When I picture places like East Asia in my mind I find myself imagining small villages full of huts with thatched roofs and shanty towns where families cook dinners on open fires. It’s funny how even after spending quite a bit of time traveling around east Asia and seeing how westernized it’s truly become, my mind still automatically jumps to these images of third world countries that still adhere to the traditions of their pasts. These raw un-modernized communities, while they still exist in certain pockets of Thailand and other east Asian countries, are few and far between and if one were to want to find these traditional villages they would have to journey far into very remote terrain amidst jungles and steep mountains.
Such communities are what I am seeking out of personal curiosity, as well as in hopes to learn the traditional agricultural methods that have been handed down through the generations from their native ancestors who first occupied and plowed the land. The easiest way for a tourist to get to these isolated communities is to rent a motorbike and drive up into the mountainous jungles off the beaten path to find them. This is just what my partner, Geeky Greeky and I were able to do.
After spending two weeks in Chiang Mai and exploring the outer rims of the city as well as its center we were ready for a change of scenery, preferably something quiet relaxing, and secluded far from the lively hustle and bustle of the great metropolis. We had heard tales from local people of a small city called Pai three hours south west of Chiang Mai. From its description, it seemed to be a hippie paradise hidden amidst the Chiang Mai mountains where one could gorge on cheap superfoods and cook a boiled egg in natural hot springs. Instead of taking the commonly traversed route that took you from Chiang Mai directly to Pai we decided to make the trip a two-day road trip where we’d drive through the Chiang Mai mountains, a national park, nature reserve as well as a handful of traditional Thai villages, like those that I had first imagined when coming to Thailand.
Excited for the trip and the chance to photograph traditional and remote villages that are rarely visited by outsiders, we packed a single bag, hopped on our newly rented motorbike, and headed on our way. The sky that morning was gray and a light haze seemed to lie in the air that made my eyes feel slightly itchy. Paying it no mind, we turned off the small dirt road that we had learned to call home over the last couple weeks and joined the highway.
Geeky Greeky driving up front, me clinging to him from behind with a big black backpack strapped to my back. After forty minutes on the major speedway we branched off and headed towards the base of the Chiang Mai mountains and towards Doi Inthanon National Park. Here, tall trees covered in wild vines lined the side of the road and restaurants and villages became less frequent. The extent of the jungle around us and the life that hummed within it was palpable through the sounds of bird calls and cicadas that were barely audible over the roar of the bikes engine. The sides of the surrounding mountains were golden and red as the dry season had begun to dry out the tree foliage causing them to change color and fall. It looked as if the jungle was experiencing autumn, but the amount of huge green jungle leaves and fluffy palm trees that hid below the jungles top canopy seemed to tell a different story.
Our road took us safely through the Park and surrounding jungle and to the door of the B&B that we had booked for our first night. That night, while sitting on the balcony of our small jungle hut we realized how far out we really were. Other than the town that we were currently in, there was no marked civilization on google maps for miles around. We were just two foreigners lost somewhere in the jungles of northern Thailand, and we loved it.
The next morning after a delicious breakfast of fried eggs and toast with peanut butter we set back out on our route. We had decided to take an unmarked road that cut through the mountains and went directly to Pai instead of driving around them and adding an extra day to our journey. We sped down the road, at reasonable speeds of course, through more jungle and terraced farmland. The steeper we climbed, the more spectacular the views became. The peaks of the mountains poked through the thick cloud bank that hung to the grounds of the valleys surrounding the mountains. It was as if we had driven to the top of the world, above the smog, above the clouds, untouchable and truly alone. Just as we were becoming comfortable on our mystery jungle road, the pavement disappeared, replaced with uncompact dirt and gravel.
Great dips and crevices cut through the road causing the bike to lose its grip and skid. I clung on for dear life as intensely focused Geeky Greeky expertly steered us clear of danger. We thought the road would eventually transition back to asphalt but of course it didn’t. We had found the backroad to rival all backroads. I was just starting to argue that road wasn’t truly the right term (bushwhacked herding path seemed to me a more appropriate title) when to the left of us, the sloping terraces of fields and farm land suddenly gave way to burnt blackness. We stopped, shocked.
The land ahead of us was completely charred. In some places piles of brush and undergrowth still lay smoking. We headed farther down the road and finally came across the first signs of humanity that we had seen in almost two hours. The small village, only a small collection of wooden huts and lean-toos, was nestled at the base of one of the nearby mountains. Tucked into the valley and situated close to a small river, you could see smoke from the houses, cooking fires perhaps, and the small ant like figures of people walking among the fields and huts. Driving carefully down the side of the mountain we headed straight for the village. It was obvious that we were unexpected.
Women dressed in traditional hill tribe clothing and their naked children came up to their windows and porches to watch us pass. Some smiled, but mostly there was a quizzical sense of, “What are you guys doing here?” Slowing at the entrance of one house where two women sat crooning over a small baby we asked for directions, a process made complicated by the intensely large language barrier and the tense stances of the two women who were obviously uneasy about speaking with us. Finally, we just asked, “Pai?” To which the two women nodded with faces of final understanding and gestured further down the road and then up the side of the mountain with pointed fingers. As we carried on down our dirt backroad I noticed that here the villages fields were scorched as well. In fact, a few of them seemed to be actively on fire. Looking down over the burning fields I noticed an elderly farmer tending to the fires with a large stick.
