A Dirty Secret in Chiang Mai

21:23 Amy 2 Comments

The secret is well known amongst locals, but visitors to Chiang Mai will find out soon enough if they come in March or April.

The 'Rose of the North' wilts in thick, hot smog.

Every year, smog, primarily a result of local farmers' slash and burn methods, descends upon the valley in which Chiang Mai lies. Drifting down from the rice paddies on Doi Suthep, it obscures the mountain itself on most days and either drives the locals out of the city entirely, or forces them to choose between donning ugly face-masks or simply breathing it all in and dealing with the resultant streaming eyes, runny noses and coughing fits.

Being Farang teachers, we're lucky enough to have March and April off work.  By the time we left Chiang Mai in the first week of April this year, we couldn't wait to be out.  Andy has various allergy problems, and his eyes reacted to the smog as though he'd just read the end of Charlotte's Web for the first time.

Although widely reported in the local press, it seems that coverage ends there. This article shows that tourism was unaffected by the smog problem last year.  Unsurprising if potential tourists knew nothing about it and hadn't seen images like that before they came.  Perhaps if people had, they would choose a different destination.. and perhaps if they did, whoever's responsible for preventing the burning might come under some real pressure to do something about it. At the moment, it's unfair to the tourists who often pay a lot of money to stay in a glorified dustbowl, and it has more serious repercussions for residents.

It's just a bit o' smog, what's your problem?

Smog and Pollution in Chiang MaiLet's be clear - this is not just a bit of smog - this is a big problem, that lasts for two months every year, and has health consequences for residents. We are very lucky to be able to escape most of it, but most Thai's can't afford to do this and don't have the generous holiday entitlement we do. Consequently, they're stuck here, and the  hospitals are full of grandmas, granddads and babies.  The view from Doi Suthep Temple on a clear day is opaque grey.  The view from my school office across the playing field is grey, too (visibility is probably no more than a few metres).  The roofs of tall buildings are obscured and hazy.  Exploring the countryside around Chiang Mai (where the burning happens) is a grey day-out accompanied by the aforementioned coughing and streaming eyes.  Look at these pictures.  If you come in March or April, fully expect to meet that scary (and strangely sexy) pollution monster from Fern Gully, above.

Where does all the smog come from?

Farmers and mushroom hunters burn the forests around Chiang Mai to encourage new growth.  Chiang Mai becomes a bowl of smog as the smoke from the fires floats down into the valley.

The smog has been a problem for many years.  Each year in the months leading up to March and April the people of Chiang Mai are promised some anti-smog action that never happens.

Will 2014 be the year that smog is reduced?

Meetings are already being held to figure out how to stop smog in 2014.  Since the smog comes from the fires of farmers and mushroom hunters, I (admittedly a little uneducated in such matters) can think of only two ways to stop the smog:

#1 Pay subsidies to the burners

Currently, the burning happens because it's the cheapest / easiest option.  The burners should receive payments as reward for not burning and to allow them to use alternative methods that won't fill the air with smoke.  If required, funding should be provided so that they can receive training in the other methods.

#2 Heavily enforce existing laws

Laws have been made to stop burning, but they are enforced sporadically at best. Admittedly, it may be difficult to police the remote countryside where the burning occurs, but somehow the laws must be enforced. The government needs to find a solution - perhaps they could use army trainees.

If those don't work, I can only recommend that tourists and citizens are provided with space suits fitted with filtered breathing equipment upon entering the city in order to keep the harmful effects of the smog at bay.  On the plus side, this will also result in a significant reduction of sun-burn cases in Ram hospital.

In the meantime, the least they could do is provide EFFECTIVE face-masks to residents and tourists free of charge or at cost price - not the pointless mouth coverers that most people currently use.

Ordinarily Chiang Mai is a great place to visit or live, just don't come in March or April until this problem is sorted.  The best time to visit is probably November.

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  1. yep - I can personally agree with everything you have said. I was in Chiang Mai for the whole of March and first week in April 2013 (before I knew about this smog). It was just as Amy describes it. Add to that the intense heat and humidity, it did get a bit much - so much so that I found it difficult to get out and about much without suffering. God only knows how asthmatics/people with other breathing problems go on. It is a real shame because Chiang Mai and surrounding areas are amazing. We had to put off a 3-day trip further north because of the smog. Don't let it put you off going to Chiang Mai - just take Amy's advice and avoid March and April.

  2. Sadly very true. But it should be made clear that it is all of Northern Thailand -not just the city of Chiang Mai. It lingures here longer than at other place because of the layout of the mountains and valley. 3 years ago the Thai government called an evacuation of Chiang Rai because it got so bad. If you want an up to date account of polution levels here is the air polution checker for all the stations in Thailand. http://aqmthai.com/ The school which Amy and I teach at is #36t and is located right in the center of the city of Chiang Mai. If you don't understand scientific terms for pollution. It is the last category PM10 which is important to look at. These are "Parts per 1 centimeter". Right now, in early Sept. it reads 22. Last March in Chiang Mai it got up to 300. Chiang Rai was evacuated at 350. Mae Hong Son last March reached 800. (Just to give you perspective) Stations in Bangkok at the same time in March read 28.


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