The sounds of silence?

For five years I lived in a small bungalow in the village of Mae Ram, near Chiang Mai. The sounds of village life were occasionally interesting and sometimes downright infuriating …


I have been told that when one is suspended claustrophobically in a closed float tank, in densely salted body temperature water with all outside sensations removed, the sound of blood being pumped around the body becomes almost deafening. There are lots of therapeutic massage places in my former village of Mae Ram, but I did not find any float tanks. At times I wished that I could seal myself off from the sounds of the world about me and to concentrate on the sound of blood bullying its way around the clogged veins and arteries of the Hall body … but this was rarely possible.

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Khom Loy – hot air balloons – at Loy Krathong

There was a wonderful and infuriating range of sounds that marked the passing of the days in my village. In the days leading up to the lovely Loy Krathong festival, the evening skies were full of drifting hot air balloons and the village kids chased each other, tossing firecrackers at each other and shooting skyrockets into the twilight skies. On one occasion, an apparently intellectually and geographically handicapped child with no knowledge of what was UP and what was LEFT shot a skyrocket through the hedge near my house. The rocket scraped itself across my spectacles in a spirit of international good will and reconciliation … and I regained sight in my right eye a season or two later.

I sometimes wished the kids would direct their energies with the firecrackers and the skyrockets against the neighbourhood dogs.

Dogs – and roosters who seem to crow at all hours of the day or night because their English alarm clocks have been damaged by misdirected skyrockets – figure pretty large in any soundscape of any village or any city in Thailand. I was recently staying in a seventh-floor room in a Bangkok hotel. The room was delightful – it had a window that could be opened to allow fresh air into the room – but the fresh air did not manage to stifle the barks of the dogs at 3.00 am seven storeys below my open window.

In Mae Ram, I once counted sixty-five dogs on my five-kilometre morning run. I had dogs dogs dogs on one side of my house and across the road from my house and in almost every house along my small street. After several years of jogging around the area, all but two or three of the beasts finally recognised me and at most gave a sort of perfunctory “WOOF!” as I went by. Actually, in the Thai language, dogs do not say “Woof”. They say “Hoang hoang!” (with a falling tone of course in the pentatonic Thai language. Thai elephants, by contrast, trumpet their “Pran prans!” and these quite naturally have a rising tone).

And each cat had seven kittens…

My left-hand neighbour’s house did not have dogs – they had mewing cats instead … and these cats had mewing and meowing kittens … (a bit like “There was a man from St Ives …”) and these kittens thought that my house would be a jolly good place in which to grow up and perhaps to share their kittens with its caring, thoughtful, solicitous owner.

The lovely fluffy cute little dears may have thought that for a few days … until they were caught by the scruff of the neck, shoved in an old shoe box and tossed back over the neighbour’s fence a few times. I could just about hear the mother cat asking her kittens, ‘Why are you sprawled in the mud? I left you quite safely sitting on the sunny front porch of that nice man’s house.” The kittens mumbled and scowled, as kittens do, and muttered, “The fat bastard tossed us over the wall again!” Still, at that point, it was Hall 1, Cats 0. But it was Hall 0, Dogs 65 on the other side of the fence.

My army neighbours on the other side had a lovely fluffy cute little white poodle – if you like that sort of thing. They also had – and I guess still do have – a daughter who was learning to play Für Elise on the piano. Every Sunday afternoon. At 3.30 pm. Until about 4.15 pm. And every time she was in heat – the poodle, not the daughter – every male dog seemed to want to prove that they do like that sort of thing. One of the funniest sights in recent time was the lovely fluffy cute little white poodle coupled by a rear-facing giant black Labrador, locked in tail-to-tail passion, both whimpering and raising their eyebrows and asking passers-by what to do next. Canine sex education does not occupy a large part of Thai obedience schools’ curricula.

One morning after the seventh straight night of being woken by barking dogs, in the fits of passion or not (the dogs – not me), I tried talking quietly and calmly to the two worst offenders, but their English was not up to the task. As subtlety failed, I took to them with a broom handle.

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Early morning monks

Imagine, if you will, the scene: a chubby sixty-something man in rubber flip flops and a pair of tattered shorts, armed with a broom handle, discussing philosophy with two dogs who agreed to disagree. Two elderly monks came by on their morning walk. The older of the two monks smiled at the raving Western idiot, smiled also at the dogs and slowly walked on. The dogs were suddenly calm and retreated to their houses. Apparently karma is better than anger – or broom handles.

