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Air Pollution in Thailand: Current Situation Live from the Ground

You might have recently heard about the bad air pollution in Thailand situation on the news. Let me show you what it’s really like on the ground, how the locals deal with it, and what you should do as a visitor. First of all, let me tell you what kind of air pollution is in Thailand and how it happens.

Quick update! It started to rain during the last week of April 2023! The air pollution in Thailand is now at a “moderate” level. I no longer sneeze when being outdoors!

What kind of air pollution is in Thailand? What is PM 2.5?

In 2023, many tourists visited Thailand more and more since Thailand opened up the country with zero constraints regarding Covid-19 for traveling to Thailand. Fewer people including local Thai people themselves and tourists are using face masks. However, you might consider having a mask with you while traveling in Thailand due to the reason which we will explain accordingly. Some areas in Thailand have very bad air conditions such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai. This air pollution in Thailand is called PM 2.5.

What is PM 2.5?

Airborne particulate matter (PM) is not a single pollutant but rather a mixture of many chemical species. It is a complex mixture of solids and aerosols composed of small droplets of liquid, dry solid fragments, and solid cores with liquid coatings. (Source: ww2.arb.ca.gov/resources) PM 2.5 is defined as microparticles which are particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns. Therefore, PM 2.5 can affect people’s health, especially infants, children, and older adults with preexisting heart or lung diseases. Symptoms are runny nose, coughing, sore throat, or irritating eyes.

Is Thailand the most polluted country in the region?

The air pollution condition in Thailand might be quite alarming and has made it to the headline, but from my recent experience traveling to Delhi and seeing the thickest smog ever, it actually could be worse in some countries. In 2022, Thailand got a rank of 57 for having the worst air quality in the world, while China ranked 25 and India ranked 8 from 131 countries on the list.

That means you can also find PM 2.5 in some of Thailand’s neighboring countries such as Laos, India, and China. According to the website Air Pollution in Thailand: Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map, the air pollution level in Laos, India, and China is also at an unhealthy or hazardous level. 

Does air pollution in Thailand happen all year round? When is the peak of air pollution in Thailand?

In short, PM 2.5 will start after the rain stops, which is in late October to November. And Thailand’s air pollution peaks from January to March. The air pollution in Thailand is likely to be improved from mid to end of April onwards due to strong southern winds which help blow particles out of the area. 

To explain a bit more, the PM 2.5 level increases during the transition between winter and summer seasons (hence, the peak of PM 2.5 is from January to March) because a lower temperature air mass spreads from China to Thailand during the winter, resulting in strong monsoons and colder weather in the North of Thailand. Due to temperature inversions, dust floats and distributes at a weak level with poor air circulation and ventilation given the dust and smoke accumulation in the atmosphere. It means that air mass from China during the winter months in Thailand makes the air become super stagnant.

But we cannot only blame the wind from China! Because the fuel combustion inside the country also plays a huge role. The stagnant air combined with the poorly-managed fuel combustion in Thailand leads to pollutants accumulation in the atmosphere, and the vicious cycle starts then and there. During the same period, it is also the prime season for the farmers of sugar cane and other crops, to burn the soil and get rid of the harvested crops quickly and economically. 

So, to summarize, the bad air pollution in Thailand usually begins in October and ends in April (the peak is from January to March). Sadly, it is also the period that overseas tourists tend to visit Thailand because Thailand’s weather is incredibly great and a lot cooler than any other time of the year. In addition, April is the Thai new year holiday which is a very popular water fight or aka Songkran festival in Thailand. Many tourists love to visit Thailand in April to attend the Songkran festival. 

However, there is also another period that tourists tend to visit which is from June to July, as many European countries are in their summer season. Many are on holiday and Thailand is one of their bucket lists to travel to. So, if you’re traveling to Thailand from June to July, there is a lot less pollution due to it being Thailand’s rainy season. The rain washes away the pollution effectively. The rainy season in Thailand begins from June to early October. 

We’ll cover in a bit about what you should do to avoid the bad pollution condition, in case you want to enjoy Thailand’s peak travel season which is around December to April.

Where in Thailand does air pollution happen? Is pollution high in Bangkok?

