SOUNDS OF BANGKOK
Bangkok, 19 September 2014
Well, we’ve finally moved to Bangkok. We’ve found ourselves a place on the Chao Phraya river, literally overlooking it. The open water gives rise to constant breeze which we can channel through the apartment by a judicious opening of various windows, obviating the need for air-conditioning – a minor miracle in this heavily air-conditioned city. When, as now, the evening’s storm clouds come rolling in, that breeze will rise to a stiff sou’-wester’ threatening to blow every light object into the river below and sends us scurrying around the apartment closing windows and doors. At these moments, I find myself back on my grandmother’s sailing boat, with her at the tiller imperiously ordering me and any other grandchild around to lash down everything movable as the summer storm rips over us and the boat starts to lean over at a precipitous angle.
During the day, that same breeze wafts into our living room all the noises of the river and its banks: the deep grumble of the tug boats slowly pulling the heavily laden barges upriver, the growl of the water-buses as they tack back and forth across the river from stop to stop, the creaking and groaning from the landing piers lining the bank as the wash of passing ships sends their platforms oscillating, the slightly atonal call to prayer from a mosque somewhere on the far bank, the more profane call to evening aerobics in a small park just downriver, the occasional siren from a police car racing over one of the nearby bridges, and just the ordinary household noises rising out of the houses below our balcony.
But for me, two sounds stand out from this medley. One is the piercing whistling used by the water bus conductors to guide the drivers when they berth at stops. I haven’t yet understood the signaling, but somehow the conductor makes the driver understand when to reverse the engine to slow down, then idle it, then start it again to move off from the stop. As I listen and watch, fascinated, I am suddenly back in Hyde Park looking on at a competition of Welsh shepherds using whistling to guide their sheep dogs into driving a flock of sheep from one place to another (I’m not sure the drivers of the water buses would appreciate being compared to sheep dogs).
The other sound is the cry of a bird. It is very distinctive. It starts with a low cry, which is followed in rapid succession by a series of ever higher and more piercing cries, finally reaching a crescendo and dying out. I have asked my Thai staff what the bird is called. They are still wrestling with the Thai name, let alone the English name. In the meantime, I am calling it the Fake Orgasm Bird. It reminds me every time of a night I spent in a cheap hotel in Geneva (cheap for Geneva, expensive for anywhere else), where I was woken up in the early hours by a Lady of the Night who was pleasing her customer by oohing and aahing at the top of her lungs. She sounded exactly like my Bangkok bird.
Postscript 22 November 2014:
I have finally identified my mystery bird! It is the Asian koel. For those who might be interested in its call, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TU3T6jikQqg.