After two more hours of driving and passing by more burned fields and forests we finally arrived in Pai. Our small bungalow looked out over Pai itself, an incredible view that was cast in golden light in the early mornings and a reddish hue as the sun set. While our place was gorgeous and we were weary and sore from our long bumpy ride I had to learn why so much of the surrounding farmland was scorched, so the first thing I did once we got settled was whip out my computer and do a little research with the help of grandma google.
Remember the hazy morning that burned my eyes a little the day we left on our little road trip? Well, it turns out that that haze is only getting stronger and more toxic in the coming months throughout northern Thailand and the surrounding area. We happened to be in northern Thailand during the smoky season. A season famous for its incredibly bad air quality and awful visibility. The smokey season is caused by four main factors:
1.Naturally occurring forest fires;
2.Intentionally set “control forest fires;
3.Burning of farm land and crop fields;
The biggest contributor of the smoke, you may be surprised to know, is in fact the burning of farm land. This is exactly what we had witnessed while driving through the rural countryside of Chiang Mai. Due to weather conditions and human activity, primarily the burning of farm land, use of vehicles, and the setting of brush clearing fires, this season is an annual phenomenon that drives people out of Chiang Mai for two months of the year.
The air quality can get so bad that schools and workplaces can be shut down and many people are recommended to stay in doors with air filters on and windows and doors shut. While brush fires and crop field burning is a global occurrence that is used in many traditional agricultural systems it is not one that is very ecologically safe or friendly. Crop burning may have once been a valid agricultural method, but due to the chemicals, pesticides, and micro plastics that we now incorporate within our farming techniques the burning of crop fields has become a toxic farming method for modern society.
Farmers set their lands on fire to quickly and efficiently clear out the stalks and husks of old crops in order to ready the land for the next planting rotation. During this burning, not only the stalks and remnants of old plants are burned but any collateral garbage or plastics including ties, stakes, and any loose debris in the field are also caught up in the blaze. Also burned are the chemical remnants of pesticides and unnatural fertilizers that were used to grow the crops in the first place. Due to the mountainous terrain of the area, this toxic cloud gets trapped in the surrounding valleys and gradually increases air pollution levels during the dry season, a season where no rain is present to wash out this built up toxic haze. The air quality index (AQI) levels can reach as high as 200-300 plus (The worst AQI is 500 which is considered hazardous to individuals health, 200-300 is considered very unhealthy).
Now if these air quality levels are so lethal, why is it still legal for farmers to use slash and burn clearing methods? The answer is that it actually isn’t. Slash and burn clearing is illegal throughout Thailand. However, this law is completely unenforced due to the remoteness of the farmland. The government is just not willing to fund and implement the resources needed to enforce such a law.
Another major contributor to the smokey season is that vehicles are not checked or monitored for smog (smokey fog that is a major contributor to air pollution). The pollution from vehicles including taxis and Tuk Tuks is trapped under the ever-thickening smoke from the crop clearing fires and in the dry season builds up under this smoke blanket to create a toxic haze that clogs cities such as Chiang Mai well into May/June or until the first rains come.
This building collection of toxic gases is known to cause many negative health effects such as asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, silicosis, and lung cancer as well as daily discomfort such as itchy eyes, sore throats, coughing, sneezing, chest pain, and shortness of breath. There isn’t much anyone can do to protect themselves other than to leave the area for a month or two or until the smoke clears, something many natives of Chiang Mai and northern Thailand do if they have the resources. If you can’t leave the city or surrounding area, it is recommended that you stay inside and avoid physical and outdoor activities. You are also recommended to wear a type “N95” surgical mask that can filter airborne particles that measure 0.3 microns and up. These masks are specially designed to protect you from the toxic chemicals that are floating in the air during the smoky season.
While slash and burn clearing may be a fast and efficient method. it is not the only way to prepare a crop field and many farmers are aware of this. For example, farmers who use integrated farming systems, systems where livestock and other crops are used in order to clear fields or re-fertilize the soil, have found that allowing their sheep or cattle to graze and clear out old fields efficiently readies the field for the next planting at no added cost. Livestock grazing also feeds the animals eliminating the cost of extra feed.
Other methods, although they may take more time, include turning husks and stocks into specific kinds of fertilizers or using the excess materials for activities such as weaving or even shed or cob building. Many organizations are trying desperately to bring more attention to the smokey season in northern Thailand and make a change either in the smog laws and/or agricultural laws throughout the country in order to decrease the air pollution levels during the months of March and April.
While our trip to Pai was incredible and I found the surrounding scenery to be breathtaking, the stretches of charred earth that dot the landscape and the occasional fire you see on the side of the road are very saddening and seem out of place in such a beautiful setting. I’d personally recommend that visitors stay clear of northern Thailand during this season to protect their own health, but if you are planning to visit Thailand during a different season I would highly recommend taking a motorbike trip down to Pai, off the beaten path.