Photo by Greg Rodgers
Basically an annual event, a choking layer of haze and smoke in Thailand is making Chiang Mai and the rest of Northern Thailand less enjoyable for tourists.
Large, unmanageable fires are burning in Myanmar, Laos, and along the border between Thailand and Myanmar. The fires, which are typically set by farmers for clearing rice stubble to make room for new crops, grow out of control, and are largely ignored by everyone. Many spread into national parks to mingle with existing fires deliberately set to control undergrowth.
Although slash-and-burn agriculture and the deliberate setting of fires are illegal, measures are rarely taken to stop farmers from setting fires around this time every year. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has threatened to hold the provincial governors responsible if they do not take action to control the blazes this year.
I encountered the same fires while driving a motorbike from Pai to the Burmese border in 2006. The haze was suffocating as I literally passed through roadside flames.
While the fires themselves don't pose much of a threat, the accumulated smoke particles do raise concerns. Once you add Chiang Mai's fleet of sputtering, pollution-generating tuk-tuks and the stifling heat this time of year, the air becomes apocalyptic.
So how bad is the air in Chiang Mai right now? The particulate count reached 323.4 micrograms per cubic meter; the European Union safety standard is set at 50 micrograms per cubic meter -- meaning that the current air pollution is more than six times higher than what Europe considers safe.
The thick layer of haze has caused flight problems due to limited visibility, and has prompted many residents of Chiang Mai to wear masks when outside. Some evacuations in the Mai Sai district -- which is worse off than Chiang Mai -- have been proposed if air quality does not improve.
The government is even planning to seed clouds artificially to bring early rains around Chiang Mai, once humidity levels are high enough!
If you have asthma or respiratory problems, you may want to postpone your visit to Northern Thailand until the air quality improves. Hopefully, the situation will be under better control when Songkran -- the largest water fight in the world -- starts up in April!