Southeast Asia’s Burning Season: What You Need to Know

Burning Season in Southeast Asia

As people start to plan their travels for the new year, we are receiving more and more enquiries about the so called “burning season” or “haze” of Southeast Asia. Having experienced this time of year first-hand several times I thought I’d give you a heads up about what it’s really like!

The main two questions asked in our Facebook Community:

  1. Is burning season really that bad?
  2. Is it worth altering my travel plans to avoid the burning season?

My answers to both questions = YES. It is really that bad and YES you should consider rescheduling your trip. Read on to find out why.

What is the Burning Season?

The burning season or “smoky season” as it is sometimes referred to is mainly caused by local farmers burning old crops in the fields or burning patches of forest land to make way for new planting. This is known as slash and burn farming or agriculture. This method is centuries old, but in a modern world where the climate (and the start of the rainy season) is becoming more and more unpredictable, it is causing an immense amount of air pollution which lingers around for months on end.

Burning fields in Northern Thailand.
Burning fields in Thailand. Photo credit: Levi Sky.

Added to the smoke emitted from the fields, you also have exhaust fumes of thousands of cars and motorbikes as well as smoke/dust from factories and small ‘trash fires’ started by locals added to the toxic mix.

Bangkok Traffic
Tuk yuks, bikes, cars, buses. Traffic in Bangkok. Vehicle pollution adds to the air quality issues.

There is also the issue of ‘forest clearances’ where enormous areas of ancient rainforest are burnt to make way for the planting of palm oil trees, one of the planet’s most lucrative, but destructive, products. This is most common in Indonesia where it is suggested that over 2.4 million hectares of native rainforest is destroyed each year. This not only causes air pollution problems, but destroys the habitat for thousands of indigenous species, not to mention tribal peoples who live in the forest.

Forest burnt in Ban Rak Thai near the border of Thailand and Myanmar (Mae Hong Son area) - 6th April 2019.
Forest burnt in Ban Rak Thai near the border of Thailand and Myanmar (Mae Hong Son) – 6th April 2019. Photo credit: Episcia Atfal Lintang.

Where does the Burning Season affect?

Northern Thailand and Northern Laos – March/April

The burning season affects all of Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai, Pai, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Dao, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan etc.) and Northern Laos (Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Luang Namtha).

Haze on the Mekong in Northern Laos in April 2019. Photo credit: Mark Wyld.

The city of Chiang Mai is particularly badly affected, with the AQI hitting horrendous levels in the city on a regular basis in mid March of 2019. This made Chiang Mai officially the worst air quality in the world on several days in 2019. They even sent planes to spray water over Chiang Mai in an attempt to reduce air pollution and relieve the suffering population, which did so only temporarily. Of course, nobody can predict what 2020 will bring.

The "Haze". Photo taken from Mae Hong Son Mountain Temple.
The “Haze” of Northern Thailand. Photo taken from Mae Hong Son Mountain Temple. Photo by Rory Edmond.

Malaysia and Indonesia – September/October

There is also a burning season which occurs in Malaysia and Indonesia during their dry season in September/October mainly caused by forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia and Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan). The haze affects all of Peninsular Malaysia, particularly cities like Georgetown in Penang, the capital of Kuala Lumpur, as well as Singapore.

Singapore air pollution
Air pollution in Singapore caused by the Southeast Asian ‘haze’. Photo credit: Yara Bello.

When is the Burning Season exactly?

It is important to realise that there is no official start date to the ‘burning season’ and it is impossible to predict exactly when it will begin and end. Every year is different and some years are much worse than other years. (2019 was a record year in terms of poor air quality.)

In the North of Thailand and Laos

The worst of the burning season usually occurs mid March to mid April. Of course, this coincides with the hottest time of year in Thailand and Laos making the atmosphere even more unpleasant. 

In days gone by, when the start of the rainy season was more predictable, the monsoon rains would arrive at the end of April and clean the air of any smoke. (The water festival of “Songkran”, also known as the start of Buddhist New Year was a symbol for the start of the rainy season.)

However, nowadays with the rains coming later each year, the smoke can linger around a lot longer. In addition, as we’ve heard from travellers in our Facebook community, farmers are now starting to burn earlier than ever – which is very bad news for the air quality!

As regular traveller to the North of Thailand, Guy Mitchell, commented – “They’re already burning around Northern Thailand and have been for about a week or so (January 2020). This is around a month earlier than normal! Contacts have said that the haze around Chiang Mai and the North is there now, albeit not too bad.

Nothing is a ‘given’ in Thailand, travellers should be prepared to play things by ear, evaluate the situation as best they can… Last year (2019) was the worst I’ve encountered in Northern Thailand in May/June, when things should be settled, or at least insignificant. I was riding around the jungle passing by fires still burning as well as great tracts of mountains blackened by fires.

They’re meant to stop burning in April I believe, but it’s that time when the mushrooms appear, so a lot of illegal burning takes place as well as rubbish pit fires still smouldering for weeks, and wildfires starting everywhere, my best guess from discarded glass bottles… March/April would avoid like the plague, though February and May can still be enjoyable in some places.”

In Malaysia and Indonesia

The worst of the smoky season hits Malaysia and Indonesia at the beginning September lasting until early October which coincides with their hot/dry season. Last year (2019) mid September was the worst in years as several airports were shut down due to air pollution.

Haze in Singapore (air pollution).
The beginning of the haze in Singapore, early September 2019. Photo credit: Yara Bello.

