Despite the Smog, Some Colourful Scenes in Chiang Mai

Categories Food, Thailand

A brief break from writing about Turkey to chat about where I am now: Chiang Mai. After spending the holidays in England with my brother and then a few weeks in Jordan for consulting work, I stopped back in Istanbul (*cough* for a haircut *cough*) and now I’m in Thailand. Long-term readers will know that my return to Asia is almost a guarantee – a little too long without sticky rice and I start to get the shakes. I came back this year to hunker down and be productive. – I’m working on some fun projects, I wanted to focus on my photography a bit more and I wanted to eat everything in sight. While Bangkok was an option (and I do love the city) Chiang Mai is calmer and thus I hoped it would be easier to hone in on work. After all, last year’s time here was productive and fun.

However, the city is shrouded in smog and walking around, even for just 10 minutes, leaves your eyes stinging and your throat raw. Those of us still wandering around town are doing so with masks on.  The March smog is actually nothing new – for years, people have talked about asthma issues in Chiang Mai during the pre-rain season. Last year it rained quite early, so the smog was minimal. So this is the first time I’ve experienced the smoggy, hazy late winter months in Northern Thailand.

Why so smoggy? Farmers in Northern Thailand burning the fields to allow for replanting and regrowth. In 2009, the Irawaddy noted that “The traditional rural method of slash-and-burn farming, whereby fields are burned by farmers in the dry season between February and April, so that the ashes fertilize the fields while they lie fallow, is responsible for the greater part of the pollution.” And they’re so bad in the far North that there is talk of evacuation near Mae Sai.

Chiang Mai smog at dawn, Feb 24, 2012

Chiang Mai smog at dawn, Feb 24, 2012

Bad smog in Chiang Mai in Feb 2012

Can't see too far in this mess.

(Photos above, courtesy of Catherine from Women Learn Thai)

So why am I still here?

For starters, it’s not all sad faces – we even have fun in our smog masks.

Ana and I, jumping in the haze

Ana and me, jumping in the haze.

Plus, rain is forecasted for early this week, and it ought to dampen the fires, improving the air quality. If not, I’ll relocate to Bangkok. The irony of heading to Bangkok for “clean” air isn’t lost on me.

* * *

My time in Thailand thus far has also been full of reunions with close friends, visiting family members (like my adorable cousins below) and doing what I do best: eating.

My cousins, me and my friend Giorgio

My cousins, me and my friend Giorgio.

A little too excited to be eating Thai food again: I forgot to take the photo before we dug in.

What used to be pad pongali gai

What used to be pad pongali gai, a terrific dry yellow curry.

I didn’t forget the next time! Grilled chicken at a great Isaan place across from Chiang Mai University:

Grilled Chicken from 10000% Isaan in Chiang Mai

Grilled Chicken from 10000% Isaan in Chiang Mai

Somtam (green papaya salad, spicy, sweet and delicious):

Somtam in Chiang Mai

Deliciously colourful salad

And the full meal:

Isaan meal in Chiang Mai

Grilled chicken, somtam and tom yum goong.

There are plenty of less traditional dishes on offer, too – and I’m not talking pizza. At the Sunday night walking street, the temples lining Ratchadamneon are full of food stalls, including a great dim sum stand in Wat Sum Pow:

Steamed crab at the Sunday market in chiang mai

Steamed crab at the Sunday market in Chiang Mai

Steamed shumai at the Sunday market in Chiang Mai

Steamed shumai at the Sunday market in Chiang Mai

And of course mochi for dessert!

And of course mochi for dessert!

Last week  on Ratchadamneon, I noticed people climbing up atop the moat to take photos of the market below. I tried prior to get up there but was shoo’d down by the policeman directing traffic. Not this time!

From atop the moat, looking down at Chiang Mai's Sunday market

From atop the moat, looking down at the controlled chaos.

