The Chiang Mai Burning Season Apocalypse Survival Guide

“And we’re going to let it burn, burn, burn, burn, burn, gonna let it burn, burn, burn, burn.” – Goulding, Leviticus 8:14 (I think)

True Story
Last year some time, I was hanging out on my balcony and it dawned on me that I couldn’t see the mountains. Now my hysterical inner panic beast immediately screamed towards the wife to grab the kids, and head down to the fallout shelter. Then I remembered I don’t have a wife or kids, or a fallout shelter as it were. And that the Mountains were in fact the other direction. So I went downstairs to check, and low and behold, they were still there. It was June. True story.

Questions and Answers

What is Burning Season?

‘Burning Season’ refers to a period of the year when farmers in and around Northern Thailand slash and burn their crops.

Why is this a Problem?

Because is creates a hazardous and unsightly wall of pollution that engulfs the region. More specifically, the level of 2.5 particulate matter in the air increases to levels considered unsafe for humans.

MYTHBUSTER: Since it isn’t a disease, it’s not possible to ‘catch’ Burning Season. If someone gets ill during Burning Season, it doesn’t mean they will Zombify and attempt to eat you.

All the normal rules of society apply during Burning Season. Both looting and blowing someone’s brains out with a gun because they had a small cough, will be treated as criminal offences.

When is Burning Season?

March through to mid-April has traditionally been the period in which farmers burn. The season is normally brought to a conclusion with an increase in rainfall towards Songkran. The start date on the other hand, is hazy(!). Burning can begin as early as January, and in recent years, things have become noticeably bad around mid-February.

This may be due to the introduction of a ban by the government, which has made burning in open spaces ‘illegal’, for six weeks commencing March 1st.

Has the Ban Worked?

It depends on who you listen to. The Thai Government will give you a different answer to, uh, everyone that lives here.

There is a case that the ban has actually made things worse. Here’s a terrible illustration to explain what I mean:

As I write this sentence, it is 8th March, and here is how things look currently:

Some have previously indicated that these early March levels could well be smog left over from the pre-ban burning frenzy, and that things may get better as the month rolls on.

But given the pollution levels have increased considerably over the past eight days, it’s hard to see how that idea holds any ground.

Perhaps this time next week, things will be better. But the visual evidence and data suggests that the ban has had little to no effect.

Update 19/03/18 – Nope. Readings have been consistently above 150 for every day this month. In fact, a report this week states that Chiang Mai was recently ranked the sixth worst in the world for air pollution.

What Can I Do To Help?

Not much, unfortunately. There are some initiatives looking to directly tackle the problem, such as the BioChar Solution.

Burning in Northern Thailand (and the surrounding regions) however, is a problem that carries deep political and cultural roots. If a Governmental ban can’t even scratch the surface of the issue, then individual pursuits may be akin to slamming your head against a wall.

You can help enforce the ban by reporting any sightings of burning to the Police. There is even a 5,000 Baht reward for reports that successfully result in an arrest.

Oh, and rain dances. Lots of rain helps clear the air. And farmers don’t generally burn when it’s raining, because science.

Surviving The Madness

I’m a survivor (what?), I’m not gon’ give up (what?), I’m not gon’ stop (what?), I’m gon’ work harder (what?) – Knowles, Exodus 4:18 (I think).

So we’ve established that Burning Season is Chiang Mai’s very own little horror show, and that you can’t do much to stop it.

How you deal with it individually though, is up to you. You can let it consume your inner panic beast, or you can do nothing at all. Free will is great, isn’t it?

Instead of just memeifying the whole thing into one big joke (because that seems to be par for the course nowadays), I want to present some INSANE VALUE FOR YOU GUYS, so you can manage the maelstrom on a personal level.

Survival Tip #1: Get Your Head Right

Contrary to what you might think, Burning Season is as much a mental game as it is a period of toxic death smog.

