Smoke gets in our eyes

CHIANG RAI, 2 April 2019: On Sunday, we almost packed an overnight case and headed for the airport to escape the thick debilitating smog that hangs over the this far north province.

Our pet beagle gave us that look when suitcases rolled out for packing. That’s the only reason we stayed. Beagles have a particular perceptive stare, or perhaps the smoke was in his eyes too?

Sunday was the worst day I have seen in seven years of living in Chiang Rai. The city was choking on the smog that exceeded the AQI 400 mark at downtown Central Plaza.  No matter how you look at the counts downloaded by popular Apps the message is clear. If you have a choice stay away from North Thailand for the next two weeks.

Two musicians,who were strumming their guitars at a café in downtown Chiang Rai, described a near-empty AirAsia flight from Singapore that had just 25 people on board.

The airline recently started direct flights from Singapore, Macau, Kuala Lumpur and Phuket. This must be the worst possible time to launch new flights. Not only is it the start of the long low season, but also airlines have to contend with massive cancellations as the smog sends travellers scurrying to beach destinations where AQI readings are in the low 30s.

On Saturday a journalist living in Chiang Mai called me to say he thought his AQI App had posted a typo.

“You cannot live if you are in an area with a reading of 800 plus, right?” he asked over the phone almost in a panic. “It has to be a typo.”

He survived by taking the next flight out of Chiang Mai to Bangkok where the AQI had a happy motif of around 70.

Monday is no different for Chiang Rai. The readings are in the high 300 to 400 zone and the familiar backdrop of mountains, less then a kilometre away has disappeared behind a cloak of smog. At the gates of Chiang Rai hospital, the APQ count is 345 described as hazardous up a slot from the understatement “very unhealthy”.  Yet even with such alarming alerts broadcasts on our mobile phones, tourism agencies still find it difficult to call a spade a spade.

There is only one fitting description of what the Tourism Authority of Thailand prefer to call a “haze.”

If you breathe it day in and day out you quickly recognise it for what it is —  fog generated by man-made smoke — and for good measure a choice swear word drops in to emphasise panic.

If we ever needed an illustration of what we are doing to planet home then the smog is clearly one of them.  When we damage life essentials — the air we breathe and the water we drink — we should conclude humanity has a death wish and we don’t deserve to be custodians of planet earth.

The best selling item in Chiang Rai right now is the facemask. Pharmacies had run out of stocks by the weekend for the second time in a week. Shopkeepers are scurrying for new supply channels.

The worst selling items today are hotel rooms and seats on inbound flights to Chiang Rai. The outbound flights are packed and if an airline allowed beagles to travel we would have been on the Sunday flight ourselves to Bangkok.

Of course, hotel and restaurant owners are putting on a brave face as they pray for gusts of winds, thunderstorms, hail and torrential rain to blow the suffocating smog elsewhere.

In the end nature will come to the rescue possibly during the Songkran Festival 13 to 15 April when so-called mango showers traditionally pelt the already soaked festival revellers.

Chiang Rai before and now. (Photo Credit: Kitti Tissakul).

Until then, the travel industry braces itself for massive financial losses as tourists stay away. No one in their right mind would recommend tourists to visit North Thailand this side of Songkran.  Go elsewhere and enjoy the fresh air.  There are plenty of beach resorts in South Thailand that have clean fresh air on the menu.

North Thailand will pay dearly for not cracking down on illegal burning of rice fields and the annual slash and burn practice that turns forested hillsides into commercial plantations.

No matter how you look at smog and its impact on our lives and economy the outcome is as dark and unhealthy as the leaden skies above us. The solution lies in a change of lifestyle and the introduction of sustainable farming practices to end the burning cycle year-round.

Until then, the annual smog season will terrorise the health and economy of North Thailand.


  1. For an deeper insight into the ‘Burning Season’ please see the two documentaries and the comment below:

    Important comments and quotes here from the Thai medical profession:

    This exposes the root greed:

    This letter was published in The Nation newspaper four years ago. It is even more pertinent now:

    The military government has been powerless to stop this – even with their ultimate authority, Article 44, and their huge resources. This suggests that nothing will be done until the calamity happens, and innocent people start to die in large numbers. Reprehensible and tragic.

  2. We could listen to the classic song of the Platters “Smoke gets in Your Eyes” with deeply romantic eyes sore in several northern provinces now, never miss it.

  3. Now is the time to start planning a post-smog ” bounce back ” campaign, who in Chiang Rai will take the lead ? Having recently moved here to escape Bangkok’s environmental challenges, I pledge my support and share my crisis recovery management expertise

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