Atop the moat near Thae Phae gate, Chiang Mai

Atop the moat near Thae Phae gate

Peeking through from the moat itself

Peeking through from the moat itself

And the crowds below

And the crowds below

In a time of haze, the city remains full of colour. My plan is to stay in Thailand until April just before Songkran, when I’ll be flying to Italy to speak about social media and curation at TBU Umbria. After that, it’s back to North America for more conferences (TBEX and WDS among them), family reunions and a road trip up the Western coast of the USA.

Taking suggestions, too, for this year’s birthday mountain! I’ve got a wedding in Montreal two days before, so the mountain has to be road-trippable from there.

Fun, busy months ahead!


62 comments to Despite the Smog, Some Colourful Scenes in Chiang Mai

  1. Jodi, love the smog masks :-)

    Since I left I’ve kept a watch on the smog in your area. From the reports, it hasn’t improved. Pity. Chiang mai is a lovely area but breathing is a priority.

    The air quality has been great down here in Bangkok though. Heh. But the sound quality took a nose dive.

    I’m headed to Siem Reap shortly as the jackhammers pounding nearby are driving me to distraction.

    Here’s hoping that the air is clearer and the surroundings quieter in Cambodia.

    • On February 25, 2014 at 12:45 am cynthia brownsmith said:

      Jodi, I met you at Book Passages in Marin County in August. I am the redheaded “mature” woman from Idaho. I just stumbled onto your blog. What fun. I was just in Chiang Mai and can tell you the air quality is awful…as of February 15th. I, too, have fallen in love with Chiang Mai … the feel, the flowers, the food, the great fun. I happened into the local Flower Festival at the edge of the moat in the old walled city. The “Rose Parade” of Thailand.
      Cynthia Brownsmith

  2. The world has a way of being aligned… This coincides beautifully with al khamseen, the dust storms that form in the Sahara and Sinai and cast a cloud over Egypt and a big part of the Middle East.

    Your food photos will always bring me joy, Jodi.

  3. I’m eating all this same food and somehow it looks more delicious on your site! We just discovered a great spicy noodle place near CM University today on Doi Suthep Road. I’ll send you a map so you can try it out.

    Back to doing my rain dance now…

  4. I love that Mochi picture…certainly one of the better food pictures I’ve seen in a long time.

  5. As always, your food photos have me drooling! I love that picture of the market from the moat.

    Way to rock the mask! Metallics totally match any outfit ;) Being in Japan, I’ve had many an opportunity to wear masks- though they usually suffocate me. I’ve only worn construction grade ones a couple times (though I still doubt their effectiveness in blocking radiation).

  6. i’ve heard that the smoke and smog was bad – so sorry about that! i’d be eating there, too, though – the food looks amazing.

  7. On March 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm gene in montreal said:

    Can’t do this anymore. Too good.

  8. Salivating and missing all that is Thai food…and you! And Little Bear. Looking forward to reuniting on the Left Coast! :)

  9. At least the food still looks good! Here in California, we have our share of smog as well. However, we’ve never had to walk around with masks.

    The food still looks delicious and there are definitely some colorful scenes there (love the umbrellas). However, this seems like a major issue that needs to be addressed.

    • Each year they say they are addressing it but until there are alternatives for the crops/farming people will continue to burn the fields. It’ll take not just education but some sort of mechanism for ensuring that the fields can be replanted. I agree, however, that it’s a serious issue and many of my friends teaching here have said the kids come to school sick from the air and falling asleep in class. Happily the air is better these days as it’s rained throughout the region (though not yet here!).

  10. Okay I agree with everyone else (and I rarely have the opportunity to say that, so thank you *grin*) the food photos are wonderful! And I’m glad you climbed atop the moat to get the photos–I know you appreciated the view and the experience!

  11. I had no idea I missed Thailand so much until I saw your photos, really cant wait to go there! Give us some more photos please!

  12. The smog masks are great!

    That mochi ice cream looks great. Do you have a photo of what it looks like on the inside?

  13. food photos made me salivate. lol. can’t wait to get to chiang mai. :D

  14. Every March and April, always the same…lots of smoke! I should be back there around Songkran time, hope that we cross paths before you fly out.

  15. Oh, I LOVE the pictures of the food stalls! I grew up going to markets like that in the Philippines, and these photos definitely brought me back to the smells and feel and being there!

