Air pollution levels in Chiang Mai rising

Click the button to check the Chiang Mai pollution levels TODAY! It’s getting to that time of year again when the pollution levels in Chiang Mai start climbing to dangerous levels. This happens every year towards the end of the dry season, between February and April and is largely attributable to slash-and-burn farming methods. Last year the pollution levels got so high that literally thousands of people across Chiang Mai province were admitted to hospital with various respiratory illnesses – including Tina – and the government released a 24 hour emergency number for reporting the fires. You can view the pollution levels in Chiang Mai between 1998 and the present day by clicking on the button above.


PM10 – small but deadly particles

One of the measurements to look for is the PM10 (PM-10) level. This indicates the density of very small particulate matter in the air (particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter in a cubic metre of air). These particles are too tiny to see – five particles would fit across a strand of human hair – but they can be deadly. As an illustration of how dangerous these particles can be, the number of people in a seemingly ‘clean’ country such as New Zealand who die early from pollution caused by traffic is similar to the number killed in road accidents each year.

These small particles of pollution in the air come from sources such as waste burning, wood burners, car exhausts and industry. They can cause serious health problems, such as making breathing problems like asthma and bronchitis worse. They can exacerbate heart problems, and are thought to be one of the catalysts for throat & lung cancer.

In London, the United States and the European Union as a whole it is considered a serious pollution ‘episode’ if the PM-10 level exceeds 50 – see the London Air Quality Network website.

For some reason, the Thai Pollution Control Department has set the ‘safe level’ to be anything less than a PM-10 of 120. Just to illustrate how high the levels can get to in Chiang Mai, on 14th March 2007 PM-10 levels reached 303.9 – catastrophically high by any standards.

By way of a comparison, the World Health Organisation came up with weighted list of average PM10 concentrations in residential areas of cities larger than 100,000 throughout the world, and the averages were as follows:

A selection of these is as follows:

  • China – 87
  • Denmark – 23
  • France – 15
  • Germany – 22
  • Greece – 47
  • Indonesia – 102
  • Iraq – 178
  • Israel – 52
  • Malaysia – 24
  • Myanmar – 89
  • New Zealand – 16
  • Pakistan – 180
  • Saudi Arabia – 106
  • Spain – 40
  • Sudan – 246
  • Syria – 102
  • Sweden – 13
  • Thailand – 76
  • United Kingdom – 19
  • United States – 25

I decided to work out the daily average for Chiang Mai over the last year from February 2007 to February 2008 and came up with the following:

  • Chiang Mai – 49.85

I then worked out the daily average for March 2007 only and it worked out as the following:

  • Chiang Mai – 161.7

When is the best time to visit Chiang Mai? The answer would depend on the state of your respiratory system – but I’d try to avoid March if possible!

If you’re interested in downloading the Excel spreadsheet with all the international data from the World Bank website – please click here.

10 most annoying things about living in Thailand

I’d like to begin this with a brief disclaimer: Thailand is a wonderful country to live in, with some of the friendliest people I have encountered anywhere in the world. I wouldn’t have lived here so long if that were not the case, however, every country has its pluses and minuses, and Thailand is no exception.

Following on from my post last week on the 10 things you should not do whilst in Thailand, here is a list of the 10 things that annoy me most about living in Thailand – in no particular order. Next week I’ll re-balance everything with my final post in the series – The 10 best things about living in Thailand!

1. Blatant corruption

This is particularly evident within politics, the police force or it seems, with anyone in positions of authority. It almost seems to be accepted that the police levy their own taxes on the population at will.

2. The bashful nature towards affection & nakedness

I’m English and not one to ‘get down’ to it in public, but why is it considered so embarrassing to hold hands or have a little (affectionate) kiss in public? Why does the merest sign of a female breast seem to send people into fits of embarrassment? Why do people not wear a swimming costume in the sea rather than the clothes they arrived at the beach in? Of course, westerners have a very blasé attitude towards this kind of thing, but there’s something rather liberating about walking down the road holding hands with the person you love isn’t there?

3. Incompetently run ‘public service’ companies

I’d almost go so far as saying the public service companies in Thailand are guilty of extortion. As an illustration, it is perfectly acceptable to set yourself up as an internet service provider company, advertise and charge people a fortune for a ‘super fast’ internet connection package, then deliver absolutely nothing at all. No one seems to say or do anything, especially if the company is TOT. Why might that be? Let’s just call it a form of ‘population tax’.

Loudspeakers - Noise in Thailand4. The noise

Why are there speakers almost everywhere in Thailand? Why are the crappy karaoke VCDs played so loud on the buses that the windows vibrate? Why do all the cars and ice cream vans have megaphones on top? Why are there 25 dogs outside our house that start barking hysterically at the first sign of daylight? You can find yourself in the most beautiful national park in Thailand – surrounded by the wonderful sounds of nature – and inevitably someone will spark up a 2000 watt Karaoke system and sing like a tortured banshee until 2am. Bring some ear plugs – I have boxes and boxes of them.

