Smog – Chiang Mai’s Angel of Death

March 25, 2013

It is appropriate that Passover happens at this time every year. Another thing that happens in March and April, here in Chiang Mai, is the yearly smog invasion.

It’s like that scene in The Ten Commandments, you know, the one with Charlton Heston.  After Moses has tried everything to make the Pharaoh let his people go, one night this smoke creeps into the town covering everything and entering all the houses, killing all the first born sons except in those houses that have lambs blood painted around its doors. It “passes over” these houses.

Like the Angel of Death, every year at this time Chiang Mai and the northern parts of Thailand (as well as Burma and Laos) are covered with a lethal smog. The word smog in English is a combination of smoke and fog. In Thai, smog is “kwan pit”, quite appropriately this literally means “the poisonous smoke”.

The test each year to tell if the poisonous smoke has gotten bad is to look to the west and see if we can see the Doi Suthep Temple on the top of the mountain. When the temple can’t be seen then we know it is getting dangerous. When the whole mountain itself can’t be seen because of the smoke then we know that Chiang Mai is in trouble. Right now, as I look out my window, the temple has disappeared. The mountain is invisible. And there is a line of trees just about 200 meters away that can just be made out. The Angel of Death has arrived.

The line of trees with the mountain and Doi Suthep Temple somewhere behind.

The line of trees with the mountain and Doi Suthep Temple somewhere behind.

And that is not hyperbole. When the smoke gets this bad people get sick and some do die. They say that those with respiratory problems, the young and the elderly are most at risk. I have been doing Google searches to find out what “the elderly” means. I am 67. Am I there yet?

Wikipedia says that “the elderly” (aka old age, senior citizens, older adults, elders) is anyone over 65. Oh crud! I guess I’ll just have to have to go out and find some lambs blood.

A few years ago, when the skies were just about this bad, a friend who had some breathing problems ended up in the hospital ICU when his lungs collapsed. He had to be resuscitated twice. He likes to say that he died twice. I just saw him a few days ago and he looks to be in bad shape, coughing and having breathing problems again. I hope this isn’t his third time.

When it gets like this we usually think it is time to, as they say in New York, “dump this pop stand” and take off for the southern parts of the county. This year we have some obligations so here we sit. All the windows and doors are closed. Luckily the hot season is not that hot this year so staying indoors is survivable. We might not be so lucky next time.

I always think it is a funny sight when I see people walking around with those surgical masks on their faces. My dentist wears one all the time he is in his office. The last time I had a checkup I finally asked him to take off his mask for a second so that if I run into him at the mall or somewhere I could recognize him. I’m glad I never saw him before this. He looks like he is 16 years old. There are some market ladies that I have been buying from for years whose faces I have never seen.

Well, now I am one of those people too and when I leave the house, even to water the lawn, I wear a mask. I don’t know if it helps any because when the smoke is this bad the particles in the air are tiny and they probably just pass through the mask and play round deep inside my lungs. I definitely do not go out jogging or even play golf (from which I am going through a very painful withdrawal right now) and as much a I want a whole lung full of clean air, I do not take deep breaths.

Where does all this air pollution come from? Unlike in Beijing where cars and coal burning contribute to the smog almost all this poisonous smoke is caused by burning; burning fields and garbage, purposefully setting the forest undergrowth on fire, and the slash and burn agricultural techniques of many of the tribal peoples. I was once traveling in the mountains during this time of year and the forest was burning on both sides of the road. It was so dry up there. I don’t know if anyone deliberately started that fire. It just as well could have started on its own, by a lightning strike or even when the wind blew two stick together causing enough friction to start a flame.

There are burning bans throughout the north in Thailand but that doesn’t stop the smoke from coming over the Burmese and Laotian borders. Also there are cultural traditions of burning that are difficult to break. Many years ago we used to look up at the mountain at night and see small brush fires blazing all over to rid the forest of undergrowth (There is a certain expensive mushroom that only grows on the forest floor after a fire.)  Just this week a group of Karin complained to the U.N. that the ban on burning was a crime against their people as it deprived them of their time-honored method of agriculture.

I read a lot in the local English speaking press blaming the Thai government and corruption for these problems. If that is the case then I wonder exactly what they would suggest to make things better. Besides running away, I don’t have an answer.