As a traveller in our Facebook community commented – “I was planning to stay longer in Malaysia in 2019 but due to the air quality I changed my plans. I knew about the burning season but would never imagine that was that bad!”

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia

The burning of fields occurs in Southeast Asia during the dry seasons, meaning that this can occur in various microclimates at any time. The header photo to this article was taken in Hoi An, Vietnam in mid-May when the rice fields were burning during Central Vietnam’s hot/dry season. (See here for more information on climates in Southeast Asia.)

The burning of rubbish in local homes is also a common practise across the whole of Asia that can cause dangerous air pollution at any time. Several NGOs are trying to warn locals of the dangers of burning their waste. We particularly like this video made by Trash Hero.

 

What is AQI or API?

AQI stands for Air Quality Index (or Air Pollution Index) and is a method for measuring the air pollution levels across the world. It is intended as a guide to how healthy or unhealthy the air is in any given place on any given day. There are six different categories ranging from healthy to hazardous.

AQI Standards
AQI (Air Quality Index) Categories.

The AQI takes into account levels of particle pollution (particulate matter or PM) as well as the level of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ground-level ozone in the atmosphere.

An AQI below 100 is usually considered normal and fairly healthy. During the burning season in Southeast Asia the AQI often lies in the ‘Very Unhealthy’ category with AQIs well over 200, at times reaching above 300. If you are travelling during the burning season it is important to check the AQI to decide if you should travel there.

You can check the AQI for any city on earth here. As you can see, no matter what time of year you check, the continent of Asia is often plagued with oranges, reds and purples compared with a very green Northern Europe and North America.

Air Pollution World Map.
Air Pollution World Map.

What is PM?

PM stands for ‘particulate matter’ and is often discussed with relation to air pollution. The term is used to talk about how much solid and liquid particle matter is mixed into the air. Some particles such as dust and soot can be seen by the eye, however, some are too small to be seen and can be detected only with a microscope. The two smaller types of particle matter that are dangerous to human health are:

  • PM10 – particles with diameters that are 10 micrometers and smaller.
  • PM2.5 – particles that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller. 

The finest of particles (PM2.5) are the ones that cause the greatest risk to humans as they can be inhaled into your lungs and even your bloodstream causing disease and cancer. During burning season both PM10 and PM2.5 particles are present.

What problems can the burning season cause?

The smoky season causes mild health problems to almost everyone that experiences it; burning eyes, itchy nose and sporadic coughing fits. However, those with respiratory problems or those with lower immune systems can be particularly affected. Poor air quality can cause diseases such as asthma and lung infections as well as trigger the development of more chronic illnesses such as lung disease and emphysema.

Air pollution in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.
Air pollution can cause many health problems. (Photo taken by Yara Bello in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.)

Activities such as hiking, cycling and general outdoor fun is practically impossible during this time as it is not advised to do any exercise in such bad air quality. In 2019 our partner trekking company, Ethnic Hill Tribe Eco Trails based in Chiang Mai cancelled some treks in Chiang Dao and Doi Inthanon National Park due to air pollution. Many schools in Thailand were also shut down and the government was urging people to stay indoors and refrain from all outdoor activity as they declared a state of emergency. 

Can you protect yourself against it?

In many cities across Southeast Asia you will see many people wearing masks to protect themselves against the poor air quality. If you cannot change your travel plans and you will be travelling for only a short period in an area that is affected by the ‘burning season’ it is wise to get yourself a mask before you arrive as they can be sold out in pharmacies during the worst times.

Locals wearing masks while riding motorbikes in Southeast Asia.
Locals wearing masks while riding motorbikes in Southeast Asia.

As a member of our Facebook Community commented – “I was there last year in Chiang Mai during ‘burning’ season. My advice is to bring with you N95 masks. Your clothes, your hair, the clothes you hang out to dry, even your backpack will smell as if it came out of a sooty chimney.”

Tips on buying a face mask – Look for a mask that is rated N95 or above. (This type of respirator filters at least 95% of airborne particles.) 3M is the recommended brand and can be bought on Amazon. 

 

Tip – As air pollution problems can strike at any time (particularly in today’s climate) and with the ongoing problem of locals burning their rubbish (including plastic) in many parts of Asia, then it may be a good idea to add an N95 mask to your packing list whatever month you decide to travel. Better safe than sorry! 

Should you rearrange your trip?

So, when travellers ask me: Is it really that bad? – Having lived in Chiang Mai through burning season I can honestly say that yes, it really is that bad and I would recommend that you avoid it as much as possible. (I personally escaped during my first ‘burning season’ and went to Kanchanaburi in Central Thailand for a few weeks until the air got better up North!)

In all honesty, the burning season is not a lot of fun and it is really not the best time to enjoy Southeast Asia. The smoke makes all outdoor activities (even walking) pretty unpleasant and if you want to engage in adventures such as hiking, biking, rafting and climbing, you really should consider rearranging your trip. 

Those with existing respiratory illnesses, families with small children or the elderly should definitely avoid travel to affected areas during this time. For short visits or trips that cannot be rescheduled buy yourself a good quality N95 face mask and engage in less strenuous and/or indoor activities like cooking classes, market visits and café hopping.

Where can you go instead?

There are lots of other places to go! Central and South Thailand are not affected by smoke in the same way and are fine during the months of March and April. Check out our Thailand Travel Guide and Thailand Itinerary for alternative places to travel in Thailand during the ‘burning season’. Vietnam and Cambodia are also great at this time of year, as are Malaysia and Indonesia. See here for more information on seasons in Southeast Asia.

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