Come blow your horn

My street was quite a military place – the army neighbours with the poodle were on my right side, and over the road was a huge military barracks, driven by bugle calls. This place started its days with the 05.30 reveille bugle – a trumpet blast that annoyed the village dogs, all of which joined in and sang along in protest. The bugles continued through the day, until the 20.30 bugle call, the piėce de résistance, the ultimate call of the day, the “go to bed” call.

The 20.30 bugle starts off with two high, plaintive notes, similar to the opening notes of The Last Post … and by the end of the second note all the dogs had woken up and tried to match it, note for note. While they gave it a pretty good run for its money, electronics always win … and the dogs then muttered and grumbled about it as if they had never heard it before … and as if it were a noisy challenge to their peaceful life of sleeping in the sun, coupling with the white poodle and barking at silly strangers with broom handles.

The barracks also provided interesting noises of other sorts: soldiers’ kids playing and bashing water pipes; military helicopters doing take-off, circuit and landing drills; the Pop! Pop! Pop! of small arms fire (never found out what they were shooting at) and the jog-along-chant of a bunch of very young and very green soldiers as they ran past my house calling out the Thai version of:

I left the sky in the middle of the night, I hit the deck and I’m ready to fight, Colt 45 and K-bar by my side, These are the tools that make men die.

Did you know that these jogging or running chants actually have a name …? They are called – for some reason – Jody Calls. Thanks www!

The bugle calls over the barracks’ loudspeakers were not the only electronic contribution to life in my village. Most Tuesdays started at 06.45 with a bit of discordant Thai pop music played though near-by loudspeakers at a volume that would deafen a landing 747. If it had ears. The music was chopped off mid-song and a voice then started with the local village news. ‘Mrs Somboon has just had a baby girl which was born at … on … There will be a village tree-planting day next Saturday – come one come all and bring your own tree. And your own shovel.’

This loudspeaker interruption to a quiet life was usually quite short – unlike the karaoke sessions or the village temple celebrations. Most Saturday nights there was a party in one or other of the houses on the far side of the rice fields behind my house, with a professional singer belting out Thailand’s Greatest Hits for a while, then an increasingly drunken and shambolic procession of voices singing along with the little bouncing ball on the video monitor. The monks, on the other hand, were more pleasant to hear and were never drunk.

The quiet plainsong chants by the roadside in the early morning when villagers ‘make merit’ by giving the monks their daily supply of rice was quite pleasant – imagine a dirge sung on two notes repeated several times, and punctuated by the sad gongs beaten by the saffron-clad novitiates. When preaching in the wats, the plainsong is amplified and played through the temple’s loudspeakers – as are the gongs – and the whole village can join in the ceremony or the service – whether it wants to or nay.

Surprisingly and sadly, that is not the end of the electronic intrusion on my would-be float tank.

In September each year there are local elections, so radio-trucks trundled up and down the streets starting at 06.30. They had a punchy tag line of music for a few seconds and then ever-increasingly excitable voices promising to pave the roads, eradicate AIDS, provide better Internet connection speeds – and to get rid of the soi dogs. On Sundays, an ice-cream van made its merry way along the village streets playing its tune: Greensleeves it wasn’t, but what it was I did not know – other that it was time to race out to grab a cornetto.

Houses come and go …

It is only in quite recent times that ordinary Thais have been able to own land, as it was all formerly the property of the monarch. Then again, ordinary Thais have been permitted to have family names only since 1913 when King Rama VI invented family names for the royal family … and the trend caught on, rather like modern trends to name children Astra or Passing Waters. Perhaps Thailand’s land ownership problems stem from the lack of family names, but it seems that to own a piece of land is quite different from the Western sense of owning it – and having legal documents to prove it.

As this is so, houses seem to come and go more or less at random, so the noises (Aha! Back on track here, Hall: more noise-related bits!) of chainsaws, jackhammers, welding machines, concrete mixers and the other delights of industrial construction and demolition seemed to be present more often than not.

In my area in just one year, there were two five-bedroom workers’ huts built, a new tin shack by the creek, a beautiful new Lanna-style rice barn sala, a row of shop-houses, an impressive two-storeyed house owned by a taxi cab driver, and a massive Lanna-style house with many roof tops and gables and owned by a Prussian with a superbly hooked nose, but with no visible sabre scar from his duelling days in the Black Forest … He was probably a retired orthodontist from Hanover.

It was not at all uncommon to see village people – no – not the band from the 1970s – but people from the villages, squatting by the stream or irrigation canal or gutter doing their laundry, while someone a bit further upstream or down stream was washing their body – carefully manipulating sarongs to get at all dirty spots without revealing any untoward fleshy bits to passers-by, while still further upstream or downstream someone was building a small dam to divert water into their vegetable or rice field.

