers over to the bar for a drink. She had never seen any of us drunk until that night. She wouldn’t have invited us if she had.

Fuelled by free drinks, the three of us were the life and soul of the party. Unfortunately it was a completely different party to the one we were actually at. We were those people you see who think they are really funny but, in fact, are really annoying when it isn’t you. We fitted into our surroundings about as subtly as a pork pie at a bar mitzvah. Unlike the go-go bars on the adjacent Patpong, these bars are quite exclusive. We wouldn’t have got in if we hadn’t been invited because we weren’t Japanese.

When we arrived, there was a bevy of cocktail-dressed beauties standing sentinel on the door at ground level. Once they were finally convinced we had really been invited, one of them escorted us inside to a lift which took us to the floor where the bar was.

Inside, it was a strange scene. The seats were arranged in horseshoes with one Japanese man at each, surrounded by 6 or 7 escorts in identical cocktail dresses. Karaoke was playing and the three Japanese men in the bar were taking it in turns with the microphone, solemnly crooning away to their dutifully smiling escorts.

My friend James somehow got hold of one of the microphones and began singing Middlesbrough football songs. I couldn’t have that. This was a classy joint, so I wrestled another microphone away from one of the other girls and began chanting Leeds United football songs in an attempt to return some decorum to the evening. It was great fun but, surprisingly, we were never invited back again.

As much as I hate karaoke, I have never wanted to kill anyone over it. The Bangkok Post reported on March 8, that a gunman in Songkhla wasn’t so tolerant and went to the house of one of his neighbours where he shot dead eight revellers at a late-night karaoke party.

Weenus Chu-Kamnerd, a 52-year-old rubber tapper, had to get up at 3am every day to ply his trade. His neighbour, a female doctor, regularly held noisy karaoke parties which disturbed his sleep. These had gone on for months despite Weenus’ requests for some consideration. He had even threatened to kill the doctor and her guests on earlier occasions but they hadn’t taken him seriously and had even goaded him.

On the night of the massacre, Weenus had gone to the doctor’s house and fired warning shots into the air, but the revellers just provoked him further. Pushed beyond any reasonable limit, the poor rubber tapper had snapped and shot the doctor and her 7 guests, including his own brother-in-law. He later told police that as he began shooting, none of them had pleaded for their lives because they were too drunk.

While this is an undoubted tragedy, one can’t help but feel some sympathy for Weenus who was pushed way over the edge by his inconsiderate and selfish neighbour despite his repeated requests and warnings. It is a lose-lose situation as 8 people needlessly lost their lives and a 9th person is destined to spend a very long time in prison.

It could just be that noise pollution is finally being taken seriously in Thailand after all. Whistle happy car park attendants and security guards please take note.

Paul Snowdon – March 12, 2008

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