5. Thai music

After nearly 3 years living in Thailand I have concluded that the music here is possibly (probably?) the worst in the world. Everything seems to be formulaic karaoke-based love longs, and cover versions. Anything ‘original’ I hear is so heavily derivative as to be more or less instantly placeable into the ‘pap’ category.

6. Thai TV

Badly acted, formulaic soap opera nonsense that has a strange ability to grip the locals at the weirdest times and places.

7. Pollution / Disregard of environmental issues

Need to get rid of something? Burn it! If the air quality plummets, and 20,000 people end up in hospital with respiratory illnesses blame it on the street food stalls. Easy! Every year in Chiang Mai, between February and April the air pollution levels soar to dangerously high levels. This is predominantly because the farmers practice ‘slash & burn’ to clear their fields. In London in the UK it is considered a crisis when the PM-10 reading rises to 50, in Chiang Mai last March it topped 300 – see this post for more information.
What’s more, Thai people love to flock to their National Parks and leave piles of plastic cups and empty Whiskey bottles where they got drunk – there seems to be absolutely no sense of leaving a place as it was found. Car windows are rubbish chutes.

8. The non-confrontational “yes” attitude

Any kind of confrontation seems to be frowned upon in Thailand. This has both highly positive and frustratingly negative consequences that are reflected in all sorts of ways. As just one example, if you ask someone a question along the lines of “Will the bus be leaving at 10am?” you will more often that not be told “yes” whatever the answer. This of course can lead to some undesirable consequences – in that the bus doesn’t leave at 10am, you end up missing your flight/boat/train. If you have to speak English to Thai people whilst in Thailand (because you can’t speak Thai), do not ask ‘leading’ questions that beg a “yes” or “no” answer. Do not ask “Do you understand?” and assume that an affirmative answer actually means your point was understood.

9. The all westerners have money attitude

Why do we have to pay TEN TIMES as much as Thai people to go to a National Park? Why are there blatantly two separate pricing structures based on skin colour? This attitude becomes very wearing when you live here and have approximately the same financial resources as the locals.

10. Suspect driving skills

Whenever I drive out onto Thai roads, I feel it could be my last time. There are no road rules here, save for the “I’m bigger than you so f**k off” rule. Every day I see cars in gridlock situations – drivers sitting and staring vacantly at each other – neither party with any idea as to who has the right of way. Cars, bikes, buses and Songthaews (bench taxis) converge on you from every direction, changing lane, overtaking and suddenly stopping without indication or warning – if you’re smaller than them, well, you’d better just get out the way.

Why does it annoy me so much? Because cars and pick-ups are killing machines, and being a motorbike driver, I have been on the receiving end of one too many near-death-experiences at the hands of drivers (especially driving pick-up trucks) in Thailand. If people can’t drive, they should drive something that doesn’t kill people (like a bicycle) until they prove they can. If people can’t drive, they should not attempt to control a Toyota Landcruiser after drinking 2 bottles of whiskey with their mates. Sadly, drink driving is the cause of thousands of deaths in Thailand each year.

And there we have it. The ten most annoying things about living in Thailand. Please feel free to post your comments or questions below Please use the Contact us form for the issuing of any death threats. 🙂

Podcast: Safe Haven Orphanage, Thailand

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I met Tasanee – founder of Safe Haven Orphanage – on my first weekend in Mae Sot, two and a half years ago, and since then we have become close friends. This Podcast is a short interview I did with Tasanee whilst motorbiking around Northern Thailand with my sister last December. The interview is also contained in the much longer Podcast 1483km by motorbike in North Thailand.

Safe Haven Orphanage, Thailand Burma border

In 1987 Tasanee started caring for orphaned children on the Thai/Burma border after she received a frantic message from a local villager in Tha Song Yang, Thailand that a little girl had lost her mother during birth. In Karen culture this is interpreted as a bad omen, and the child is often killed. Tasanee took in the young girl – now known as ‘Boonmee’ – and with her brother converted their childhood home into an open space to accommodate the children. Starting with whatever funds were available, she built the foundation of what has become the first Safe Haven Orphanage. Relying on her personal funds and the donations of the people of Mae Sot, she was able to expand and take on more children. She now has forty-three children under her care.

Last year, thanks to a generous donation from Ireland, Safe Haven Orphanage purchased five acres of land just outside the current village. The children and Tasanee are now working hard to make this land habitable, and to raise the funds to build a new orphanage.