Air pollution in Thailand is usually significantly more severe in the north of Thailand, with the south being the least affected due to the aforementioned reasons. When I say that the north is more impacted, I mean every single province in the north. Let’s just say, the more north the province is, the more affected it will be. So if you are traveling to Chiang Rai, for example, you can expect that it is as severely impacted by the bad air pollution as Chiang Mai. 

So, what about Bangkok, which is located in the central part of the country? Bangkok’s pollution level is roughly half of what happens in the north. But it’s still not decent! For example, in March 2023, when in the north, it was at 250+ US AQI level (marked in red/unhealthy level), it was also above 150 US AQI in Bangkok, and that is enough for a person with an allergy such as me to get all sneezing, runny nose, irritating eyes and throat. And if you are not allergic, like many of my friends, you probably won’t feel its impact until you go out, run a 10 KM (6.2 miles) marathon, inhale substantially more pollution than you normally would, and eventually end up seeing the doctor because your throat was all red and destroyed. If you go up the skyscrapers in Bangkok, during the peak of air pollution in Thailand, you will see that there are a lot of fog-like clouds above the city.
Note: AQI stands for air quality index

As for the south of Thailand, it is mostly unharmed by the PM 2.5 situation in Thailand. The worst I have seen is at the yellow level (moderate) which is not an unhealthy level yet even for the sensitive groups. And that’s fortunate for Thai tourism because many of the overseas tourists’ popular beach destinations are in the south such as Phuket and Krabi. I think we can say that if you are planning a beach trip in Thailand, which is in the south of Thailand, you do not have to worry about the air pollution situation in Thailand, at least for the time being! Who knows when Thailand is going to get as bad as China or India?

Air pollution in Thailand Live from the Ground, from Pattaya (just 1.5 hours away from Bangkok) in April 2023. 
Due to PM 2.5, you can't see the building in the background.
Air pollution in Thailand Live from the Ground, from Pattaya (just 1.5 hours away from Bangkok) in April 2023.
Due to PM 2.5, you can’t see the building in the background.

How bad is the air quality in Chiang Mai? What about other cities nearby, like Chiang Rai? Is Chiang Mai in April a bad idea? Where should you go instead?

Because Chaing Mai is another famous tourist destination, I would like to talk about what happens in this part of Thailand more specifically. Air pollution in Chiang Mai during the peak of air pollution in Thailand is around at levels 150 to 281 US AQI. And for its neighboring province like Chiang Rai, the air pollution level is around 160 to 207 US AQI. Basically, they’re both on par. All provinces in the north of Thailand have pretty much the same bad air quality during the period.

It was so bad this year that on April 10, 2023, in Chiang Rai, a group of 200 people consisting of monks and novices from Wat Phra Phuttha Uthon Doi Organic Park, medical groups, private sectors, youths, non-governmental organizations, etc. gathered together to organize activities to campaign and raise awareness to solve PM 2.5 air pollution in Thailand problems.

We spoke about how you can see a fog-like cloud above the city of Bangkok, and as for the north, it is extremely foggy. Normally, the north of Thailand is well-known for its lush green and tall mountain range, but during the peak of air pollution, you can barely see the mountain. 

Personally, we think if you’re a sensitive group or allergic, you should avoid going to the North during its peak which is around January to March. You can always check the air quality before planning your trip. Because the peak isn’t happening at the same period every year. And we’ll cover (below) what to do if you decide to go to impacted areas during the peak of air pollution in Thailand.

Me with bad air pollution in Chiang Rai, Thailand during March 2021. Mountains were blurry behind the smog.
Me with bad air pollution in Chiang Rai, Thailand during March 2021. Mountains were blurry behind the smog.

Why don’t they do anything about the air pollution problem in Thailand!?

The officials in Chiang Mai said that it was due to some uncontrollable external factors. For example, the wind blowing to the north is weakening combined with the smog coming from the south of the province from other areas, and also the smog from the border and illegal forest burning that results in dense smog not dispersing. 

They said they have actually done many things. For instance, the governor of Chiang Mai stated that they have tried to accelerate public awareness and requested citizens’ cooperation to refrain from burning forests and crops. They also control access to forest areas by organizing patrol units with support from forestry, military, administrative, and community departments. Another solution that has been executed is water spray in various districts from tall buildings to eliminate the floating particles in the air.

