There are two English language dailies in Thailand. Their "Letters to the Editor" columns each have at least one letter per week lamenting excessive noise. It is foreigners who write the letters - for two underlying reasons: (a) they're not encumbered by cultural restrictions on speaking out about discomfort, and (b) the noise is louder and more pervasive than what they hear in their home countries.
To spend any time in Thailand, one must be inured to loud noise. To not be callused to noise would be akin to a stroll in a Yellowknife blizzard dressed only in pyjamas. Buddhist monks and their temples are also not exempted from loud noise. One may wonder how blasting pop songs from nearby shops or ads blaring from roving pick-up trucks affect their meditations.
'Oversized boom boxes'
Any shopping experience in Thailand is fraught with loud pop music and/or vehicle motor noise. No exceptions.
Thai shopping malls are like oversized boom boxes with torn woofers and the treble turned up full. For added ambiance, imagine 7 different bubblegum pop songs played full tilt through too-small transistor radios. To add flavor to the mix, you're likely to also be assaulted by a young woman shouting about some discount via a Romper Room-era public address system.
It's a similar story for bus trips, boat rides, restaurants, strolls on sidewalks, you name it. For anyone who isn't convinced, try this little experiment: phone someone in Thailand during the day. It's likely the phone on the receiving end will be drenched in noise.
You're excused for thinking that such places as post offices and banks might be a source of refuge. Nope. As with Thai restaurants, TV rules.
An escape from the city? Not really
You may think that excessive noise is only in the cities. Not so. I moved to the countryside - a mile from major roads and waterways. It's better than the city, for sure, but growls of internal combustion engines and loudspeaker noise from outdoor festivals can often be heard.
Then, there are neighbors. Of the mere three houses within a hundred meters of mine, guess how many often have radio noise blaring from open windows and doors? That's right, all. And my nearby little village has the required speakers strung up on power poles to blast away at all residents. Thankfully for me, the authorities have not run speaker wires up my corner of heaven. Not yet, anyway.
Thailand relies on tourism to supply a major portion of its revenue. Offensive noise annoys tourists and lessens their probability of returning to Thailand - as well as colors the impressions they convey to others when they return home. More importantly, noise pollution lessens quality of life for Thais.
Plucking up courage
The sad part is; lessening noise pollution could be easy. It would not necessitate government expenditures. It would start with acknowledging that there are massive amounts of unnecessary noise. A follow-up step, though difficult for Thais, would be to have the courage to actually make a mention to shop/restaurant managers.
A person doing that would have to put aside worries of possibly offending that manager. An extra dollop of courage would be needed to raise a concern to bus drivers, concert promoters, and drivers/procurers of roving advertisements, town headmen and such. In serious situations, police could be called upon to influence the situation - though authorities would likely chuckle while trying to explain the noise away.
At the risk of sounding xenophobic..., what the heck, I'll say it: Thai people don't hear noise in the same manner as foreigners. Could it be that Thais have some sort of innate (spiritual?) ability to 'tune it out'. More realistically, the reason is; Thai people 'bear it'. For them to show disdain for loud noise would be a sign of weakness.
Similarly, the main reason that no Thai person ever complains directly to the noise maker is the ingrained Asian penchant for 'saving face'. There's the complainer's worry that he/she may lose face (be deemed a sissy or 'spoil-sport') by raising a concern, but the more pressing is the worry that the person fielding the complaint will get offended.
Asians are taught to be exceedingly polite. An example was given by one newspaper letter writer (a foreign tourist) who was stuck in a very hot train car for hours. The air conditioner was broken and the windows were clamped shut. Not one of the many Asians in the stifling car raised a voice of concern. Guess who finally did?
For a foreigner to lodge a complaint, language barrier can be a drag. Besides basic misunderstandings of the message trying to be conveyed, the foreigner won't likely possess the language skills to couch their concern in florid polite nesses.
The Thai equivalents of 'would you be so kind as to.....' or 'it has come to my attention that.....' are not easy phrases to master. When a foreigner does make a complaint (in a less than perfectly courteous manner), there's the real possibility of the respondent getting annoyed or even lashing out in anger. This is more likely in regions where Thais have frequent contact with foreigners ('familiarity breeds contempt').
Noise generation and how it affects others is a manifold issue. Below are perceptions garnered from residing on & off in Thailand for a few years. The list gauges noise makers' varied attitudes - ranked in order of likelihood.
A person generating loud noise will either...
1. ....enjoy the high volume (most often bubblegum pop music) and assume that everyone else enjoys having it broadcast far and wide.
2. ....be unaware or unconcerned that their noise may adversely affect others nearby.
3. ....blast loud songs from their commercial establishment. It's been shown that loud pop music/sounds attract customers. Whether that music annoys others is a moot point when compared to possible gain in revenue.
4. ....have a message to convey by loudspeaker. This can be advertisement for product or people (politicians), but it's got to be very loud. The hardware is usually horn-blower speakers which are either strung through every town and city in the country, or by way of pick-up trucks slowly cruising through town. Oh, and such messages cannot be spoken, they must be shouted and stuck completely 'in the red' of the VU meter - distortion guaranteed.
5. ....figure their vehicle has to be loud. That's just the way it is and if you don't like it, tough. For some, it's a measure of manliness. Such things as decent mufflers or insulated engine housings are for sissies.
Addendum: Voicing a plea to 'please turn down the volume' in any of the above situations will be met with slight annoyance at best. But there's also the possibility a benign complaint will elicit indifference, rudeness, anger or worse.
And where are the animals?
So far I've only mentioning one species; Homo sapiens. However, animals suffer every bit as much, if not more from excessive noise. The elephant is Thailand's national symbol. A wild one has extremely sensitive hearing - able to hear low frequency sounds from great distances. Few elephants in Thailand are wild, whereas most are taken to urban environments (to display for tourists), so you can bet their hearing is at least damaged, and painful hearing is probably common.
I've hiked & biked a bit of countryside in Thailand - mostly in the suburban areas of Bangkok. I've also paddled down stretches of rivers and explored beaches in the southern part of the country. Sightings of wild mammals have been nearly nil.
In a country where a plethora of wild mammals once roamed, you'll be lucky to see a little brown squirrel once in a blue moon. Large reptiles have fared little better. Does anyone doubt that noise pollution has played a significant role in scaring away what few wild animals still exist?
Large birds in the wild are as rare as insects are common. That's it. Sad commentary on a land where cascades of exotic birds and animals once roamed.
As a whole, Thailand has many qualities, but a thriving ecosystem isn't one of them - and silence, even in temples, is rare. Shame!