Despite the Smog, Some Colourful Scenes in Chiang Mai

After many years in Southeast Asia, friends and I plan our travel schedules based on weather, food, and conferences in between. One guarantee, however, is “burning season” in Chiang Mai and beyond.

Written March 11, 2012 and updated occasionally.

What You Need to Know about the Smoke and Smog in Chiang Mai

Unhealthy Smoke Over Thailand. Photo courtesy of the Earth Observatory - NASA.
Unhealthy Smoke Over Thailand. Photo courtesy of the Earth Observatory – NASA.

During burning season, smog shrouds the city 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. The first year I was in Chiang Mai, it rained quite early so the smog was minimal. The following year was the first time I experienced the smoggy, hazy late winter months in Northern Thailand.

When is the smoky burning season?

The ‘burning season’ is usually late February through late April. During those months, Doi Suthep’s mountain views are obfuscated in smoke, and breathing feels laboured compared to the wet and non-smoky months. The season ends when the rains tentatively begin, often just after the end of Songkran, the Thai new year. Full on rainy season isn’t until later in the summer months, but the late April and May rains are sufficient to open up the skies and dissipate the polluted air.

Why the air pollution in Northern Thailand?

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.”

A 2016 piece in National Geographic says that this method of farming is great for the ecosytem, even if it’s bad for our airways:

Those practices, which are found on every continent, are extremely varied. But they follow a common pattern. First, most of the trees and shrubs are cut down in a relatively small patch of forest, typically around one hectare, where they are left to dry. In a few days, the withered vegetation is burned to put nutrients into to the soil in preparation for planting crops.

This practice makes the use of artificial fertilizers unnecessary. What’s more, weeds and pests are destroyed by the fire, eliminating the need for herbicides and pesticides during the short period of crop cultivation.

After one or two growing seasons, the field is fallowed, or set aside to rest. Eventually the forest returns, and the cycle is repeated.

In addition to intentional “slash and burn” farming, the air worsens for the same reason it does elsewhere: the forest fires due to hot spots in the forest, igniting and spreading quickly in the hot, dry air.

From 2019, a Channel News Asia video featuring firefighters in Chiang Mai who have been working round the clock for weeks trying to put out forest fires:

Here’s the same vantage point, one during smoky season and one prior / after:

Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai suffer haze and smoke until at least May
Source: The Thaiger

How bad does the air get during burning season?

For one, the air is worse in the mornings and then sometimes burn off during the afternoon. But overall, the air does get bad. Very, very bad. During my season, we all complained of itchy eyes, sore throats, wheezing, chest pain, and more. It goes without saying that if you’ve got asthma, I would recommend heading elsewhere during these months. Friends teaching further north reported that some of their young students would show up vomiting due to the pollution. Toxic air is dangerous for all, but the young and the elderly are most susceptible, as are the immunocompromised.

A 2019 piece from the Washington Post opens with this strong statement:

In mid-March, the city with the worst air pollution in the world wasn’t an industrial powerhouse populated by millions. It was Chiang Mai, the tourist-friendly cultural center in northern Thailand.

Moderately polluted air has an AQI of 50 to 100. During an April Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors’ summit in Northern Thailand, the air was classified with a staggeringly high AQI of 379.

That same WaPo article closed with a comparison: on May 7, 2019 in the AM Eastern Time (so, May 8th at night) Chiang Mai came in 8th in AirVisual’s ranking of major cities by air pollution, with an AQI of 121. New York, by comparison, was 73rd with an AQI of 18.

Sometimes the fires get so bad further North that there is talk of evacuation near Mae Sai.

burning season chiang mai
Chiang Mai smog at dawn
Bad smog in Chiang Mai from fires
Can’t see too far in this mess.

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

Resources for Burning Season in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai burning continues, despite the assurances of the government that it will be stopped. It’s a far more complicated problem than simply banning the burning; the farmers who do burn their fields do so in order to grow their crops, and the issue speaks to more than a simple change.

For other posts about burning season see:

For air quality resources for Chiang Mai and beyond see:

For pollution masks and purifiers for smog and smoke see:

  • For proper pollution masks, you’ll want a good quality mask that has at least a particulate N95 grade (so 95% of air particles larger than 0.3 micrometres/microns in diameter are kept away from your airways), eg this 3M Particulate Respirator 8210V, N95 Respiratory Protection mask.
  • Where to buy pollution masks in Chiang Mai? There is a 3M store in the old part of Chiang Mai (within the city gates) that sells these and other masks. You’ll want to stock up ahead of time, as they are scarce once the burning begins.
  • There are portable air purifiers you can purchase on Amazon and bring to Thailand, or buy locally – just make sure it can purify particulate matter smaller than 2.5. For local purchases, friend have found great help with the Xiaomi Mi 2S Air Purifier, available here.

One Season of Burning and Smoke

So why did I stay? For starters, it’s not all sad faces – we even have fun in our smog masks.

chiang mai fire burning
Ana and me, jumping in the haze.

* * *

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

bangkok food
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!
chiang mai visit burning season
From atop the moat, looking down at the controlled chaos.
pollution in 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

It’s a personal choice to stay or to go. I had concerns about my lungs and throat after one season, so I opted to live elsewhere during the smoky months. Many friends, however, stayed. A note that you may need to go further than Bangkok: from January 2019, NPR reports schools closing due to toxic air in Thailand’s capital.

More from the New York Times about how Thailand is trying to fix Bangkok’s pollution problem here.

– Jodi

65 thoughts on “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.

    1. cynthia brownsmith

      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. 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).

  5. wandering educators

    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.

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

  7. 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.

    1. 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!).

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. The smog masks are great!

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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!

  13. 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!

    1. Thanks Laura! As I said to Robert below, the air has cleared now as some of the rains have begun and so we’re back to scorching heat but breathable air. Glad you enjoy the site!

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  15. 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.

    1. 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!

  16. 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!

  17. 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!

  18. 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)!

    1. 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!

  19. 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

  20. 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!

  21. 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)

    1. 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?

      1. 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 :-)

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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…

  25. 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.

    Cheers,

    Larissa and Michael

    1. 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.

  26. 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.

    1. It ought to be less so but the index is at aqmthai.com – 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!

  27. 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!

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  29. 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 =)

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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!

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  36. 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. ;)

  37. Hi Jodi! I’ve always loved reading your blog and I actually grew up in Bangkok, Thailand but am currently taking a gap year. I’ll be living in Chiang Mai for 3 months next year and was looking at different hostels to stay at, any recommendations? :)

    1. Hi Jayna! Thanks for the note. I just got back from there and stayed at a tiny guesthouse called Sabai Day. It’s in Nimmen area, and around lots of good food — go to the grilled chicken place on soi 11, and to Larder for breakfast — as well as being outside the busy old city. The owners are a lovely husband and wife couple who I really liked, too. If it’s within your budget (about $20-$30 a night depending on the room) it’s a good choice.

      For longer-term places, friends have stayed at The Dome, Bliss, and The Siri among others, but again it depends on budget :)

  38. David J H Scanlon

    I intend to move to Chiang Mai when my situation permits within the next 1-4 years. I have been there 4 times already on short visits of 1-7 weeks, although not in the smoky season. Concerning the smog season I intend to use February and March to explore other places in South East Asia or further afield. I understand it is possible to get student visas for up to three years as a Thai Language student so a Thai language school will be a good place to start.

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