I could go on all day about how beautiful Northern Thailand is. Lakes, mountains, rivers, caves, waterfalls and jungles are everywhere just asking to be explored and the weather is usually some of the best in the country – cooler, yet still clear and sunny.
That is, until February and March.
While November, December and January are just about as perfect as you could get when it comes to comfortable temperatures, no rain and abundant sunshine, February and March bring the start of hotter temperatures and bad air.
During this time there’s widespread burning of fields and forests for farming and, as I’ve been told, cultivating a special type mushroom. There’s very little rain and that, combined with the heat and the fact that the city of Chiang Mai is in a valley, makes it so the smoky and polluted air stays trapped.
The pattern happens every year, though some are worse than others. 2012 was particularly bad, while this year it’s been more of an annoyance, but still not good. When I asked my Thai teacher about it she said the burning, smoke and haze continues, “…until my King makes the fake rain.” It was probably one of the best, and most confusing, things I’ve heard living here. But that’s what happens. This is where I live.
The air usually seems worst in the morning (when the photo above was taken) and clears up a little throughout the day. Many people I know have been complaining of congestion, dehydration, lack of energy and lethargy. They don’t feel sick, like they have a cold, but something just isn’t quite right. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it except wait it out. (Though I know of several long term expats and retirees who regularly plan to leave during the ‘smoky season’, coming back in April or May.)
I’m a big proponent of traveling to places in the off season. I wouldn’t hesitate telling someone to visit Thailand during the rainy season, but I don’t recommend coming to the north during February and March if you don’t have to. The weather definitely puts a damper on things and doesn’t show off the region in the best light. In fact, it’s a really smoky, hazy light.
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
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So true Alana. We are based in Chiang Mai but currently in Croatia where the air is crystal clear. I couldn’t cope with the smokey air in cm – such a shame. Thanksfor your great posts. love your work.
It really is too bad…but when I think about the months of cloudy, drizzly darkness at home or two months of smokey air here and sun, I’ll take it 😉 Thanks for reading!
I’m glad we visited chiang Mai in November! Though I currently live with much worse. Shanghai’s air quality readings average 120 (unhealthy for sensitive groups), though readings of 200 or higher aren’t uncommon.
November is beautiful here! Is the air always that bad in Shanghai or just certain times of the year?
The readings are almost never below 100. even when the sky looks blue overhead, you can see the haze on the horizon. It’s probably the biggest drawback to living here, because Shanghai itself is pretty amazing. When the readings are really high, I just stay inside.
Love the King’s fake rain!
At least March is almost over….
I looked at this last year and found that CM’s air pollution was worse than LA’s, San Antonio’s, and Austin’s combined. Bad news.
Well that probably explains why I’m not feeling so well today…
But it looks like it’s gonna rain today! Yeah! Hopefully it will clear up the smoke.
How do the kids at school cope with the poor air quality?
Do you think it will have serious long term effects on one’s health / life?
I considered CMvs BKK and CM wins in many respects except the beaches and air quality.
I don’t know how the air quality compares to BKK, but I would assume it’s usually better up in Chiang Mai (at least for the majority of the year!)
There’s not really much you can do during the bad months except wait it out. I think people are starting to get more vocal about limiting the burnings, but change is slow…
People complain about it here, youv’e pointed it out. But the truth is it’s only some days and it’s nowhere near as bad as living in Beijing.
It is only for a relatively short period of time…but I think in a way that makes it more surprising and disappointing since it’s so beautiful the rest of the year!
Oh no, I’m planning on going sometime between Feb and April…bad idea? I’m most worried about the extreme heat and bad air (don’t do well in either).
Mmm…it’s definitely not the nicest time of year. End of February through March is smoky in the north and then it gets really hot in April especially around Songkran in the middle of the month. If you can come a different time it may be better, but that’s the only time that works still come!
It’s interesting that the photos make the pollution look so bad. Maybe it’s the smoke from the burning. It’s currently 153 where I live in China right now, but you couldn’t tell by looking at the sky.
It’s totally the smoke – the air in north is just fine all year until the fields are burned then, between there being no rain and in a valley, the smoke just gets trapped and stays. :/
18 Comments on Chiang Mai’s Dirty Little Secret