Haze, smog, smoke, dust: at this time of year — every year — the local and international media becomes full of concerned articles on northern Thailand’s air quality, and the government pretends to be concerned and claims to be doing something about it. We’re not certain — and indeed doubt — if this year’s statistics are worse than previous year’s but it is certain that come the hot, dry season in March and April, the sky up in these parts can get pretty opaque.
Now at various times of year much of Southeast Asia can be prone to less than perfect air conditions and wherever you are in the region you won’t get the clear blue skies and crystal clear vistas you get during say clear days in the rainy season. This is due to various reasons: much of Malaysia, including KL, suffers from smoke wafting across the South China Sea from seasonal fires in Borneo and Sumatra, and large cities such as Bangkok and Saigon suffer from air pollution thanks to exhaust fumes at the best of times. A lack of rain means potentially irritating dust particles in the air even in the most unpolluted of areas and yes, of course, there’s the smoke from burning paddy fields.
In the case of North Thailand it is a combination of all these factors. Geography has a lot to do with it. Towns and cities in the north are located in valleys, surrounded by paddy-fields and generally sandwiched between mountain ranges. Larger conurbations such as Chiang Mai do have increasing traffic congestion problems, but at this time of year farmers also burn off stubble ready for the coming rains and rice planting — and these narrow valleys do make perfect bowls for this smog, dust and smoke to sit in. According to official statistics, the worst air pollution at present is in Phrae and perennially affected Mae Hong Song province, neither of which have much industry or many cars.
Wildfires are a problem at this time of year and consequently some controlled burning of national park forests is necessary and while the burning of agricultural land — such as rice stubble — is officially illegal no-one seems to take much notice; on a ride from Chiang Mai to Pai at this time last year we saw mile after mile of burning roadside vegetation where government workers were taking the easy way out by simply setting fire to verges instead of cutting it by hand. Now if provincial road department crews don’t take any notice how can you expect farmers to?
You may have noticed we haven’t mentioned the slash and burn agriculture traditionally practiced by hill-tribes yet, even though this is one of the usual suspects. It’s easy for lowland Thai agro-businesses or government officials to point the finger at the Lisu or Akha but these days many of the hill-tribe groups in northern Thailand don’t actually practise slash and burn anymore. So many government projects, royal schemes and NGO initiatives have worked to reduce initially opium production but also slash and burn, that between the tea and coffee plantations, cherry orchards and strawberry greenhouses you’d probably be pushed to find any slash and burn in most of Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai provinces these days.
Before placing the blame it might be good for the Thai government to actually take some practical steps to reduce air pollution instead of empty promises (and endless talk of absurd cloud seeding schemes), and actually enforce the no burning laws, have a word with their own council workers and look at the black smoke churned out by thousands of tuk tuks and songthaews across the region.
There have been years when Mae Hong Son, Pai and even Chiang Mai airports have been closed due to poor visibility. While we don’t seem to have reached that stage quite yet — though we are still only early March — yes, the air is pretty thick. Climb up Doi Suthep and you’ll get a view of brown haze. So without over-dramatizing, if it’s clear mountain air you’re after, then it’s probably better to wait until the rains start before heading up this way.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 7th March, 2012.