Monday, July 7, 2014

Loudness wars: Thailand vs. Philippines

Krabi Town was our unceremonious final port of call in Thailand, for the singular reason that the airport was the closest one I could find to Koh Samui operating cheap flights to Singapore, so we stayed a few nights beforehand. There was no question of us waking up late and missing our flight, thanks to the helpful public service of vans driving around residential streets blaring unintelligible adverts directly into every building from the early hours of the morning.

I know they won't be unintelligible to locals - though with the muffled distortion of a loudspeaker system pushed to its limits I'm not so sure - but wouldn't that be even worse? Is it more annoying having to endure someone's obnoxious phone conversation on a bus if you're able to understand the depth of its inanity, or if it's a load of foreign sounds making you ill-disposed towards an entire nation? (Or several if you're not sure where they're from).

Like honour and constructive criticism, noise pollution is a foreign concept in Thailand, one you'd have to be foreign (this means Caucasian, obviously) to make a noise about. It's hardly a therapeutic break from my regular life of exile in the Philippines, which is similarly selfishly cacophonous. I haven't done an unscientific comparison between the two countries based on my limited and disproportionate experiences, but it's the sort of thing I would do, isn't it? Go on then.

Malls and markets

If Google Glass offered Adblock Plus for real life, I'd snap up those ridiculous gadgets and augment some peace and quiet onto my third world reality. Even though I'm not interested in shopping, and I've never been the sort of person who considers hanging around in malls to be a valid activity, I do end up visiting these depressing complexes for food and services more often than I'd like, and have to endure the constant bombardment of desperately enthusiastic promotions over the sound system. Since they mix in a lot of English in the Philippines, it's even worse there. Are you foreign or not? Make your minds up.

Night markets are a popular feature of Thailand that they don't really have in the Philippines (no, road-side stalls consuming valuable walking space don't count) and although they're usually a typically shouty affair, I was impressed by the relative peace of recent ones we visited this time. The Krabi one still provided 'entertainment' from a nearby stage at unnecessary decibels, but at one point the power went out and I heard a few locals join me in celebrating that merciful act of nature, so there's still hope for the country.

Out in the street, vendors are equally annoying in both countries, inviting me to sample their wares as I pass restaurants or shoving a selection of sunglasses in my face when I'm clearly already wearing light-sensitive prescription glasses. Take a good look - do I look like the sort of person who cares enough about style that I'd sabotage my ability to see properly, just so I could look a bit better? If you were capable of that level of reasoning, I guess you wouldn't be selling sunglasses in the street.

Worst offender: Philippines. Because I can almost understand it.

Manila is just this for 250 square miles


I was so annoyed by the noise pollution issue when staying in Thailand a few years ago that I committed some stats to memory so I could back up my intolerance with facts. Did you know that more than 20% of Thai people who live next to roads have some form of hearing loss? The Philippines doesn't care enough to do the research.

It isn't surprising, with jeepneys and songthaews honking at every pedestrian they pass in the vain hope that they need a lift and will be happy to squeeze in to their already crammed benches, and knobhead bikers cutting their exhausts because they like the satisfying sound that makes. It doesn't occur to them that the people they're waking up in the packed tenement blocks around them might not be so into it.

Fortunately, these countries are off the hook from being the very worst in this regard since I've experienced Cairo, where the still desert air diffuses the perpetual whine of car horns around the old city all night long. But come on guys, when you're only validated by comparison to some of the worst places on Earth, it's time to raise your game.

Worst offender: Thailand. Probably just because there are more motorbikes there.

You wouldn't board a boat without your bike, would you?


This is the most difficult part of the noise debate to get locals to understand, since music is fun and ergo turning up the volume of the music amplifies said fun, thus QED. I probably thought something similar when I blasted angry Korn songs directly into my ears at maximum volume as a teenager and I got tinnitus as a consequence. But then I grew up.