It is not this bad every year. Last year the smog was much lighter and only lasted a week or two. The year before the rains came really early. That year we hardly had a hot season at all and there was no smog to speak of. Three years ago it got bad enough that we took off in the car for parts south. It wasn’t until we got near to Korat before we could see the sky again. So it’s not just here in Chiang Mai. They say that Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai, both closer to the Burmese border, are even worse.

So now we wait for the Songkran Rains. Every year (and who knows why) the weeks just before and after the Thai New Year’s celebration of Songkran, storms hit this part of the country. Winds whip around and heavy rains fall and the skies are cleaned. They only last for a few days and then the hot season returns with a vengeance for another month or two. Everyone in Chiang Mai is looking towards the sky and hoping for the Songkran Rains.  And then the Angel of Death will pass over us once more.

Wish us luck.

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16 Responses to “Smog – Chiang Mai’s Angel of Death”

  1. Eric said

    Hi Hugh,

    Do take care of your health!
    Maybe when this time of the year comes again next year, do plan for a trip down South to avoid the same problem. I think the expenses spent travelling down south is worth every penny in exchange for good health and cleaner air! Will be leaving for Hatyai this Friday..will take about 2 days of travelling before I reach. Flying from Ghana to Singapore and then transit to Hatyai the next day.. 🙂

  2. David Cooke said

    Face masks are there to prevent the wearer from spreading infection. To prevent yourself from inhaling toxic substances you need to wear a mask with filters appropriate to the poison you are not happy with. Nobody has a logical explanation for this oriental habit of wearing face masks.

  3. Ron Zimardi said

    Another casualty: I just got out of Sriphat Hospital after 4 days for respiratory problems, need IVs of lung antibiotics and was falling apart. I have chronic bronchitis anyway. 24000 baht down the drain, could have gone south but have business here and cannot go now. I just stay indoors all day with AC on when hot. Would be very hard to stop these ignorant villagers from doing the old ways. Just not sure how clean air is in house jsut by closing windows with AC.

  4. When we started thinging of moving to Thailand I did a study of the different places to live and as much as I liked the North I could not bring myself to putt up with all the Smog or Angel of death as you callit , and there are lots of other things the flooding the mudslides and the higher cost of living and it’s got sooo many people living there we might as well stayed in the states and moved to the country side , but Ciejay’s family is here and I really do love Thailand, so we chose the central part , great weather year round no floods, storms or mild , in our part of Kanchanaburi and burning some (TIT) but not as much as up north , feel sorry for those folks who suffer from breathing problems and those that don’t have will have if they do not make some changes , that free land they got from the family jusy ain’t worth it ( their health). Stay healthy and come on down to Gods country . lol

  5. Smog Update:

    Much better today as the smog decrease somewhat. I am looking at the Doi Suthep mountain right now. Went out without my mask. Looking forward to taking a deep breath soon.

  6. With all the feeling gloomy about the smog I saw this video and remembered why I love living here.

  7. Jürgen Taubmann said

    Hi,

    I`m a retired Policeofficer from Germany, so my English is not to good. I`have a daughter (4 years old) and a thailand wife. We planing to move to Thailand. Because of the German school in Chiang Mai we want to buy a house in this area. But I`m very nervos about the smog. My question is know:

    Is there any place around Chiang Mai, maybe in the mountains, where the air is better during the burning seasons.

    Thanks for a answer

    Jürgen

    • Jürgen,

      I am sorry but the answer to your question is no. No where in the north is smog free. But…the smog doesn’t last forever. Today I can see the mountain and even though it is quite hazy breathing is easy. It happens at this time every year and lasts for a few weeks. Then all is good again and except for it being about 40 degrees every day, things are okay. My advice, as it would be for anyone, is to test it out, come see what it is like, don’t buy anything, rent for a while, and if you like it then think of something more permanent.

      Here is a question to all: Why would you want to buy? I have my answer, my wife is Thai, my two children hold Thai citizenship, we plan on having our property with its homes built on them to be leased after we leave this world so that our children will have income from them, and I have enough saved so that if all my property is lost tomorrow, or for some reason we have to leave Thailand (foreigners have been kicked out of many countries and who’s to say it won’t happen here) we would still live a comfortable lifestyle.

      Before buying anything you should answer the question of Why buy instead of rent?

