Despite having five days in between our real beach vacation in Koh Lanta and our one month escape from the unhealthy shitty air that defines Chiang Mai every year like clockwork, I’ve been very remiss with my posts so please accept my apologies. Having just arrived in a small sleepy beach town called Bangsaphan that’s literally three hours from the nearest big tourist area, we’re settling into our two huge bedroom 1,700 square foot house that we’ll call home for a month. Astoundingly priced on AirBnb at about $20.41 USD a day and deeply discounted if you stay 30 days, the house is large, airy and comfortable. Having taken two days to drive 1,150 kilometers, it’s time to chill out in an area with lots of places they call “beach resorts” but realistically most of them are very mediocre two or three star at best. A perfect place to really relax without the crowds, this town isn’t exactly a place you’ll see on any Travel Channel documentary that features Thailand’s beach destinations. And that’s just fine by us.
So given my degree of laziness at the moment, I’ll break from the usual story telling format after making a few key points about Northern Thailand during “burning season” and telling you a bit about Koh Lanta. Not yet high on the list of top beach destinations in Thailand, it’s an island that still maintains a bit of rustic charm and simplicity while offering countless less expensive accommodation options for all budgets. Known for a hosting a huge number of Swedes (mostly in the north), the island has about six distinct regions each with different vibes and suited for different groups of visitors. Staying during the mid-season, we saw mostly strangely quiet French and German tourists both young and old, families and a smattering young couples. Most importantly, the skies were blue, there’s no agricultural burning and during dry season, every sunset looks like this.
So here’s the skinny on the haze. Despite the dozens of lengthy discussions, arguments, suggestions and viewpoints on the air quality in Chiang Mai, there’s one inevitable fact. Every year beginning around early March, the skies will darken into a barely visible super orange hazy sunshine which is actually an enormous swath of pollution hanging over the region. Exasperated by a large degree of agricultural burning in the surrounding valley that’s now been increased due to corporate interests in large-scale corn derivative production and despite seasonal “open burning bans”, the bottom line is this; Chiang Mai is a large metropolitan area that’s increasing its development every year and sits in the middle of a mountain valley. Seasonal dry periods create “inversion layers” that trap mostly invisible pollutants in the atmosphere.
If you’re familiar with Southern California or the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles in August, you’d know what it looks like only much worse. The picture below is from our window seat last week just before descending into the area. Although it may look like an innocent fog bank typically seen while descending into San Francisco, it’s a polluted layer of poisonous shit. Unlike California, however, which has the most stringent environmental laws in North America, Thailand is ultimately a “developing” (third world) nation with no meaningful legislation to protect its people from air pollution. Thankfully, it’s also huge from north to south and after driving far enough south from Bangkok’s even worse muck, the sun reappears as you approach the beach towns.
For potential expats contemplating a move to Chiang Mai, here’s what you need to know. Forget the Facebook threads and know there’s three options. As they love to blabber on social media, you can “go back home” if you’re dumb enough to move here completely oblivious to such an important quality of life issue and unhealthy air quality bothers you. Or, you can take advantage of Thailand’s relatively inexpensive beach destinations in the south and either vacation or rent a property for a month or two. If you’re living below budget like we are, perhaps you can do both; vacation at a resort and then rent a house in a lower key beach town like we did. And if you’re either unaffected or unconcerned with breathing air that’s labeled “unhealthy” or worse for a continuous period of six to eight weeks you can simply stay in Chiang Mai and tough it out.
That’s it, folks. Nobody is changing the problem anytime in our natural lifetimes and the longer you live in Asia the more you understand that it’s part and parcel of developing nations. Only governments can change things by legislative action and it took upwards of 30 years after the EPA’s creation to get America’s air quality where it is now. Despite Thailand’s classification as a constitutional monarchy with free elections, it’s currently ruled by a military government that mostly prohibits public demonstrations so nobody expects its citizens to hit the streets demanding sweeping environmental change. So you can stay, leave for good or go enjoy the beaches for a while. Personally, we think you’d be nuts to live in Thailand long-term and never visit the beach anyway. (We do know some expats that have never left Chiang Mai after ten years or more). As for the social media arguments that many expats in Thailand are so poor they can barely afford to eat let alone travel, we can’t empathize with anyone that worked their whole lives (or chose not to work) and has no savings and I’d doubt many from that crowd has any interest in a blog written by early retirees anyway.
Clarifying the point a bit before I get to those beautiful pictures of Koh Lanta, I should add that while they say Chiang Mai’s AQI levels are worse this year than last, the haze is nothing even remotely close to the dead sky environmental disaster that we experienced for two months in Penang during the strong El Nino of 2015. Looking more like Beijing at its worst almost every day, that was entirely unacceptable and unlivable. But during our brief five days in Chiang Mai between trips, we still hit the gym and the hazy skies haven’t affected our lung capacity. Many of our friends we know from workouts stay in Chiang Mai all year and it’s reasonable to say that most fit and active people with no health compromises might be totally unaffected by the air. Unlike Penang, the stench is only moderately smoky in our part of town and it’s not usually prolonged. So we could stay if we had to but why would you if you have the means and a sense of adventure?