The orphanage is located in Tha Song Yang, an incredibly picturesque Karen village in northern Thailand. It sits next to the Moei river which separates Thailand from Burma. It is surrounded by jungle and beautiful limestone mountains, which cut it off from the bustle of the outside world. Electricity was introduced only a year or two ago, and there is only one phone in the middle of the village. It’s what a small village should be; a small tight-knit community where all the kids play together and all the parents know each other. It was at one time a target of Burmese mortars; the pot-marked roads still show evidence. Now however, it is the most peaceful place you could imagine. In the mornings, the sun rises over the mountains to the sound of the local monks chanting.

Voluntary work in Thailand – making the leap

Voluntary work in Thailand, volunteering in ThailandA few years ago, whilst working in London, I realised that I wasn’t particularly enjoying my job and life there. It wasn’t that I hated the daily grind of getting the Underground to work and sitting in front of a screen all day long, it was more that it simply didn’t excite me very much anymore. I began to ask myself rather too regularly “Is this it?”, accompanied by mildly suffocating visions of being on the Tube doing the same thing in another 10 or 20 years’ time. Although I had some wonderful friends, and a relatively comfortable life, something seemed to be missing.

At the age of 31 I decided that it was time I did something about it. I booked a flight to Australia and left with a laptop and a backpack in a state of nervous excitement. I had no fixed date of return and no job to go to. It was the most liberating step I have ever taken.

As I love the sea and being outdoors, I thought Sydney would be a relatively easy first step on my ‘living abroad’ plan – a spring board to other places – which it proved to be. After a couple of fun years living and working in Sydney, the familiar grind set back in, along with the quantity of superfluous material possessions I had begun to accumulate. I stuck everything on ebay and began contacting small Burma-related non-profit organisations in Thailand with an email asking “Do you need any volunteers – I can help build websites?”.

One organisation quickly replied. They were a Human Rights organisation based in a small town on the Thailand Burma border. I accepted, and the rest is history.

Since then I have really not looked back and I wouldn’t hesitate recommending that you somehow find time to escape your current life situation and head to somewhere like Thailand to do a stint volunteering – even if for only a few months.

OK, I want to volunteer. Where do I start?

If you’re interested in coming to Thailand as a volunteer – you need to decide what kind of work you would like to do, and for how long. Most organisations want at least a three month commitment as it will take you a while to become productive in your new environment. It’s important to understand that although you may be giving your time for free, your presence does at first distract other staff members from their daily work routines.

Most people tend to come and volunteer teaching English, but if you have experience in other fields, for example in IT, Medicine, Human Rights, Advocacy, or Marketing – you may be able to find a more ‘specialist’ positions in some of the ‘grassroots’ organisations out here.

You will need to get a visa to cover your time here. Information on visas is available at Try and get a multiple entry visa from an embassy in your home country before you leave as it is much easier than in neighbouring countries in SE Asia.


In Thailand, you can find reasonable accommodation for as little as 2-3,000 Thai Baht a month (US$ 64-96) – if you are heading to Bangkok, you will probably need at least double this. If you eat local food, you can easily eat well for 30 THB ($US 1) a meal. The rest is dependent on how much travel you would like to do, and whether you are partial to alcohol and cigarettes. Cigarettes are about 60THB (just under US$ 2) a packet, and a large beer is also usually about 60THB in restaurants. You can travel right across the country on buses and trains for between 500THB and 1000THB (US$ 16-32).

If you like going out, and don’t understand the word ‘budget’, as a guideline allow for $600-$1000 upwards a month all inclusive. If you will be living in more rural areas, are happy to eat locally, don’t drink huge amounts and are happy without air-conditioning, cable TV and all the mod cons, you can easily live on about $US 320/month.

Some suggested organisations to volunteer with

As my experience is with Burma-related organisations, I would suggest you contact one or two of the following:

Burma Volunteer Program – The Burma Volunteer Program place people in local schools, and some of the refugee camps on the Thai/Burma border. Voluntary work is usually Teaching English. Alot of BVP volunteers go on to other positions, sometimes paid, in local grassroots organisations following their initial stint with BVP.

Mae Tao Clinic – The Mae Tao Clinic is for volunteers with a medical background.

Bordermedia – An organisation I am connected with – for skilled IT and website-building volunteers.

Safe Haven Orphanage – For volunteers with experience working with Children. You will need solid references and be able to commit to at least three months.

A good website to find out more about the situation on the Thailand / Burma border is the Thai Burma Border Consortium website. Another website that will explain something about the Human Rights situation in Burma is the Karen Human Rights Group website.

If you have any further questions or comments, please feel free to post them below and we’ll try and get back to you as soon as possible.

Sound file: Our local restaurant in Chiang Mai

[audio:|titles=Sound file 03: Our local restaurant in Chiang Mai|artists=Earthoria]
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This was recorded at around 7.30pm on a weekday night at our local vegetarian restaurant on Suthep Road in Chiang Mai. I popped to the restaurant and had a Khao Soi – one of the traditional northern Thai ‘curry’ dishes. Dinner cost 25THB (about $0.60) and was incredibly tasty. As I ate I was treated to some wonderfully cheesy background music, as you will hear in the recording.

