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How A New Condo, A Complaint And A Bell Led To A Collision Of Culture In Bangkok


Our next story is about a new condo, a complaint and a bell. Michael Sullivan reports on a clash between tradition and modernity in Bangkok.


MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The bell is here at Wat Sai in Bangkok's Bang Kho Laem district, a 300-year-old temple where the dogs aren't happy with unannounced visitors at 3:30 in the morning. The monk in charge of ringing the bell this morning is Suthichan Supat-throw, who leads me up the stairs of the three-story-high bell tower. It's dwarfed by the recently completed 54-story Star View condominium complex next door. Promptly at 4 a.m., Suthichan begins striking the bell that calls the monks to prayer.


SULLIVAN: Yes, it's loud - so loud, one condo tenant said, they couldn't sleep. That prompted a phone call to the district office earlier this month and a subsequent visit to the temple by police who told the temple to tone it down.

SUTHICHAN SUPAT-THROW: (Through interpreter) There was no complaint from the community. The complaint came from a foreigner living in a condo rented to him by the Thai owner who said the bell disturbed his sleep.

SULLIVAN: Monk Suthichan finds it ironic to hear a complaint about excessive noise coming from the condo complex, which he says took roughly three noisy years to build.

SUPAT-THROW: (Through interpreter) The abbot was OK with the construction even though there was a lot of dust and noise, especially putting in the foundation. Could the monks sleep? Some couldn't even stay at the temple. Did we complain - never.

SULLIVAN: When Thai media learned of the story, TV crews started doing live shots from the temple and the bell tower. And on social media, the Star View Rama 3 took a savage beating from Thais framing the story as that of a rapacious landlord and a privileged foreign tenant tone deaf to tradition. The condo got no love from longtime residents of the neighborhood either. Ratee Wongmatcha makes and sells breakfast on the busy street next to the condo complex and the temple.

RATEE WONGMATCHA: (Through interpreter) I've been hearing this sound since I was small. I feel happy when I hear the bell ring. If they can't stand the sound, they should move out.

SULLIVAN: Bell-ringing monk Suthichan says a few people came up with another idea - escalation.

SUPAT-THROW: (Through interpreter) Some neighbors wanted to donate a bigger bell. They wanted to bring it in with an 18-wheel truck.

SULLIVAN: The temple politely declined the offer. At the upmarket Star Rama condo complex, gardeners clip the hedges alongside the driveway as luxury cars make their way in and out of the garage. Many residents here are angry not at the noise from the temple but at the unidentified woman who lodged the complaint. Suvit Chaya-Banjong-lert is a 70-year-old retiree.

SUVIT CHAYA-BANJONG-LERT: (Through interpreter) We've never had any problem before. The complainer doesn't even live in this building. But I know they're powerful and have connections. That's why when they filed the complaint, the district office got excited.

SULLIVAN: Recognizing a public relations disaster, Bangkok's governor quickly disavowed his underling's actions and came to the temple to apologize to the abbot. And the Thai woman who filed the complaint - she's rumored to have fled the country, her foreign tenant, too. At the temple, abbot Atikarn Decha Boonna Sero is happy everything worked out.

ATIKARN DECHA BOONNA SERO: (Through interpreter) This story is important. It's about tradition. It's about practicing our religion properly. We have our bell. We have our prayers. Without either of them, Buddhism wouldn't have much dignity.


SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.

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