In March the cool season in Thailand comes to an end, making way for the hot season. In Northern Thailand, around the Chang Mai area, this season from March to May is more commonly known as the “Smoky Season”. During this period, the city and its surroundings are entirely covered by a thick layer of smog. In this article we’ll tell you what the causes are, what to expect, and whether you should visit the north of Thailand during the Smoky Season…
Smoky Season: our experience
Right now, it’s March 2015. I’m on the porch of our beautiful house in Pai. It’s a bit misty, the mountains aren’t entirely visible and the same goes for the sun rays, valiantly trying to pierce their way through the foliage of the trees.
Hardly surprising of course, as our friendly neighbor is busy burning his trash…
We will never forget our first night in Pai. We’d rented a motorbike and were on our way home, when all of a sudden we seemed to be entering a smoke screen. The mountains that surrounded our home were on fire – literally. Wow. We were expecting the “orcs of Mordor” to jump out from behind the bushes at any minute!
That night we kept waking up coughing because of the smoky air. This lasted about two days, until the burning stopped. Thankfully it wasn’t as bad after that.
Road trip during the Smoky Season
Another example. We were driving through the mountains on our motorbikes and headed towards Mae Hong Son. Although the route was fantastic, with more than 500 turns and corners and green paddy fields and tea plantations; we weren’t able to enjoy it as much as we’d liked. We kept passing smoldering tree trunks, the billowing smoke spoiling our view.
It’s no coincidence that the Smoky Season is a recurring theme in the north of Thailand. These are the main causes:
1. The burning of trash
It’s normal in Thailand to burn huge piles of garbage in front of your door. Nobody is bothered by this in the slightest, even if the smoke blows into the neighbor’s house. The fact that the smoke will probably remain there for the rest of the hot season is apparently fine with them…
2. Farmers preparing their land
The hot season is the time for farmers to prepare their soil for the new harvesting season. They do by incinerating the soil. This happens everywhere in the area, meaning the smoke stays in the air all day and all night.
3. There’s not a lot of rain
From November through to February you’ll barely see any rain, causing the streets to fill up with exhaust fumes coming from all the songthaews (taxis) and tuk tuks.
4. The location
Chiang Mai lies sandwiched in between two mountains: Doi Suthep and Doi Saket, causing the smoke and exhaust fumes to remain in the valley; particularly when there’s not a lot of wind.
What to expect during Chiang Mai’s Smoky Season
Clear blue skies? Forget it! And don’t expect any gorgeous views of the city from Doi Suthep-mountain either.
Expect poor visibility, yellow, dusty skies and the perpetual smell of smoldering campfire in the air. Temperatures around this time of year are known to exceed 40 degrees Celsius, so try and plan most of your activities in the morning or in the late afternoon.
To people with lung conditions or whose lungs are irritable, we categorically advise against traveling to the north during Smoky Season (February – April). We recommend traveling to Thailand’s south instead.
To visit or not to visit Chiang Mai?
Sure, the Smoky Season might not be the best time to travel north. But is that a good enough reason not to go?
We don’t think so – health permitting, you should definitely try to go. Yes, the smoke can be quite uncomfortable at times, but we didn’t let that spoil the fun. We hit the road in the early morning and spent the afternoons in the pleasant coolness of our home. It’s far from ideal, but irrespective of the smoke, there’s enough to see and do!