  16. Oh my gosh missing papaya salad more than ever now! Love those shots from the top of the moat–beautiful photos, and now I’m hungry again.

  17. Oh boy, just heard on Al Jazeera that Northern Thailand is experiencing its worst smog season ever and that the Government is thinking of declaring an emergency! Stay inside! :) On another note, I super admire your approach to life/career and I adore your writings … can’t wait to follow your blog more often!

  18. The Chiang Mai smog reminded me of the stubble burning of the wheat fields here in eastern Washington, when I was a kid. It often ruined my end of summer fun. Fortunately, there a few fields burned today. Anyhow, I am traveling to Chiang Mai at the end of April, to begin my dream of wandering the planet. I will use Chiang Mai as a home base for further travels. You present a lovely site. Oh, and your webpage is very nice, as well! ha ha…eh, anyway, keep up the good work inspiring and informing the rest of us nomads.

    • Thank you Robert. The smog, happily, has lifted – it rained in the mountains and it’s happily quite clear now. And as a result, very warm! Safe travels to you and enjoy Chiang Mai!

  19. The food looks delicious. I absolutely love thai food and can’t wait to travel to Thailand and eat it all day every day! Too bad the smog is ruining the views!

  20. Love reading your blog. It always reminds me of why I love traveling & stirs up dreams of planning my next adventure!
    Your picture with the tom yum goong dish makes my mouth water & stomach rumble!

  21. Hi Jodi! I just read this and saw that you are going to be in Italy during the same time I am… my husband and I are going for a week starting April 21 to Florence, Perugia and Rome, then heading to Spain for a week. Where is your conference being held? Also, your pics of Chiang Mai look gorgeous (and delicious)!

    • Hi Lindsay, conference will be in Umbria, but I’ll also be in Rome and Florence so we should to coordinate – perhaps we can meet up for a coffee or a snack! Glad you liked the photos!

  22. I’m sorry I missed that delicious Isaan food too, but Kyle took us both there while we were in town at least. :)

    Oh, and I know we’ll do it again some day, and it will be even more delicious then too. xo

  23. Yeah great photos! Really making me miss CM even more! Really loved it there last year and hope to go back.

  24. Love the foodie photos! Great essay Jodi. The smog is something I’ve associated with Asia anyway, especially East Asia. Never been to Chiang Mai and can’t wait to go!

  25. Dear Jodi, Micah (my Cambridge friend) introduced me to your amazing blog. Looking through your photos of Isarn food in Chaingmai just makes me so hungry! I’m from Khon Kaen – so Isarn food is just my all time favourite! I love cooking, but above all, eating, so your blog is like my playground! I’m not sure if you’ve heard of/tasted “Gai Yang Khao Suan Kwang” – a special BBQ chicken, made from 40-day old chicken specifically bred for this purpose, originally from Kaho Suan Kwang District in Khon Kaen? Most likely you’ve tried it before, if not, let me know! There is one Isarn food place I’d like to recommend in the heart of Isarn! Take care and keep eating!!! P.S. I’m also a food-loving laywer (well, if you count international lawyers as lawyers at all lol)

    • Hi Sunny, Micah’s lovely and I’m glad he connected you here. I’ve not been to Khon Kaen but will absolutely take your recommendation – thank you! Are you currently based in Cambridge like Micah?

      • Hey Jodi, yes I’m in Cambridge at the moment, but will be back in Thailand (Bangkok + Khon Kaen) for the summer (June-September), but I guess you’d be gone by then (I won’t blame you though – walking the Summer street in Thailand for 5 mins, and you’d look like you’ve had a full hour gym exercise…) Anyway, even for a native Thai like me, there are many more “hidden” food and restaurants waiting to be discovered. If you’re visiting Khon Kaen, I strongly recommend you to try, in addition to the chicken, some street food at the night food market in the middle of the town; some Vietnamese-style “Nam Nueang”; some congee with meat balls at the old food complex called “Toh Roong”. Only 45-min plane journey from Bangkok (or 9 hr by sleeping train….) It may look like I’m promoting my town here, but if you fancy walking through a King Cobra village (it is not named like this for no good reasons..), or trekking through dinosaurs’ remains, then Khon Kaen might be worth visiting :-)

  26. Love this update (and most esp the food pictures) on Chiang Mai Jodi! It was so lovely to see you again! :)

  27. I totally understand the problem with smog – where I’m living now (Mexico City) is disgusting. After a day outside, you walk indoors to find your legs completely black from being out there and if you’re up early enough to see the sun rise, you see the beautiful blue sky with the sun and then the smog settle on the city. Ick.