After the blissful October-January period, a time in which people spend days frolicking outside, splish-splashing in waterfalls, and being generally euphoric that it’s not pissing with rain or snow (see: Europe), the sudden curtain of pollution can come as quite a shock.

Some cope better than others. There are a few people who can’t help them self but immediately begin complaining. These people are out there. I would know this, because I’m one of them.

But really, complaining and whining is fair game during the initial stages of Burning Season, since no one is happy to see the mountains disappear. Oh, except my one friend who said that he actually “loves” Burning Season.

What a contrarian asshole.

How you behave during Burning Season is likely to be influenced heavily by the state of your respiratory system. Those who genuinely get sick are more likely to be miserable than those who have no ill effects. Rocket science logic right here.

Personally speaking, I’ve felt a bit glum, since things that were once cheerfully colourful (such as trees) are now a dismal desaturated grey. But I also feel the need to temper my whining, because I haven’t got sick. (not enough colour cannot be classed as real suffering. Can it?)

BUT YES YOU ARE GETTING SICK, IT’S KILLING YOU WHETHER YOU REALISE IT OR NOT.

Okay, look. I’m talking about that model of sickness used in society whereby you have physical symptoms, that can be felt and measured. Like a sore throat, or a blocked nose. Something out of the ordinary. Not things that are probably silently killing us, because god knows how sick we all are in that case.

You’re entitled to an initial whine, after which you have a big choice to make.

In my eyes, Burning Season hasn’t reached peak velocity of hysteria until the Facebook wars commence. Before you get involved, you should know that there are two camps:

In the red corner:

And in the blue corner we have:

Of course, there are many of you who would ideally choose a stance which involves mixed and considered opinions to reflect such complex matters. Unfortunately, such a position has no place in this brave new world of identity politics where everything is For or Against. You gotta pick a side, and die for it. Tribalism at it’s best.

Oh, actually – there is a third camp:

Team Don’t Know, Don’t Care

Many people come to Chiang Mai in the middle of March, clearly having done zero research, and are none the wiser. They’re too busy eating Pork Leg from Cowboy Lady and soaking up the culture to notice the air is a tad hazy. That is of course, until they meet someone who starts ranting on about the poor air quality (such as me). Or they go up Doi Suthep and see this:

But yes, even after you have been presented with the smoggy reality of your environment, it’s perfectly acceptable to not give a shit about Burning Season. Just zoning out and not getting sucked in to the drama is the best way to cope.

Not going on Facebook solves 90% of life’s problems, I find. Remember, whenever engaging in any Social Media mudslinging, the healthiest thing you can do is say ‘that’s great, I’m going get some lunch’, and then move on with life.

Survival Tip #2: Protect Yourself

Doug always takes it too far

Did you listen to your mother when she gave you the ‘I hope you’re wearing protection’ speech? Nope, I never got that speech either.

Fortunately, the internet has my back, and I invested in an N95 mask. These masks contain a filter that block 95% of the nasty crap circulating in the air. If you’re an optimiser, there are N99 masks that do an even better job (4 percent better, I would guess.)

These masks can be purchased from various hardware stores and pharmacies around the city. I bought mine from Home Pro (2 masks for approx 80 Baht). If you want a wider selection with bells and whistles, you can visit the 3M store near the South Gate Road.

You can also wear the choice of most Thais – a standard filter-less face mask. These can be bought everywhere (such as 7 Eleven) for pennies. Since they don’t have filter though, the protection you get against PM 2.5 is minimal.

THE BIG DEBATE

‘Why would I wear a god damn mask in Thailand’, you might be asking yourself. It’s a fair question.

Donning an industrial smog mask does take the shine off living in the Tropics somewhat, but it comes down to how much you care about your health.

And I don’t mean that in a condescending way.

Caring about your health is a spectrum. I care about my health to a reasonable degree – I work out a lot, frequently fast, I don’t drink much alcohol, never smoke, and I meditate a bit.