While it seems strange to think that canals and rice fields can be a source of sounds, they really are!

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Planting rice, Mae Ram

Depending on the season, the irrigation canals providing water for the rice made delicate tinkling sounds. At other times they laughed like brooks that tripped and fell over stones on their way – as Julie Andrews may have had it – or produced huge gushing whooshes, slurping, sucking desperate sounds like open chest gunshot wounds (as Quentin Tarantino may have had it) as the canals disappeared into under-road conduits. The seasons also governed the machinery noises. Tiny tractors appeared to churn up the mud and to mix in the burned-off rice husks. There was the cheerful chatter of people as they went about the back-breaking planting of the new seedlings … and much later the laughter as they harvested the rice and set about threshing it by picking up two tied-together bundles of rice stalks in pairs of giant chopsticks and bashing the bundles onto vast blue and white plastic sheets on the ground.

When the rice was just about ripe, scores of scrawny village poultry squawked and bleated as they tried to co-ordinate their legs and beaks, wobbling along and launching huge jumps up at the drooping rice ears, hoping that they could manage to snip off enough rice to make the effort worth while. And muttering in poultry obscenities when they did not do so.

Pass the Moretein …

The rice fields provided many insects, and these varied according to season and the visa status of the Egyptian plagues of locusts.

One night there were dense clouds of flying ants. As I was driving home, the cones of light beneath streetlights were massed with sweeping swirling dashing and darting millions of insects. My car’s headlights tried to poke a hole through the masses and when I got home, where my gardener had thoughtfully turned on the garage and entry lights, the carport was ankle-deep in dead or dying flying ants. Aha! I hear you cry! If this story is about sounds, how come the silent dead flying ants rate a mention …?

Well … if there were lots of dead and dying flying ants outside the house, as soon as I turned on any lights inside the house, the sound of tens of thousands flying ants battering their flimsy bodies against my fly screens was quite remarkable. It was as if someone was throwing rice against fine wire.

The average flying ant has a mass of approximately 0.0002 grams and a body just slightly smaller than the gap in fly screen wire, but by pushing and struggling and grunting and puffing a bit, the beasties were able to get through the screens to swoop and dive on the lamps and lights inside my house. I tried to sit in my favourite armchair to read a book, but had to close windows, close curtains, hang heavy dark cloths over the window-side of reading lamps … and then to apply liberal doses of Mortein to the kamikaze ants

A Hollywood hairdresser with his cans of hair spray could never have been as creative as I was with the deadly Mortein. A lunge here. A thrust there. A riposte somewhere else … and the next day I swept up buckets-full of wings. My book remained un-read and the perpetual mystery of where the ants’ bodies go, leaving their wings behind, remained unsolved.

The rather larger cicadas were nightly companions – especially after rain – when they joined with the frogs in the rice paddies and tried to out-do each other. I’m not sure what sounds Thai cicadas or frogs make or whether they have rising or falling tones – except that the frogs probably call out “Aaaaargh!” when the frog catchers plodding through the rice paddies catch them for their evening meal. Unless the frog catchers were actually small fish catchers in disguise, in which case the frogs were probably quite happy.


A friendly gecko

My geckos were always happy. Quite a few lived inside my house and even more lived outside. They chased – and caught – flies and spiders and flying ants and gobbled them down without even the courtesy of a polite little belch … so I probably should not include their sounds in this story … but I’ll include them anyway. A friend told me that they always call “Fankyoo” (or something similar) seven times, so it became my new life mission to educate the little lizards who were lazy or careless and who chirruped “Fankyoo” only five or six times.

While I sat in my study one night, two small geckos patrolled the far side of the fly screens outside my windows, slowly sneaking up on unsuspecting moths and striking amazingly quickly, pausing to chew – as their mothers taught them – thirty-two times … then moved on to another unsuspecting moth. And neither of them called “Fankyoo” at all.

I don’t know if you have ever stroked the naked belly of a juvenile gecko…? I am ashamed to say that I have. And I wish I still had the tip of the finger that did it.

I tried to put a finger – with or without its tip – on what made sounds in my village and in Thailand so seductive. I tried to recall sounds from other places I have lived. Other places had other soundscapes, but none has had the noise of the geckos, the puffing and panting and perplexed copulating hounds, the helicopters, the Jody Calls, the cicada choruses … or the serene monastic chants of Mae Ram village. Mae Ram had no sounds of silence but the sounds of life were a treat to be treasured.



  • Words and photographs (excl gecko pic)  © Christopher Hall 2014
  • Story based on events from 2008
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