The heavy haze hangs listlessly in the air unheeding of the gentlest of breezes. Even the butterflies seem weighed down as they career in a tipsy fashion across the garden .
The sounds in the air , like the air itself, have a slightly muffled quality.
The voice of a monk backed by the melodic auto harp oozes ethereally through the temple speakers, punctuated by the calls of the cicadas as they drift lazily by, slightly slowed by the not quite oppressive heat.
Here on the ground it is an otherworldly scene reminiscent of a galaxy far far away. Above the smog you can easily imagine the twin suns of Tatooine burning, searing and blinding, but the dust hangs so thick that the power from our single sun cannot penetrate. We are left in shadow, edges blurred, life through a soft focus lens.
It’s burning season.
Farmers throughout the north of the country as well as those in the south of Myanmar, Laos and China are illegally burning their fields after harvest to prepare the ground for next seasons yield and clearing tracts of forest to use as agricultural land. The smoke hangs heavy and dense across south east Asia, with no real winds to disperse it and no rain of any significance since October add that to the traffic and industrial pollution that rises from the cities and you get the ‘perfect storm’ for the whole of the north of the country to be locked down by smog.
*(For a more comprehensive read about the problems of Burning season this is a great article that was featured in this weeks Chiang Mai City News)
We had of course read about the burning season and thought we were ready for it and had our dust masks purchased , but nothing can really prepare you for the reality of the alien landscape and the sheer lack of visible familiar surroundings day after day.
From our bedroom window the usual view is this;
During burning season most days it has been this;
Quite a difference.
When you are in a city it can be easy to believe that this is a local issue but my visa run to Myanmar showed me just how widespread the problem is. The further north you travel the heavier the gloom becomes and the more the eyes sting from the acrid smog.
The problem, categorised as ‘urgent’ for the last 10 years, is deliberated over and debated every single year with proposals put forward and initiatives rolled out to convince the farmers not to burn but clearly once again the initiatives have not succeeded and the locals of Chiang Mai have either donned their dust masks or done what we will be doing at this time next year and fled south to enjoy clean air and fresh breezes. It’s no mistake I’m sure that ‘summer holidays’ coincide with burning season.
I love my new city with a passion I haven’t felt for a place in a very long time, but I can’t recommend visiting it at this time of year ( there is a reason the tour packages to northern Thailand are significantly cheaper now). It’s still a beautiful city, but its much more spectacular when visibility is above 500 meters and your breathing isn’t impaired. For now we go on in the hope that ‘they’ are right when ‘they’ say it should be over by Songkran ( Thai new year festivities mid-April ) and in the meantime join the locals in their happy dances when the occasional storm passes over. The last couple days have been significantly better due to a tropical storm front sweeping through bringing with it the cleansing power of the rain and as I lay in bed last night gazing out across the mountain that has been hidden from view for most of the last month it feels like the end of the burning season, as well as the lights from the temple, are in sight.
Jer Gan Mài