  28. Yeah i liked like Khon Kaen! ITis a nice place! only stayed about a week, would have liked to stay longer! Only went there from CM as my friend was working there and we called in to see him! but glad we did go there! like to go back there again!

  29. Hey Jodi,

    I just came across your blog and I’m addicted :P I’m a law student and I’m sure you’ve heard this tons of times, but I’ve always wanted to do what you’re doing. I’m sure I will in time.

    I’m just heading to bangkok for a 3 month internship and was a little worried. Seeing your post has made me forget all my apprehensions. Thanks for that!

    Happy Traveling! Looking forward to many more wonderful posts…

  30. Jodi,

    Just discovered your wonderful site from another forum where the air pollution in Chiang Mai was being discussed. We were there a few weeks before you.

    Hope to meet you at TBU in Umbria.


    Larissa and Michael

    • Hi there. I saw your post on CM and will respond there. The smog is a yearly problem in the city, with the exception of last year when the rains came early. Foodwise, Thais love fried chicken – on Huay Kaew there is a fried chicken, fries and onion rings place that has never seen a tourist at it – it’s a favourite street stall for the Thais in the area! (Every single time I’ve walked by I’ve seen only Thais eating there). So the culprit for ‘touristy-ness’ might not be the fried chicken. That said it sounds like you stayed quite insular in town – getting out to Hang Dong, with the rice paddies next to the highway, and into the tiny sois that run mazelike behind the wats in the old city will get you far from the city you described.

  31. Great photo essay – my favourite shot is the overhead perspective of the crowd at the market.

  32. Mmmmm, all that food looks delicious! And I like the look of that market at night – so much bustle! :D

  33. Beautiful shots Jodi and love your blog! Makes me want to visit Chiang Mai even more. Do you know if the smog will still be heavy in the next few weeks? Am thinking of heading that way in the next couple weeks.

    • It ought to be less so but the index is at – lists out the levels of Pm/10 and ozone. Usually by this time it has lessened and the hot season has set in. Safe travels!

  34. Hi! New reader, and just wanted to say that I love the photographs in this post, as do I love the rest of your blog. I’m a university student hoping to travel the world straight out of school. So, while my brain’s exploding over coursework at college, I love going on this blog and living vicariously through you :) Can’t wait to read more!

  35. Unbelievable! I was in Chiang Mai two years ago around this time and didn’t notice how bad the smog was. The only time I did notice it was on my climb at Tiger Temple. I am so envious of you and hope that one day I can venture out on my own too!! I’m so excited that I found your blog =)

  36. WOW! I absolutely love your blog. The photographs in this post are amazing, so bright and vibrant and clearly represent the unique culture of Chiang Mai. I’m a university student myself, and hoping to travel the world after completing some years of full time work to finance my trip. Thank you for inspiring me and providing a blog full of color, excitement and great travel adventures.

  37. WOW! I absolutely love your blog. The photographs in this post are amazing, so bright and vibrant and clearly represent the unique culture of Chiang Mai. I’m a university student myself, hoping to travel the world after completing some years of full time work to finance my trip. Thank you for inspiring me and providing a blog full of color, excitement and great travel adventures.

  38. I love Chiang Mai! I was there for this year’s Thai New Year festival.

    Sure, the smog is a pain in the ass in most Thai cities. And I know what you mean about sticky rice – I just can’t get enough!

  39. Don’t ask me how Jodi, but I always end up reading your blog when I’m hungry. It only makes it worse! Pardon me while I lick my laptop screen in vain. ;)


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