The reality of visiting Northern Thailand during the ‘burning season’

We visited Chiang Mai in April, just before the Songkran Festival and the air was so hazardous that the authorities were considering cancelling the festival.

It definitely tarred the experience of Northern Thailand for me and I’ve had bad times in this country before, but I wanted to give it another go. Unfortunately, it was just as we crossed the border from Myanmar to Mae Sot that the pollution hit peak crisis point.

We checked twitter and there were mixed reviews as to whether it was too bad to visit or not, but we went anyway as we had to make our way to Laos, and this is our experience.

Wearing masks during burning season in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wearing masks during burning season in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The burning season starts as soon as the rains finish in November time, and it ramps up into the next year, reaching its peak shortly before the rains start again.

The smokey haze is caused by a forest fires that are both natural and deliberate as well as the farmers burning their crop fields which is common throughout Southeast Asia.

Deliberately burning forests is all to do with food, as it makes hunting wild boar and game easier, as well as corn and mushroom harvests.

Burning also happens in Myanmar and Laos, but it wasn’t quite as bad as when we were in Thailand. The smoke seems to disperse more in neighbouring countries whereas it hugely accumulates in mountainous Northern Thailand. It is still a problem in other countries, it just felt worse to us in comparison.

On our first day in Chiang Mai, it measured 170 on the Air Quality Index or AQI which is unhealthy, but a slight improvement on the week we arrived.

Air Quality Index in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Air Quality Index in Chiang Mai, Thailand

We’ve been to a lot of heavy polluted cities on this trip, especially in India and Bangladesh but and it doesn’t get any easier to accept. During Diwali in Delhi last year when we were there, pollution exceeded healthy levels by over 40 times at a AQI of 999.

Chiang Mai wasn’t anywhere near that, so we decided to don face masks and suck it up. Northern Thailand is manageable during the burning season but it is miserable for those last few weeks before Songkran if you’re a tourist and you want to do things.

Waterfalls are pretty much dry, you can only see smog from the viewpoints, some businesses are closed, there are less tourists, it’s hot as hell and your photos will look like crap.

On the plus side, if you stick it out then you’ll be rewarded by the Songkran water festival, which is some of the best fun I’ve ever had while travelling.

I do have friends who have left Thailand because they hated burning season and I wouldn’t recommend bringing kids at this time as I’ve heard of parents leaving due to asthma attacks and allergies.

Incidentally, if you have any health issues like asthma then I would give the North of Southeast Asia a hard pass during this time. It was just as bad and sometimes worse in the countryside, in Mae Hong Son and Pai.

 Public health posters and face masks in shop, Chiang Mai

Public health posters and face masks in shop, Chiang Mai

If you are in the area then I really recommend getting a decent N95 face mask and they’re sold everywhere in this season. I’m not a fan of face masks because I don’t think we should need a barrier to protect us from the planet.

I know that people wear them for other cultural reasons in Asia besides bad air, but I’m really not a fan of what they represent in terms of an unhealthy planet.

The planet should be a healthy place to live, but that’s so idealistic at this point in time. Its feeling more and more of a lie to present the world as idyllic and pristine. The world is incredible but we’re dangling over the edge here.

I knew I would experience pollution and poor air quality during our Asia trip, but it’s on a scale that I never could have imagined and getting worse. It’s increasingly a problem at home in the UK too.

But what can we do about the increasing problem of unhealthy air? Click on this link for tips from the American Lung Association for dealing with unhealthy air quality.

Have you visited Southeast Asia during the burning season? How did you find it and what have been your experiences of pollution when travelling?

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The reality of visiting Northern Thailand during the ‘burning season’
The reality of visiting Northern Thailand during the ‘burning season’
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