Smogbirding; The New Thai Trend

Every Canadian’s biggest complaint about life in The Great White North is always the weather. Even the lucky ones in Vancouver think they have it rough. Often referred to as Road Construction season, summers are short and often chilly or rainy and the other nine months a year are cold. And snowy. Deserting the frigid homeland for as long as half the year or however many days the tax man says is OK, Canadians coined the term “snowbirding”. Defined as  “A North American term for a person who moves from the higher latitudes and colder climates of Canada and migrates southward in winter to warmer locales such as Florida, Arizona, Mexico and The Caribbean”, it’s every Canadian’s winter dream.

Chiang Mai; the sun is slightly visible in early March

Conversely, there’s no snow in the tropics which is one primary reason most early retirees consider places like Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, no matter how much the developed world tries to salvage our planet through recycling, elimination of plastics and modern garbage disposal, anyone living in places like Thailand knows it’s pointless because this entire side of the world sits in a perennial blanket of air pollution and smog. Compounded by uneducated citizens that routinely burn everything from garbage to overgrown fauna and governments more concerned with public image than protecting its citizens, Thailand has almost no meaningful environmental regulations. Add in greedy corporate assholes that illegally clear-cut and burn thousands of acres in countries that support the palm oil industry and the occasional El Nino that suppresses normal rainfall and you get a Great Environmental Disaster like the 2015 mess that blanketed five countries in a poisonous stench for three months straight.

Unlike Singapore and Malaysia which often registers numbers deemed “unhealthy” on the AQI 2.5 scale (the most reliable gauge of air pollution), Chiang Mai sits normally enjoys rainfall for four to six months of the year. Usually filtering out particulate matter, air quality is relatively decent for Asia from May through January. After the rainy season Northern Thailand usually enjoys a four to six-week period of very cool air followed by a month or two of crystal clear, beautiful blue skies with low humidity and comfy temperatures. Taking advantage of this, we enjoyed January and February with lots of day trips to the beautiful surrounding mountains. And then, almost like magic, the shit hits the fan every year. Like Los Angeles, Chiang Mai sits in a large valley which subjects the area to inversion layers during the dry and hot season which typically starts in March. During this time, local farmers and more recently, large corporate interests from Bangkok burn enormous huge swaths of crops as they prepare the fields for the upcoming season. As temperatures increase, skies slowly become blanketed in unhealthy gray smog that obscures the sun, creates dangerous health hazards for many people and destroys the planet.

This was Penang in 2015 and it’s worse in Northern Thailand every spring

Already happening for decades, the air quality gets much worse every year as heavy development, increased numbers of vehicles and “progress” make it just a little harder to combat. Pretending they care or perhaps to save face, the local government began declaring “open burning bans” a few years ago during the worst of the haze. While hypothetically designed to help, Southeast Asian government’s favorite activity is imposition of laws that locals know will never be enforced so while a few scared peasants may follow the ban, it’s plainly obvious by mid March that the ban does nothing to help. Originally planning a November visit to Koh Lanta, a laid back island bordered by The Andaman Sea, we postponed it until early March because the rainy season lingered longer than normal down south. When we left in late February, skies were beginning to get hazy but were still acceptable. But on our return flight, one look out the window as the plane began its descent showed us why we’d need to escape the unacceptable layer of poison that blankets Northern Thailand every spring.

The blue skies end and the haze begins at about 2000 feet

Thankfully, unlike Malaysia, Thailand is a large and diverse nation stretching about 2,000 kilometers from its Northern border at Laos to the Malaysian border in the south. Make no mistake; Bangkok and the entire capital region is often blanketed in smog as all big cities in Asia and it’s unrelated to crop burning. But travel south a few hours and the entire southern peninsular is prime beach country devoid of most agricultural production. While humidity occasionally produces hazy skies and sometimes reduces visibility, the sun shines brilliantly and AQI levels are generally better. Of course there’s only one or two monitoring stations in the entire south but it doesn’t take a rocket science to figure out that tourists don’t flock to beaches plagued by ugly gray skies and pollution.