  8. Jürgen Taubmann said

    Thank you very much for the answer!
    We planing to buy something, because i trust my wife, and it`s also for the cildren. But we wan`t spend to much money for the house. Rent something for the first time is a good idear. Acually i would rather live in the south, close to a nice beach. But there is no german school. And right now she don`t speak english and almost no thai. But if there is every year 2 – 3 month smog then its maybe better to go in south to look something for last. It`not easy. Or we take our girl during the smog-season out of the school and make holiday in hua hin or somewher else. Teaching her at home. Thats not perfect, but it could be a way.
    Is the air not a little bit better on higher ground? May be in Samoeng or Mae Win?
    By the way i like washington state, i visit the beautifully coast over there.

    Best regards

    Jürgen

  9. Jürgen Taubmann said

    Hi Hugh,

    it`s me again. I still don`t know what i should do.
    We only sure that we are going to thailand.
    It`s a good idear to rent something at least at the beginning. But it`s still difficult, because we want move to much and change to often the school. So when we dicided to go to chiang mai, we planing to stay. If we don´t have a child it would be a different thing. Or we go to the south, we dont have than this smog problem. But there is no german school (makes it easier for our daughter, because of the language and the a possible return to germany).
    So if you have any idear to help to make a goal. Tell it us please. I read following: While the PM10 reading downtown was over 200 ppb, at the Phuphing Palace on Doi Suthep the air was clean at 42 ppb. So maybe it is really a little bit better if you go higher. Or you know any location around Chiang Mai where is the air better (doi saket?, mae on, ….).
    Your point of renting is good. But do you not feel sorry that the money is gone? With the renting money you also can buy. May be it would also different if you have no children. They can own later the property. Of course you can loose a lot of money if your wife say lagon, or for other reasons.

    Jürgen

  10. Hugh Leong said

    Jürgen,

    The smog is almost gone – even without any rain. So the smog season was about 4 weeks this year, which is about average. It has been worse than this year so I have no complaints. The problem is the heat. Average 100 F (39 C) every day for over a month. I am getting depressed. I’ll talk about it in my next posting in a few days.

    When my children were young I spoke to them only in English and my wife spoke to them only in Thai (even though we both speak both languages). Both children were completely bilingual (speaking, reading, writing) by the time they were 4 years old. A German school, although it would be ideal for your child, is not completely necessary at this point. When my children got a little older we decided to move back to the U.S. for their schooling. With today’s schools the way they are I am not sure we would make the same decision.

    But it worked fine for them. Both graduated from university and one has an MS degree also. They are both comfortable world travelers and been to many countries on their own and feel at home in any culture. Interestingly enough, both are also quite good writers. I don’t think that would be the case if we had stayed here for their education. Sadly, only the older one still speaks Thai, and he is fluent. The younger one was too young when we left to retain it, although he understands when Mom speaks to him in Thai. But he took Thai in university and aced the course.

    To answer you question of where the air might be better, I only have a few ideas, 1. at an air conditioned shopping mall, 2. in your air conditioned bedroom, 3. at the bottom of a swimming pool.

    But the smog has now mostly gone so it is on to other things.

  11. Jürgen Taubmann said

    Hi Hugh,

    thank you very much for the answer.

    With cildren is every thing a little different. I was able (because of my job) to retire ealier. So we really want to go to Thailand. Even if the schools in Germany probably better (But here in Germany is not everthing perfect, I think you have mor freedom in Thailand.
    So Chiang Mai would be a good place. If the smog season last only four weeks it would be not such a big problem. We could leave during this time Chiang Mai. I`m glad for you, that your cildren do fine.
    With the heat i have not really such a big problem. But over 100 degree ist a lot. But air conditions and swimming pools will help.

    Take care

    Jürgen

  12. Ralph Morales said

    I am considering retiring to Thailand and would like to include Chiang Mai…but the angel of death concerns me greatly. As I mentioned to Boong Chaynee in an email I just sent her….it may be ok now vacating to another location once a year for two months….but as I get older do I want to be so inconvenienced and add an unwanted medical ailment to our quality of life. I don’t know. I am concerned about that. So I ponder whether to look at Hua Hin and Cha Am instead. I am new to your website and blog. Thank you

  13. junlee said

    Hugh, thanks for telling readers about retirement in Thailand without embellishment – tell it is as it is with info on the pollution, bugs,crime, accidents and illnesses.

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