Authorities in Thailand must act to stop the perennial problem of pollution in the backpacker town, says Chris Coplans.
As we strolled though the Sunday night market in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, we were confronted by a group of masked demonstrators waving banners and shouting slogans. Fears that they might be “Red Shirts” protesters, who paralysed much of Bangkok last year, were soon allayed: they were residents protesting about air pollution, and I was tempted to join in.
Pollution is nothing new in this part of Thailand. Every year, between February and April, “slash-and-burn” farming in the surrounding countryside, whereby forests are destroyed to create fields, fills the air with smoke. In more than 20 years of visiting Chiang Mai, however, I have never see the pollution as bad as it was last week.
Hospitals have been inundated with cases of respiratory problems. Within 24 hours of my arrival I had a sore throat, and after cycling around the old city my eyes were streaming.
Visibility was so bad I couldn’t make out Doi Suthep, the mountain that usually serves as a picturesque backdrop to the city, and I did not see a single sunrise or sunset. Chiang Mai was in a perpetual twilight.
In Europe and the United States, according to the widely used PM10 scale, the air is considered dangerous if pollution levels reach 50 microgrammes per cubic metres. During our stay, the level in Chiang Mai peaked at 216.65; farther north, in Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai provinces, which have some of Thailand’s most popular trekking paths, levels reached 431.6. On March 20, Nok Air, the country’s premier domestic airline, cancelled all flights to Mae Hong Son indefinitely.
Thai authorities have tried to blame slash-and-burn farmers in neighbouring Burma and Laos, but the country’s Natural Resources and Environment Department now admits that the problem is largely attributable to Thai farmers and agribusinesses, and has been worsened by people burning domestic rubbish.
I decided to see for myself, and, with a couple of local friends, took to the nearby mountains on a motorbike. Outside Chiang Mai the haze intensified. We took the Mae Sopong loop, one of Thailand’s most spectacular mountain drives, and stopped at viewpoints that normally demand to be photographed. Visibility at many spots was less than 100 yards and we could seldom see past the first mountain ridge.
Even so, within clear sight of the road, farmers were burning vegetation. A Tourism Authority of Thailand spokesman told us that burning had been banned, but at no point did we see any attempt to stop it.
Some tour operators and trekking companies are telling visitors to steer clear until air quality improves. Mark Ord, who has lived in Chiang Mai for 12 years and runs All Points East, which organises treks in the region, said: “I’ve never seen it this bad and have even been advising visitors to stay away. Remember, you are dealing with a government whose health minister recently tried to blame the rise in dengue fever on ‘women wearing hot pants’.”
Until Thailand and its neighbours get to grips with the problem, much of this part of the country could be off limits to travellers every spring.