This is Suan Luang Beach. It’s usually this deserted

Knowing the Chiang Mai annual shitstorm of poison was inevitable, albeit a bit later than expected, we went searching for a sleepy beach town with inexpensive accommodations and struck gold in Bangapahan, a very laid back small town two hours south of the province’s main tourist draw (Hua Hin) and a few hours north of gateways to Koh Samui, Thailand’s main choice for expat island getaways (way too expensive if you’re trying to overlap rent and stay within the monthly budget like us). Having bought a reliable 2011 Nissan we decided to make a two-day, 1,100 kilometer drive and spend a month away from the smog. Following the conditions closely on Facebook community forums, we see it’s deteriorated since our arrival and they’re all saying this season is much worse than last year. With the upcoming Songkran holiday coming up, we liked it so much down here we decided to extend our trip by another week in Hua HIn. Thinking of moving south anyway since fleeing Chiang Mai every year gets old and expensive, we found a one week villa rental on Airbnb in a suburban community we’d consider moving to so we’ll enjoy the clean air and use the week as an exploratory trip.

Having taken an arduously long 15 hour bus trip two years ago from Hua Hin to Chiang Mai, I wasn’t looking forward to the drive which featured four lanes merging into one way traffic every 20 miles for hours on end thanks to a massive paving project on the main north south highway. Surprisingly, they apparently finished and the first six hours was a strangely deserted well paved jaunt at 120 Kph. Passing the occasional truck, practically no car traffic drove the stretch from Lampang to Ayuthhaya, our overnight stopping point. Seeming more like a lonely North American interstate highway, it’s only about six hours to the outskirts of Bangkok and I’m always surprised that most expats don’t drive straight through. Wanting to stay right off the highway, we chose a resort called Ayutthaya Retreat.

Garnering better reviews than most road stops in Thailand, we arrived around 4 PM and saw our name on a chalkboard at reception. A restored Thai villa, the property has lots of beautiful old furniture and relics as well as friendly staff, small but well maintained pool and a restaurant on site. Ruining an otherwise decent stop, the water stopped right in the middle of Diane’s shower. In typical TIT (this is Thailand), the electricity apparently went out for the entire area and the water pumps are dependent on power. By itself, this wouldn’t be unusual or even unacceptable and part of life in developing nations is dealing with unexpected shit like this that’s always blamed on the local government.

But when I went searching for a manager to see when and why the resort had no power, the resort owner offered a condescending set of excuses and muttered “yeah, yeah” when I asked for more information. Naturally, we found out later he lived and worked in western North America which would explain both the American sports paraphernalia and the attitude you get from every Indian manager at Super 8’s all across America. I’d recommend this guy go back to the land of nasty and suggest you look elsewhere since Thai business owners usually really appreciate your business. Although the second day’s mileage was less, we chose the outer ring road on the southeastern side of Bangkok as the way to connect with the main highway that heads all the way down the peninsula, eventually ending at the Malaysian border.

Recommending you avoid this route at all cost if you’re far removed from morning commute traffic, we sat through sluggish stop and go for the next three hours as the Bangkok sprawl now extends far from the city center. It’s possible to travel further west on less traveled roads to reach the coast and after living in The Bay Area, traffic’s not my thing so we’ll try another way on the ride home. But eventually, the six  lane freeway clears up as you leave the suburbs and once you connect with Highway 4, it’s an easy drive down to the coast, Bypassing Hua HIn, there’s a ring road around the main town in beautiful  Prachaup Khiri Khan Province and six hours after leaving the stopover, we approached the turnoff for Bangapahan and its little sister town of Ban Krut which has more resorts and a nicer beach but little more than that. The large province itself hosts several national parks worth visiting and the more rural towns further south offer perfect escapes if you’re looking to do little more than read, bike ride, beachcomb and relax.