Precautions to take when traveling Thailand during the bad air quality time. What do the locals do?

Stay indoors 

And by that we mean, stay indoors as much as you can. We know that you don’t travel across the globe just to stay inside your hotel room. So here’s what we meant, always check on the air quality index app (more on this later) before you leave your accommodation for the day. If the air pollution in Thailand is at an unhealthy level that day, try wearing a mask or try to stay indoors as much as possible. How to stay indoors you ask? For example, instead of exploring the public park in Bangkok, take this opportunity to explore the biggest air-conditioning, wholesale shopping center like Platinum. And instead of using an open-air tuk-tuk as your vehicle of choice, use the taxi with air-con. Just find some activities or places to travel indoors. If you are in Bangkok, there are many big malls you could visit and spend a half day in each mall with some activities such as shopping, eating, drinking, watching movies in cinemas, and playing games in the area the mall arranged for you. 

And that’s what the locals do. For example, I usually go swimming at the Virgin Active fitness club every other day, but during the peak of the air pollution situation in Bangkok, I do the running inside the gym instead. 

Wearing mask

This is one of the reasons Thais are still wearing masks even though people around the world ditch the mask fashion already! We have been wearing masks that are designed to filter out PM2.5 particles since before the Covid-19 era. Those sensitive groups of people like people with lung disease, even use the N95 mask for pollution protection.  

For me, I’m checking the air quality app throughout the day, and when the air quality gets better (which it usually does later in the afternoon), I ditch the mask.

As a person with an allergy, I can tell that wearing a PM 2.5 protection mask helps immensely. On a day with an unhealthy for sensitive group pollution level, I’ll get all the allergy symptoms without wearing a mask when I’m outside.

All in all, the mask will help protect against inhaling air pollution in Thailand, especially if you’re in the health-sensitive group.

Avoid outdoor exercise

If you are a person who likes to exercise outdoors, on the day you encounter bad air you should avoid doing so. Instead, try to replace it with other forms of exercise inside the gym or your accommodation. 

As I mentioned before, a friend of mine has no allergic symptoms for PM 2.5. So she thought it was fine for her to do a 10 km (6.2 miles) marathon during the peak of the bad air pollution in Bangkok. The next day after the marathon, she ended up in the hospital, visiting the doctor. She said that her irritating throat condition was even worse than when she caught Covid back in 2021. 

Every doctor I have met since 2018 told me not to exercise outdoors during the peak of air pollution in Thailand. The risk of air pollution is not worth the health benefits the exercise creates, because when you exercise, you inhale even more air pollution into your lungs.

Use an air purifiers machine

Almost everyone I know uses air purifiers in their house. Air purifier machines help a lot when you are in a house or apartment. If you choose to stay in Airbnb, some of the properties on Airbnb have air purifiers. So, if you’re sensitive to pollution, you can ask the property owner about it before booking. However, most 2-5 stars hotels should have a pretty decent air purifier system installed already.

Drink enough water

It is important to drink plenty of water to keep the body hydrated and increase the oxygen in the blood during bad air pollution situations.

Consume good food, and have a good sleep.

This can help your immune system in your body and reduce the risk of respiratory problems. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as they are high in vitamins and minerals. And quality sleep can prevent all the sicknesses in the world!

Stay informed

Always check the current air quality levels in the areas you will be by checking either the government’s air quality index (AQI) or other reliable sources and adjust your activities outdoors accordingly.

The air quality index (AQI) app we use

One of the apps belongs to the government, Air4Thai. Somehow I found that this level is usually lower than the private sector’s. And as a person with an allergy, I trust my nose the most! And my nose (or runny nose, depending on occasion lol), tells me that this IQAirVisual AQI app is more accurate. So, you can try both, but please do use it to plan activities in your day properly.

Are you planning your trip to Thailand? If you want to experience Thailand like a local and get a completely personalized vacation, let us help you! Or you need to contact the hotel in Thailand to postpone or refund your money back but the language barrier wears you down, let us help you!

 

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