Smog – Chiang Mai’s Angel of Death

Originally posted on 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.

Smog in Chiang Mai

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.