Arriving at the large two bedroom property, our Airbnb hots met us and gave us a tour as well as answering all our questions. Unlike North America, picking you up, greeting you and servicing the property is common for Airbnb hosts in Asia and they almost always make themselves or someone authorized available if you have problems. Going above and beyond that, our host came by with her mother and a team of two other helpers one day when we asked for some minor bathroom repairs. Asking our host to switch mattresses because the smaller bedroom’s was softer, they engaged in a thirty minute discussion in Thai that we couldn’t figure out but guessed that not pleasing your guest is apparently unacceptable in Thai culture. Instead of the easy solution, they went out and bought a brand new mattress and a topper which was just as hard as the first one but the gesture was nice. For an amazing monthly price that works out to $20.41 USD a day, we’ve lived in comfort and overlapping rent didn’t come close to breaking the monthly budget.

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Lacking only a modern TV, we brought our all in one computer and took advantage of the high-speed fiber WiFi at no charge so we’d be able to watch downloaded programs and live hockey in the morning. They included utilities in the price and they also left coffee, toilet paper, bathroom amenities, hampers and lots of bottled water. Figuring out how to use the very manual washing machine was Diane’s biggest chore and I’d planned on posting more but time just kind of slipped away. Among the nicest surprises was the food quality in the few local restaurants as well as the unbelievably low prices. Seafood is the main star on the coast but every menu has western style steaks, curries, pizza, Thai salads, stir-fried and lots of fish and shrimp. Having already written more than intended (not unusual for me), I’ll use the next two posts to describe the food choices and destination options within a 30 minute drive.

Roast chicken stuffed with spinach and ham at Cuisine, the best restaurant in the area

I should clarify that this town is beautiful, relatively quiet, has just enough of what you need in the way of infrastructure and a miniscule expat community of mostly French people. But it’s not for anyone that needs nightlife, excitement, fancy restaurants, luxury or typical tourist town amenities. Basically, it’s one of the few remaining “undiscovered” beach towns that has just enough foreigners and English-speaking people to maker it comfortable. There’s absolutely no Chinese tour buses since there’s absolutely nothing for them to do here and the buses that do arrive carry mostly Thai people not wealthy enough for more expensive or developed beach towns. But the locals are very friendly, the beaches are mostly clean and nice albeit not as scenic as The Andaman Sea resort towns and compared to breathing in shit for upwards of ten weeks, I’d call it a little tropical paradise. We’re leaving for Hua Hin on Tuesday so my upcoming posts will talk more about the area. Meanwhile, feel free to popularize the term “Smogbirding” but please don’t encourage Lonely Planet to expand on the three paragraph description of the area. Cheers.

Comments and questions always welcome.

4 thoughts on “Smogbirding; The New Thai Trend

  1. Danny Fernandes

    OMG, it is so fun to see Thailand through other people’s eyes. Thailand is and always will be so dear to my heart now. Your trip looked amazing!! Thanks for this great post Rob & Diane!

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  2. Valérie

    Are you guys still in the South of Thailand? I just saw another article about Chiang Mai continuing to choke in smog… We are trying to pick our first snowbird destination, and your article was an real eye opener. CM will be great in January and February, not so much in the months after that…

    Thanks for another great post!

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      We’v returned and a series of large rainstorms have completely cleared the air and that should do it for this year. Basically, stay away form Chiang Mai from March 1st until April 30th every year to avoid inhaling the poisons. I’m putting the blog into hiatus for awhile so feel free to PM me if you want more information. Cheers

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  3. Lim-Lim Dunn

    Another great post Rob & Diane! Why not settle in South Thailand permanently? Everything in Waterloo, ON is covered in snow again after a couple days of April snow vs. April shower! So cold even the Easter Bunnies didn’t make an appearance. Absolutely no sign of Spring in the woods behind our house. The woods should be covered in Trilliums by now, but one can’t even find an occasional squirrel in this frigid cold. One positive thing of all these, it’s so quiet one can almost hear snow flakes landing on the window sills…… Definitely a day to cuddle Pingo (our Portuguese Water Dog) in bed watching shows on YouTube, while sipping on hot choc.

    Enjoy the heat & try to remember us (still tied to the mill stone) in the Great White North………….Lim-Lim

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