I also eat too much shitty food, however. I drink a big cup of psychoactive bean juice most days, probably ingest a bunch of BPA, Pesticides, additives, and other chemicals that don’t belong in the human body. I don’t make much effort when it comes to eating organic food, I forget to cover my fragile Farang skin in the midday sun too often, and I stress over silly things.

And right now, I’m sitting outside a cafe, likely inhaling so much pollution that I might as well just order a PM 2.5 Sundae and a slice of Charred Smog Gateau. With whipped cream.

Delicious bean juice. Responsible for adrenal fatigue and anxiety. Probably full of mycotoxins as well. See you tomorrow morning, darling.

I wear my mask when I’m driving around, and the rest of the time I just let it swing. I’m sure as hell not going to wear it when I’m inside. Is this neglectful? Maybe.

But so is all the other unhealthy stuff I do.

The point is that unless you’re trying to optimise every inch of your health, then wearing a mask everywhere to appease the hysterics out there, seems silly. Especially if you’re feeling no ill effects, and the mask is making you very, very sad.

Pollution is no joke. If you spend a lot of time in polluted environments, then you have to be careful. If you’ve suffered from respiratory problems in the past, then it should be obvious that you need to take precaution. But inhaling smog is not the worst thing you can do, particul(ate)arly if you haven’t spent your entire life doing it.

I’d put the health damages from pollution up there along with traces of dirt and urine on food, on my Mount Rushmore of hazards that minimally concern me. It’s not that I don’t care at all, but there’s only so much energy that can be allocated to each of the many things that can kill me.

If you’re too worried to simply let it slide, then the most sensible advice is to research what the health experts and scientists are saying, and make a decision for yourself. If you’re so worried that you’re can’t make any decisions at all, then I suggest to just wear a mask when outside.

Hey, it’s up to you – that’s my advice. A disclaimer, if you will. I don’t care as much as I should, but If I suddenly get lung cancer, then that’s my fault for being complacent.


Other Things You May Need

An Air Purifier. These can be obtained at any big hardware/tech store (Home Pro or Power Buy). Although these aren’t built specifically for removing PM 2.5, they do help clean the air in your home to a considerable degree.

If this sounds like overkill, A HEPA air filter can be attached to your home A/C Unit (Home Pro) instead.

Should you want to watch the mayhem unfold with a CLOSE AND WATCHFUL EYE, then get yourself a Particulate Monitor for measuring the quality of the air. Something like this (not an affiliate link) is what you need. Yes yes, that is an Amazon UK link, which is no help at all for someone in Thailand. But you know, do your own research. It’s not as if I haven’t already given you an INSANE AMOUNT OF VALUE FOR FREE. And I didn’t even ask for your email address (because I genuinely don’t want it.)

Unless you are WORRIED TO DEATH about this air thing, then it might just be easier to download the Air Visual app for your phone. Be warned though, this is another strangely addictive information app that will further reduce the quality of your life. It’s sort of like CoinMarketCap, but for pollution. Now you mention it – Be careful not to get your Cryptocurrency investments and AQI ratings confused. That AQI Bullrun means that you’re closer death.

Things You Certainly Don’t Need, Despite What They Might Say

  • Rations
  • A Sawed Off Shotgun
  • Any kind of Shotgun
  • Full Diving Gear with Oxygen Tank (not a terrible idea, mind).
Not Necessary during Burning Season

Survival Tip #3 – Avoid Heavy Breathing

Check out this great swimming pool that you should absolutely avoid using.

If you plan to be in Chiang Mai for Burning Season, and want to live to tell the (excruciatingly boring) tale, then it stands to reason that you should not suck up more particulate matter than necessary.

Activities that should be avoided during Burning Season include:

  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Cardio
  • Hiking
  • Bootcamps
  • Speed Eating
  • Panic Attacks
  • Sex
  • Intensive Masterbation
  • Continuous Backflips
  • Crossfit
  • Sprinting
  • Sex Whilst Jogging.

