Are Outdoor Activities Safe During Burning Season in Chiang Mai?
The burning season is well documented and gets particular attention in the media in regions throughout Indonesia and Malaysia as vast swathes of forest are cut down to make way for palm plantations. What is lesser known and documented is how bad the burning is in Northern Thailand, which despite its limited press coverage causes widespread problems both to the ecology of the region but also to people’s health and general well-being.
The burning season starts in the dry season, generally lasting from February – April, peaking late March / early April but this year due to the drought conditions worsened from January as farmers and mountain villagers started burning arable land and forest leaf litter earlier than usual. When I first moved from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in 2014 I wasn’t prepared for just how bad the air quality would be and now in my 2nd year living in the North it’s a depressing fact of life in the North that people endure these conditions with seemingly nothing being done to stop the burning.
So why do people burn farmland and the forests? Well there is a lot of finger pointing at large corporations such as CP whom encourage farmers to burn land in order to plant the next crop as quickly as possible. It is also said that farmers are clearing more and more trees to enlarge their farms thus exasperating the problem of burning each year. People living in and around forest areas like to burn the leaf cover as they believe it encourages the growth of mushrooms and with no leafe litter it makes it easier to find them in the forest. Also once the leaves are burnt, young shoots pop up which are also edible. Some say the burning forces birds to leave the forest thus making it easier for hunting. For anyone who has taken a walk in forests in Northern Thailand and wondered why it is so quiet then wonder no more, the fires clearly obliterate any wildlife living in the forests and makes life generally miserable for hundreds of thousands of people who get respiratory problems.
When I experienced burning season in Chiang Mai last year I didn’t notice anything at all being done to prevent it, in fact the government seemed to be quite happy building huge bonfires in the city to burn leaves doing their part to worsen the situation. Things seem to have improved slightly this year as there is a lot of evidence of firebreaks being built at strategic points on hill tops to stop the spread of fire. Various trails were blocked with lightweight fences in an effort to stop people going into the forest and setting light to it but this had little effect and perhaps the strangest effort I saw was several army officers waiting at the bottom of a favourite MTB trail ready to stop cyclists and asking for a fee! How the government feels this is helping I don’t know but just the fact that some effort is being made gives some hope for the future.
Despite the constant haze hanging over Chiang Mai people don’t seem to be put off and tourists are visiting in record numbers. The visibility from major attractions such as Doi Suthep is awful but this hasn’t deterred people from visiting such attractions and it appears few people question the haze thus perhaps people may be under the impression that the haze is simply the weather. With PM 2.5 levels regularly exceeding 100 many of the activities tourists partake in are likely to cause runny noses and coughing in mild cases, and asthma attacks or worse in more severe cases so it is worth checking out the PM levels prior to any strenuous activity. The best website in my opinion is http://aqicn.org which gives up to date readings for a number of pollutants in any major city in the world. It shows an easy to understand key to each of the readings and advice on whether it is advisable to avoid activity or whether it is safe.
As an outdoor enthusiast, life is quite unpleasant during the burning season in Chiang Mai. On occasion I will simply ignore the pollution and go for a bike ride or a hike and just suffer the consequences after. There is some solace at higher altitudes such as Doi Inthanon as the pollutants generally sink to a lower altitude but the haze is still very much noticeable even here. Surely the government will decide to act when mountain media attention puts enough tourists off visiting to effect the economy but until then people living in Northern Thailand and visitors from overseas will have to continue to endure the effects of the burning season.