At hour 16 of our 17 hour train ride heading north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, we learned from a fellow traveler that Chiang Mai was apparently experiencing large amounts of smoke and haze in the air due to the slash and burn agricultural practices of the surrounding rural hills. The air quality has been so bad, he tells us, that two German travelers he’d met in Bangkok had ended their trip early with debilitating upper respiratory infections. The burns happen every year around February and continues throughout the dry season, so it should be nearly over, he says. Apparently this years’s smoke and pollution levels were supposed to be a doozy. Great! We’d had no idea. We’d planned and researched our travels but had failed to see any warnings on this annual burning in our Lonely Planets or anywhere. The best laid plans of mice and men… How bad could it really be though?
Slash and burn describes an agricultural practice which involves cutting and burning forests or farmland to create and prepare fields for the new season. The cutting usually occurs prior to the dry season, allowing the fields time to properly dry out for the burning during the dry months. The ash of the burn then fertilizes the soil, and a new crop is planted at the beginning of the next rainy season. According to the Encyclopedia of Earth, slash and burn techniques are used by between 200 and 500 million people worldwide. There are several reasons why slash and burn is a destructive practice ecologically, one of which is that it depletes the soil of nutrients and thus threatens biodiversity. Other reasons are the more obvious increase in deforestation and erosion. But the most obvious ill effect to the layman’s eye is air pollution.
When we arrived in Chiang Mai, the sky looked like a smoggy day in LA (like I’ve never myself seen– perhaps a pre-Smog Check industrial LA sky of the 1950′s I’ve only heard about in stories). The sky had a yellow hue and about 2-3 hours before sunset the sun would turn bright red above the horizon; you could stare directly at it. Our first afternoon in the city we headed up to Wat Doi Suthep (see video) which, sitting high on a hill, boasts an expansive view of the city, but ours was of a cloudy beige below. On our next full day we took a very long motorbike ride around the hills and rice fields, and by day’s end our eyes were burning, our throats sore, and our sinuses congested. In the end it took us about 2 weeks until we were completely out of the smoke to feel totally well again.
As we moved on from Chiang Mai to Pai and found more of the same, if not worse, we realized with fear and abhorrence that this massive smoke cloud must be covering all of Northern Thailand. One would never suspect that in fact slash and burn activity is actually illegal in Thailand, but like many laws here- this one is obviously not enforced. We wondered and tried to find out if smoke was polluting Laos, out next destination, as well. How far south would we need to go to breathe clean air? Ben’s cough was not getting any better but we were still attached to the idea of spending time in Laos, and we decided to keep our flight into Luang Prabang as planned.
In our desperate search to understand more about this annual phenomenan, we came upon this blog by Thomas of ContemporaryNomad.com: “With a combined mega-cloud of thick acrid smoke hovering over Myanmar, Northern Thailand, Laos and Norther Vietnam, there’s no quick way out. Just think about the impact on the environment. While the developed world is taking steps to reduce carbon emissions, Asia is making up for it. Before you dismiss the “petty” air pollution and point your finger at the developed world, you need to know that none of the trash burning and field burn-off in India and Southeast Asia is being counted. According to one regional specialist we met, this kind of pollution simply doesn’t exist when it comes to calculating a country’s emissions. It’s ludicrous. Once you’ve seen the air in Asia, and I mean see, you’ll understand”. (You can read more at: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travelblogs/1330/46224/Not+Just+Blowing+Smoke?destId=356917#ixzz1r4tn7JeL)
We discovered that this year’s slash and burn was particularly a bad one (lucky us!) but to realize that this happens all over this region every year (let’s not forget about South America too!) was truly frightening. Thailand had made statements that tackling the haze was a “#1″ priority but it was hard to see how that was true if regulations weren’t even being enforced. We did hear that in past years the Thai King had developed a method of sending of chem-trails by air to insert silver iodides into the smoke clouds and hopefully induce rain (which helps dissipate the smoke). This year the Thai Ministry of Public Health was distributing sanitary masks and accounts of hospitalizations from smoke-related illnesses were reportedly on the rise. We were all praying for rain.
Southeast Asia is a developing part of the world full of contradictions and clumsily trying to modernize in sometimes backwards fashions. It is obvious that this old practice is here to stay, farmers are burning their crops for their livelihood and ain’t no one gonna stop them. For the traveller, however, unless you yourself are a heavy smoker and unfazed by air pollution, you may choose monsoons over burns.