You should avoid engaging in activities that provide excitement, since they all require one to gluttonously consume oxygen.

In other words, no fun. For the duration of burning season, it’s best to refrain from fun. So what’s left? Well, there’s Netflix, Sleeping, Working, watching paint dry. There’s lots of careful, shallow-breathing revelry to be had out there.

It’s best to keep a heart monitor around to gauge if the ol’ pumper is getting a bit overexcited.

And should your heart rate start to rocket, then take a seat and do some meditation. But not in the park. Perhaps find a Wat with an air filtration system. Good luck with that.

Survival Tip #4: Stay Indoors

If you’re kind of worried about the health effects of Burning Season – possibly because a raging hypochondriac convinced you that your insides are decomposing – and want to limit your exposure without adorning the full Bane garb every morning, then the best thing you can do is simply to stay inside.

Burning Season arguments can get a little heated.

Although I’m admittedly a touch laissez-faire about the whole deal, I recognise that Burning Season certainly ain’t the time for exploration and searching for #AmazingThailand Pictures. For starters, all you’ll find out there is BROWN. BROWN FIELDS, BROWN (and grey) TREES, BROWN WATERFALLS. It’s all brown.

And if you’re going to go on a jolly hike through the mountains in March, well, you might as well just attach a vacuum cleaner to your lungs, and order your funeral casket there and then.

Alright, that’s a bit far-fetched. But outdoor activities are not recommended during this period. Not just by me, but by the health experts.

This is unfortunate, since having an (active or passive) outdoor lifestyle is why many foreigners come and live in Chiang Mai.

Being out in nature – whether that’s a 20km hike or laying in recovery position in a park for 4 hours – is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding aspects of living in Northern Thailand. But as the smoke begins to descend upon the city, this becomes neither advisable, nor desirable.

The Great Indoors

Much to the indignation of Team Panic, you can limit your exposure considerably by being inside. Even standing in 7 Eleven – with the door opening and closing every 4 seconds (HELLO WELCOME, n’all) – is a lot healthier than hanging out in the street.

Albeit, spending any considerable length of time in 7 Eleven is not anyone’s idea of life worth living. And fortunately it’s not something you need to resort to.

Yes it’s shitty that you can’t go and be at one with nature, but this self-imposed quarantine is a great opportunity to check out all the fantastic opportunities that the city has to offer, of the indoor variety.

Hey, why not spend a day at one of the City’s Shopping Malls? Chiang Mai has at least 4 large shiny Malls that are screaming for your money, and at least one that is not shiny in the slightest (and is arguably closer to a puzzle than a shopping centre).

CM’s Malls have everything you really don’t need all under one roof. Expensive boutique jeans? A premium leather watch strap? 18 different types of Japanese Buffet? Chiang Mai has you sorted!

Commerce Propaganda
Irrelevant Commerce Prophecy
I have this idea that one day Asia will eventually become a single giant shopping complex. Imagine that. And this will happen unwittingly. One day, people will wake up and realise that escalators have replaced all stairs and the whole continent is now indoors. And then they’ll be like, ‘What have we done!’ Before going shopping for new shoes. W

Why do I think this? Because I’m insane. But also because Asia loves commerce and consumerism. I mean, Bangkok is essentially one giant shopping mall already. And if you look at somewhere like Tokyo, it’s impossible to go anywhere via public transport without being inside a shopping complex at some point.

Should you not currently be in the market for a $100 pair of Lacoste Chinos, these complexes have a variety of other activities to keep you entertained. These include ice-skating, laser-quest, gyms, bowling, and the Cinema.

What better way to kill an entire month than to sit in a dark room with industrial air conditioning?

I’ll have a ticket to the one with actual dialogue please

Normally I wouldn’t recommend going to the cinema in Chiang Mai, since I don’t like shitty superhero or horror movies, and for much of the year that is 90% of what’s on offer.

Fortunately, Burning Season tends to coincide with the Oscars.

