‘This week, no one’: Tourists shun choking Chiang Mai
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‘This week, no one’: Tourists shun choking Chiang Mai

Songkran mood glum as residents and businesses see little let-up in air pollution

The normally impressive view from Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai is obscured by heavy air pollution on Tuesday. (Photo: AFP)
The normally impressive view from Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai is obscured by heavy air pollution on Tuesday. (Photo: AFP)

CHIANG MAI: Hazardous pollution levels in northern Thailand have left the historic city of Chiang Mai choking under thick smog, with local residents worried about the impact on tourism — and their health.

Smoke from forest fires and farmers burning crop stubble has suffocated the tourist city, with the global air monitoring platform IQAir ranking it among the most polluted places in the world — above regular hotspots such as Lahore and Delhi.

According to IQAir, Chiang Mai on Wednesday had an air quality index of 199 with an ultra-fine PM2.5 dust level of 144.7 microgrammes per cubic metre (μg/m3), down from above 200 earlier this month but still far beyond the World Health Organization’s “safe” limit of 25 μg/m3.

As most of the country prepares to celebrate the Songkran festival, a boon to tourist businesses nationwide, the mood in Chiang Mai is glum.

Residents have petitioned the government to act, with images and videos of the dense haze capturing public attention in the run-up to the May 14 general election.

On Tuesday, daily life in Chiang Mai continued, even as records showed the level of the most dangerous PM2.5 particles — so tiny they can enter the bloodstream — was more than 30 times the World Health Organization’s annual guideline, according to IQAir.

“It made me want to cry,” said Kanchaya Boontan, 40, who runs CM Siam Travel, a tourism firm.

“This year is bad, normally pollution is not too long but the foreigners have seen the news,” she added, adjusting her N95 mask.

Forced to close all four of her shops during the Covid-19 pandemic, Kanchaya was just starting to get back on her feet by working 12-hour shifts.

But last week, the Thai Hotels Association northern chapter warned that domestic tourists were cancelling their Songkran New Year holiday reservations due to pollution levels.

“Last week I got one customer only. This week, no one,” Boontan said.

A few streets away by the ancient Tha Phae gate, 45-year-old orange juice vendor Aun tried to drum up business.

“It’s affecting my life more and more every day, whether it be my health or the decline in the number of tourists,” he said.

“Some days you can barely see the roads ahead, and it’s not fog but it’s smog.”

‘Everyone breathes’

The pollution is mainly caused by farmers burning their fields, said Siwatt Pongpiachan, an atmospheric consultant with the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand.

A shifting global weather pattern and Chiang Mai’s topography trapping pollution conspired to “drive PM 2.5 into the perfect storm this year”, he said.

This year alone, nearly 2 million people in Thailand have needed hospital treatment for respiratory conditions caused by air pollution, according to the Ministry of Public Health.

Chiang Mai cardiologist Rungsrit Kanjanavanit told AFP that officials are not doing enough to tackle the pollution, worried about its impact on the country’s vital tourist economy.

“We should care about our guests’ health more — that should be a priority.”

The pollution affects children and the elderly the most, Rungsrit added.

“For every 10 microgrammes increase in PM2.5, there is one year less of lifespan. You have to multiply it by the exposure range,” he said.

“Everyone breathes, so the effect on the population is very high.” (Story continues below)

A researcher checks an air quality sampler at a National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (Narit) office in Chiang Mai on Monday. (Photo: AFP)

‘Bright red sun’

“The sun was really bright red because of the smoke in the sky, was quite, quite strange and very hazy,” said British tourist Lucy Cooper.

“You couldn’t see much further than a few fields away,” she said.

The 34-year-old, travelling with her partner and two children, said she was advised not to come.

“It’s not ideal. And we can’t see a mountain, which is sad.”

Chokchai Mongkolcho, visiting from northeastern Roi Et province, said the smog “hides the city’s beauty”.

“It makes me wonder if I’ll ever come back here again if there’s still pollution like this.”

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