WE couldn't have arrived here at a worse time. The pollution levels are extremely high. It reminds me a lot of Los Angeles, only it's worse. In LA at least the smog tends to burn off by the afternoon and you see some blue sky. Here, we haven't quite seen the sky turn a proper shade of blue. It always looks hazy, even when the sun is out.
The problem is the farmers. This time of year they do a lot of straw and vegetation-burning. But locals tell me it's worse this year than they have seen it for a long time. People walking and driving often wear surgical masks. The high traffic does not help. There are a lot of vehicles on the road, particularly motorcycles and scooters. There isn't much breeze either.
However, in terms of vehicle pollution, it doesn't feel as bad for me here as when I was in towns in India. Often when I was in Varkala and had to walk into town, my nose would begin streaming and not stop until I returned to the beach - almost as if someone had turned a tap on and off. Thankfully, we were mostly by the beach whilst in India.
I'm quite sensitive to pollution and there can be no doubt the air quality overall is worse here from the burning and continual traffic. Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountains. It sits in a bowl. But most days we can't even see the surrounding landscape!
It's supposed to be beautiful - and I am sure it is - but I can't really get past the pollution right now. How long will it last? That depends on who you ask. Some say a few weeks, while others fear it could go through until May. Everyone is praying (not literally) for rain. This will solve the problem - wash away the smoke. It's also a problem, though. That's because there are some activists fighting hard for over a decade to change the farmers' methods and introduce more sustainable methods. But when the rain comes the drive to make changes diminishes - until the next year.
Tourism gets affected as well as the health and lives of those who live in and around the area. Respiratory problems are high here. Chiang Mai does have a lot going for it, though. Many people come here for the excellent hiking opportunities, but no-one can go right now.
There is also the wonderful city life - bustling markets, fabulous restaurants, amazing temples, Thai massage everywhere, outdoor activities etc. We were planning to stay six months or more, but I don't want us, as a family, exposed to the bad air quality any more than we have to. We've decided to move on to Penang, Malaysia. After our stint there, we hope to return to give Chiang Mai another go.
Air pollution's a widespread problem in Asia. Neighbouring countries like Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar carry out the same land-burning practices, which have been going on for many years. However, nations like China, India, Pakistan and Iran have it the worst when it comes to air quality.