Sure, sure, the Oscars is a bunch of egomaniacs giving each other trophies. But it does draw global attention to films that aren’t entirely built around CGI explosions and 30 minute fight-sequences.

So for a short couple of months, you can see some actual film-making (or some more superhero trash, if that’s your thing) on Thailand’s big screens.

And if you LOVE big savings, then head along on Wednesdays, when tickets are reduced to 80-100 Baht. Bargain.

What else is there to do during the big smoke? Well you can sit in a Cafe all day. Which happens to be what most people I know do, whether it’s Burning Season or not. You could go for a Massage? Or like, Stay At Home and do some work?

……………..

Alright, let’s not beat around the bush: spending all your time indoors in Chiang Mai, is pants.

Honestly it might just be best to Go To Bed for the month and get some rest.

Yeah. Put the A/C on full, get under the Duvet, switch off the lights, set an alarm for April. Treat March like that new horror movie showing everywhere – just don’t bother with it.

You’ll have a wild electricity bill, but this is as close as you can get to giving your lungs a vacation.

Burning Season Hibernation, activate! See you next month, then. Goodnight.

Survival Tip #5 – Just Leave

If you’ve taken every protective measure bar taking out a restraining order against particulate matter, then there’s only one remaining course of action: it’s time to leave.

If you can.

I recognised that not everyone has the freedom to pack up willy-nilly and piss off to somewhere with visible mountains. Nope, some folk have jobs, families, and other such lofty commitments supergluing them to the city.

For those people all I can say is Hang In There. It’ll be over soon. And you can take great pride that you stuck around and gutted it out.

For anyone who does have a bit more freedom of movement, then perhaps now is the time to have a look at those fancy Islands in the South, that everyone with a back tattoo raves about.

“Oh George, I went to the Islands for Burning Season and it was most splendid! How was Chiang Mai?”

The South of Thailand certainly has a different vibe to Chiang Mai – It has coastlines, lots of Muslim culture, and is a bit more expensive than the North. It also attracts different clientele – lots of holidaymakers, party-goers, beach-lovers, more Germans than Germany – but crucially, the air is clean and breathable.

And getting there is both convenient and affordable IF – and it’s way too late to be telling you this as we enter late March – if you plan ahead (I realise this entire guide is late, but you’ll be ready like never before next year).

Another really effective way to survive Burning Season in Chiang Mai, is to simply not be here in the first place.

It’s rather surprising the amount of people that have no idea about the phenomena, and move in as Burning Season is kicking off. And then they be like HEY GUYS I WANT TO HIKE UP DOI SUTHEP BUT I CAN’T SEE IT, WHERE IS IT.

Well I hate to break it to you enthusiastic European traveller, but you should have done your research, as there are no mountains here, not in March. They were swallowed by the smog monster (see: Lonely Planet Thailand, Page 182.)

And if it isn’t obvious – packing up your crap and heading to Pai or Chiang Rai won’t make a jot of difference since the Burning epidemic is a problem that affects (and is caused by) everywhere in the Northern Thailand region. (Laos and Burma included). Your options are really go south, or leave the country.

Speaking of which, here are my TOP 5 BURNING SEASON ESCAPE DESTINATIONS:

  1. Iceland
  2. Finland
  3. Canada
  4. Estonia
  5. Denmark

That’s right, all the sensible eco-countries. If a lung (or two) full of exceptionally clean air is your ambition, then you can’t beat these places.

The problem with these locations of course being that you may freeze to death, or die from shock at how much they cost to live in, instead.

So it’s best to just pick a Koh and put all the nasty Burning business behind you.

Even if you feel healthy and totally at one with the smoke, the furore alone will leave you unhinged after a while. So it’s worth heading to the beach for a few weeks anyway.

Come to think of it, why the hell am I still sitting here rambling on about Burning Season when I could be building a sandcastle? I’m going to make one with four walls, a moat, and then build a 7 Eleven on every corner. I’ll call it Chong Mee.

I’ll save you a spot.