Karaoke is more of an infestation in the Philippines than in Thailand, and wherever my hotel or apartment is located, I'm never too far away from the nearest bar to enjoy hearing mangled, distorted versions of the same few songs every night. It's a domestic problem too, as I found out when I tried going native by living in a concrete bunker for a month and the family next door welcomed the new day by blasting 80s power ballads at full whack from about 6AM.

I sometimes had terrible neighbours like that in the UK too, but here that isn't even viewed as a nuisance so don't expect anyone to be on your side. If you've been dealing with the avoidable problems of life here for a while, you should be used to that feeling by now.

Worst offender: Philippines. You can't sing.

But at least your night spots are classy


Discordant karaoke is one thing, but at least you have the option of grimacing and complaining about it, however futilely. First-time visitors to Thailand who bother to venture outside their resorts are frequently surprised by the spectacle of the bustling marketplace coming to a dead stop as the public listens in patient, blank silence to the King's anthem twice a day, after which they are free to continue scamming and bothering people as usual. I went to see a film in Thailand once, and was required to stand up for that overture too. I checked the credits at the end, and the King didn't have anything to do with the film at all, so I don't know what his claim is.

You can't expect a Thai person to appreciate how being forced to kowtow to a symbolic figurehead is offensive to your principles, and unless you want to risk a 15-year prison sentence you shouldn't try. The Philippines doesn't have anything comparable, since the USA doesn't and their society directly copies everything they do, but every day in my squat I heard some kind of anthem carried on the wind as the school kids performed their compulsory flag ceremony, raising the next generation of undeservedly proud nationalists.

Worst offender: Thailand. Though obviously I have nothing but respect for your king and there's nothing sinister about laws that require demonstrating subservience before a quasi-religious icon.


Foreigners are going to get stared at when venturing off the beaten track in any country, but curious Thais are more subtle about noticing your presence than Filipinos. They can't get enough of it, and some white visitors embrace this false sense of celebrity. It just pushes me back to the mall to search for non-existent skin darkening creams and cosmetic surgeons specialising in Easternising cosmetic surgery so I can become anonymous (my racist spell-checker doesn't like that, but it has no problem with Westernising).

If I'm ever shouted at in the street in Thailand, it's only by pestering taxi drivers or other people trying to sell me something. No one's ever shouted 'hey, farang!' just for the sake of it, because what would be the point of that? Ask all the Filipinos who yell 'hey, Joe!' at white passersby, not as a form of 'greeting' but rather as a mental note that they've seen a foreigner, which they have to say aloud because their brain is already so full of knowledge. I don't know what they're going to do with this information they're gathering on instances of foreigners, presumably some form of survey.

As a foreigner, you'll never know if any of the conversations taking place around you are indeed about you or if you're just being paranoid, because it's not like you're ever going to bother learning a foreign language to make your life easier, is it? With the benefit of local interpreters, I've apparently and unknowingly received the most hostility from Koreans, though my girlfriend regularly overhears Filipinos being loud and self-aggrandising all over the place and fills me in. You'd never catch me acting in a superior manner like that, I'm too brilliant.

Worst offender: Philippines. Not looking good, is it?

And there's always one guy in the neighbourhood who fancies himself a prize fighting cock rearer, so you have to listen to nature's alarm clock at all hours.

I'll save that for the animal cruelty showdown, that would be a fairer fight

So which one is the worst?

I have yet to make one of these frustration lists in blog form or in my mind that doesn't see the Philippines come out on top. Well done, Pinoise! That's another dubious number one spot you can totally miss the point of and celebrate in a non-self-deprecating way. I don't think the rule of 'no publicity is bad publicity' applies when people are researching which travel destinations to avoid or which land of underage poverty poon will make for a less annoying retirement.

1 comment:

  1. I arrived back in the Philippines to a hotel room overlooking an extremely loud construction site. All your favourite loud machines are there, operating from 6AM to midnight and only shutting down for an hour at lunch time with no effort made to soundproof the area like putting up a fence. They're still doing the foundations by the looks of things. It had better turn out to be the best building in the world. My head is vibrating.