Smoke over thailand – a region under the bell

Smoke season in Thailand – a whole region suffocates in the smoke

Thailand and bad air? We still see mostly disbelieving faces when we advise against visiting Northern Thailand in March and April. Unfortunately, it is not yet common enough to know about the extra season, the smoking season in Thailand. The fact is, as soon as it is dry for a few weeks, it starts. The smoke columns rise from the jungle, the air thickens, my contact lenses are no longer in the eyes. We all have a stuffy nose and a cough. Suddenly, people around us have “allergies” and the mountains are slowly disappearing from view. At night you can see more and more fireworks, which are very impressive, but unfortunately have no good effect on us. Why is that? Why is not the burning stopped and who is responsible?

Unlike in Germany, all year round the garbage and disturbing grass are burned in Thailand. Unfortunately, that’s not all.

Update from 11.1.2016: There is a very informative documentation on the whole facts on Vimeo. Especially the pyrolysis process is shown very well!

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When will the smoke become a problem??

From February, the otherwise clear air north of Bangkok is getting worse and worse. The negative peak is usually in late March and early April, if you want to play it safe, you have to cancel March and April as travel months.

What is being burnt and how is the smoke made??

The situation can be attributed primarily to the following triggers:

1. Agricultural land: burn off before the new sowing

Ash as a fertilizer has a long tradition not only in Thailand. The fact that from today’s point of view there are more sensible methods which, above all, improve the long-term yields of nutritious soil, plays a subordinate role. One of the reasons is that in rural Thailand, many activities are still carried out manually, heavy and large machines are often absent for cost reasons and the rugged terrain makes it difficult to use machines. Under these circumstances, burning off the crop residues is near, plowing in or composting are much laborious and time consuming. At least in the short term.

In addition, there is the slash-and-burn of forest areas for the development of new cultivated areas, especially for maize cultivation on a large scale.

2. Jungle: Burning of the undergrowth and loose foliage

The jungle is still regularly used by many people, be it just to go through or to harvest mushrooms and other plants. At the end of the dry season, 1 meter and higher barriers of fallen leaves and branches gather on the forest floor. In order to preserve the better usability of the jungle, this waste is burned off and of course also young plants and many animals. The big hardwoods such. Teak, for example, will not cause any damage, and so many rare mushrooms or a popular herb can soon be harvested from the ashes. Of particular importance in this context is a fungus called Astraeus hygrometricus, which provides many families with much of the annual income. This grows after the first rains and in a “clean” forest, he can of course find easier.

Some also claim that the residents simply want to clean up the forest floor – for the sake of aesthetics.

3. Road traffic and waste recycling

In many parts of Thailand, the incineration of garden waste, wood and household waste is still very widespread. However, one can assume that this factor plays a subordinate role as far as the extreme air pollution at this time of year is concerned. Garbage is burned all year round without the consequences of extreme air pollution, but it certainly also contributes to the overall situation.

The normal road traffic, especially in the form of countless motorcycles and sooting trucks, of course, has a share of the bad air. However, if one looks at the situation in a mountain village like Pai without much traffic and far away from big cities or industry, it quickly becomes clear that the main causes are to be found in the first two points.

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It is not just a national problem

The problem of air pollution affects not only Thailand, but also the neighboring states of Myanmar, Laos and partly Vietnam. Especially in northern Thailand, the causer can not be clearly defined, because the smoke can also come from Laos or Myanmar depending on the wind direction. Even if Thailand got the fires under control, that would not be the end of the misery, but an improvement undoubtedly.

How bad is it??

Alone the queues of sick people in front of the hospitals in Chiang Mai are evidence of the health effects. The long-term consequences are relatively difficult to quantify due to inaccurate data sets and many factors influencing lung diseases such as normal smoking.

Our personal opinion is that the smoke has an extremely strong impact on the quality of life. But opinions on air pollution vary widely. Many talk about the situation nicely, according to the motto: a cigarette is much worse than the smoke. Others even deny air pollution, but this seems absurd in the face of measurable particulate matter and reduced visibility. We would like to discuss these two circumstances in more detail.