Having now made my arguments for staying or going, let’s move on to Koh Lanta. Only recently “discovered” in the last five to eight years, long time expats say it’s been ruined by development and that might be compared to what it used to be but with no major corporate chains or high-rise structures, we found it to be charming, beautiful and just rustic enough. Not the most easily accessible destination, it’s a mid-sized island about 90 minutes south of Krabi. While not inexpensive by Thai standards, the fastest and most enjoyable transfer from the airport is run by a company that picks you up at the airport, drives you in an air-conditioned van to a private pier, takes you on an awesome 15 minute speedboat that knocks 30 minutes off the drive and then transports you right to your hotel by songtheaw. Cost was 8,800 Baht round trip and that was more than we spent the entire week. Cheaper options apparently drop you off on the beach from somewhere and you then schlep your luggage through the sand to your hotel. Not what I’d do but then again, we saved money during our working years to avoid the cheapest methods of transport.
Although the main activities are water sports, sunbathing and island hopping which we’ve done before and chose not to do this time, there’s a few worthwhile options besides laying on the resort’s many chaises or pools. The further south you go on the island, the less crowded it gets and we chose a stretch of the island known as Klong Nin Beach. Staying at Sri Lanta Resort, we loved the accommodations although the villas were a bit simple and outdated. Across the street from the beach and pools, they’re much quieter than many cheaper options where the rooms are beachfront or poolside and you can hear your neighbors every time they move. Food options in our town within walking distance are a host of “on the beach options” with bar-b-q and other mostly Thai options, some small pizza places and one great restaurant called Cook-Kai that’s been around since the 1980’s and features weekly specials well worth trying. Getting around the island is easier if you rent motorbikes but we value our lives and aren’t willing to test the Thai healthcare system so we paid rather exorbitant prices (compared to Chiang Mai) and used songtheaws or tuk-tuks that are actually bikes with sidecars when we wanted to leave the area.
Reuniting with our friends (the monkeys) was by far the best thing we did on the island but we absolutely love monkeys. About half an hour from our resort is Thung Yee Pheng Mangrove Forest, an area that’s apparently privately run although it’s kind of disguised to look like a wildlife protection zone. Since they write all the signage in Thai, we don’t really know. For a few hundred Baht, you can take a half day trip that takes you down river in a traditional Thai long tail boat that goes through a beautiful mangrove forest and stops to feed monkeys in the surrounding area. Possibly the tamest and friendliest macaques we’ve ever seen, at first we found one that must be an outcast from the group. Jumping right into the boat, the guide brought bananas and pineapples and our friend sat patiently in front of us while eating. Even letting me briefly pet him, he gave a look that said “please don’t touch me” after a few pets but it was the first time I ever got to touch a macaque (not advisable by the way). A few minutes later, a whole gang of monkeys both young and old jumped on the boat and began jumping all over while feasting on fruit. It’s great fun and we never get tired of monkeys despite having done this type of activity in three different rain forests on different continents.
The main scenic attraction lies at the southern tip of the island where you’ll find Mu Ko Lanta National Park. Well worth a trip even at 1,000 Baht round trip via songtheaw, the park is on a spectacular piece of land rivaling the nicest coastlines in Maine, California and Vancouver Island. Arriving early, we had the entire area to ourselves and even the naughty monkeys weren’t even around yet. Word of caution: The monkeys are NOT like tame docile pets that I described on the mangrove trip. They will steal ANYTHING in your hand so never bring food and keep your backpack limited to a blanket for the beach and maybe some water. The park features a lighthouse, a beautiful beach with bathtub like water that’s almost as photogenic as the more famous beaches and a two kilometer steep trail that’s challenging if you’ve been on the beach instead of in the gym.
Some of you may Google the island’s top attractions and wonder why I didn’t mention Lanta Animal Welfare despite its reputation as the island’s number one attraction besides beaches. With apologies to other reputable charitable organizations, we didn’t enjoy or approve of their style. Needing obvious help, they offer “dog walking” of their sheltered dogs and on the day we visited, they dumped six dogs on us and two other couples, gave us a two-minute briefing and sent us on our way in the blazing hot late morning sun. Diane chose a disabled dog with three legs and mine was literally scared to walk with strangers more than a few steps so I wound up carrying him back. Clearly way too hot for all six dogs, the staff seemed quite condescending when the entire group voiced our concerns and took a “we know better” attitude that came off like they were snobby do-gooders. While I’ve not really found many reviews agreeing with me, that was our experience so what can I say? Sorry.
And that’s mostly what we’ve been up to since burning season started. While it’s a real shame Chiang Mai (and most of Thailand) suffers through unnecessarily unhealthy air quality for at least two months a year, it does give expats a chance to explore the beach regions which are astoundingly beautiful. Granted there’s not many undiscovered places left and our sleepy beach town suffers from some garbage in the waters but with so few tourists and amazingly friendly locals that somehow speak better English than the university city of Chiang Mai, we’re thinking this was a good choice to escape the smog, catch up on some real paper books and chill out like old people. There’s no gym anywhere in town but we can pay 500 Baht to use the pool in the area’s only hotel that qualifies as a four star resort. They cater to tourists from France for some reason and they write everything in French but lunch today proved that you’re usually better off sticking to Thai food while in Thailand. So give me a week or so to breathe in the fresh air and hopefully I’ll have something worthwhile to tell you in the next post.