Visible smoke – disappeared mountains

The following two pictures were taken within about five months, the same place and the same direction, only the time of day was different, but that is not relevant for the comparison. You can clearly see that you can not see anything on the second photo. And this is not a mysterious morning fog, it stayed the whole day. You can usually even look directly into the sun in actually cloudless sky.

Pai, Thailand. Two photos with 5 months distance. Thick smoke hangs over the valley and the mountains are not visible

Interesting this year is the following observation: there were heavy rains in the last week of March, so the air is actually clear again and the particulate matter pollution is decreasing. However, this rain came a bit too early, hardly everything was dried, the fires started again and 10 days after the rain, the fine dust levels are back up, favored by strong winds and the current heat of about 35-40 degrees.

The PM10 fine dust value as indicator

In order to make the air pollution measurable and comparable one can use the fine dust value PM10. The PM10 measures the presence of dust particles with an aerodynamic diameter of less than 10 μm, the limit value in the EU is 50 μg / m³. This may only be exceeded 7 times a year, then appropriate measures must be taken.

Over the past few years, we have repeatedly found peak values ​​of up to 500 μg / m³ in Thailand, and in some cases the values ​​lie between 200 and 300 μg / m³ over several weeks, covering the whole of northern Thailand.

Even assuming that the value of the EU is deliberately set very low, it is clear that the 5-10-fold value is unhealthy. Current values ​​can be viewed on the Air4Thai website, which is also available in English and on the AQICN website.

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What can you do about it?

As soon as the values ​​rise above about 100 you should adjust and act accordingly. All major supermarkets sell protective masks with replaceable particulate filters, which are mainly used by motorcyclists. Many people also wear plain paper mouthguards, but more than a placebo effect does not cause them.

Outdoor sports are a chore, who can afford to sit in air-conditioned rooms all day long. However, you should also provide the air conditioning with a dust filter, otherwise you blow the dirt directly into the room. If you do not have air conditioning you can clean the living room with an air filter. But this requires a relatively airtight construction, which is an impossibility in wood and bamboo constructions.

If you are honest and do not want to spend your days in hermetically sealed rooms, there is only one real solution: get away from here. In 2015, we spent about five weeks on Koh Chang in the south and exchanged smoke for fresh sea air.

When does the smoke disappear??

Normally the problem resolves magically with the first rainfall at the end of the dry season in April. Although this already existed in 2015 as described above, it obviously came too early. Usually, the smoke lasts until the middle or end of April, then the first real rains come and it is burned down until then everything which should be burned. The air is clear again and you have peace for about 10 months.

Prospects for the future

The prospects are rather bad. The backgrounds are complex and the procedure can be called tradition. As far as the burning of the jungle is concerned, the perpetrators of the fires refer to decades or even centuries-old methods, as a kind of common law. And even if you try to hold the perpetrators accountable for finding a local arsonist in the jungle, there are easier tasks for the law enforcement agencies. With regard to the burning of the fields, the implementation of prohibitions would be easier, but also very little is done here.

The most recent progress in waste incineration can be seen, which could be achieved by improving public waste recycling.

But there are also good new approaches. An article on mentions several very interesting approaches:

  • Conversion of organic waste to biochar or biochar, the process as such is called pyrolysis. A team of researchers has developed a furnace that fits on a pickup and can be used directly on the fields. The end product can then be used by adding other substances as plant fertilizers, more information can be found on Wikipedia.
  • Even with the “Pyramid Compost Education Project“It’s about converting crop residues to fertilizer. The dry leaves and crop residues are layered in a pyramid shape, watered instead of burned and it produces higher quality compost.
  • The cultivation of the valuable mushrooms is to be made possible on farms under controlled conditions without the dismantling of the jungle.

One should not give up hope. Maybe something will change in the next few years!

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Christina Cherry
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