Vegetarian restaurant, Suthep Road, Chiang Mai

10 things you should not do whilst in Thailand

Thai Flag - 10 things not to do whilst in ThailandHere’s a little list I’ve compiled of things you should not do whilst in Thailand – please feel free to send in your comments or additions at the bottom!

1. Do not raise your voice or get angry with locals

It makes me incredibly uncomfortable to see foreigners (‘Farangs’) come to Thailand, and start ranting and raving aggressively at the locals. Thai people generally do not shout at each other or show anger – everything is done with a smile, however annoyed they are.

Reasons for this foreign aggression usually include: the fact that foreigners often expect all Thai people to be fluent in English, combined with the fact that things in Thailand do not happen at the same pace or with the same efficiency (or level of stress?) that they do in the West. If you’re easily wound up by people not understanding your machine-gun garbled English, and expect things to happen as and when you click your fingers, I’d suggest you headed somewhere else on holiday. (Be warned, beneath the smiley Thai demeanor lies a raging monster waiting to explode – and should you push them far enough, you will not know what hit you.)

2. Do not ride a motorbike without a helmet and/or whilst drunk

This is known colloquially as a “schoolboy error”. You’d be amazed at the amount of beer-swilling westerners who head to places like Koh Phangan, drink 10 pints of lager, smoke a few joints and, having not ridden a motorbike before, suddenly decide that they can navigate the twisty island roads at 3am with 2 passengers . You see them all the time, legs, arms and shoulders covered in festering scabs, and those are the lucky ones. Just because Thai people ride without helmets (after 20 years of motor-biking experience), and regularly spill their brains across the roads, it doesn’t mean you should.

3. Do not only eat western food

Honestly, if you order Steak Au Poivre in Thailand, it’s just not going to taste like back home. Try some of the local food, from the local restaurants – and that doesn’t mean the local Irish backpacking establishment. For you own good, I’d recommend eating in some of the local street restaurants. The food is generally cheaper (about $1 a meal or less), and more often than not, it is considerably fresher and tastier than the salmonella-riddled chicken in your backpacker guesthouse. Why? These people have cooked the same few dishes for years and years – they are specialists, and if the Thai people eat there, it is because the food is very, very tasty.

4. Do not expect things to happen “as they do at home”

They simply don’t. For example, ‘Thai time’ is a special time-telling system that operates along the lines of "I say 10 O’clock and I mean somewhere between 09.30 and 11.30 probably.". If this is going to bother you, either bring something to entertain you whilst you are waiting around, or, go to London/New York on holiday.

5. Do not get overly amorous in public

Thai people do not show affection in public in the same way that westerners are accustomed to doing. The most you’ll ever see them do is hold hands. If you like to fondle and kiss your partner in public (with or without tongues), bear in mind that the Thai people around you will probably feel quite uncomfortable.

6. Do not walk around semi-naked “because it’s bloody hot here”

It amazes me the amount of Western men I see walking around the Old City in Chiang Mai, with their tops off. Look around and ask yourself why Thai people don’t do this. The answer is not “because they are used to the heat”. By way of an illustration, Thai people wear their clothes whilst ‘swimming’ in the sea – however hot the weather is. This is for two main reasons: firstly, so their skin remains as light in tone as possible, and secondly, because they find nakedness a little bit embarrassing. That also means girls, sadly the boobs should stay covered.

7. Do not expect people to follow the same driving rules they do “at home”

I have taken my driving test in Thailand, and during the multiple-choice theory test, the computer spat out a series of unintelligible (and actually incorrect) answers. Pointing this out to the examiner resulted in "Ha! Ha! Computers in Bangkok wrong!" followed by some loud guffawing. Generally, people in Thailand do not drive in the ordered way we have come to expect in our home countries. Driving rules, if they exist, are there to be broken. Thai drivers also cannot drive backwards, which makes for interesting head-to-head stand-offs down narrow roads. I suggest you quickly adapt your usual driving style, and expect everyone to do the unexpected at all times. It’s your only chance!!

8. Do not speak negatively about the King

Thai people respect their King almost as if he were a god. If you intend to visit Thailand it would be a good idea if you learnt to do the same – even if only temporarily. That means not laughing out loud during the national anthem, or defacing posters of the king like this Swiss man did. At best you’ll be severely disliked, at worst you may be in for a public lynching.

9. Do not only visit Phuket/Koh Samui/Pattaya/Koh Phangan

It is a shame to visit such a beautifully diverse country and only spend your time hanging out with other Westerners in a backpacker ‘zone’ like Hadrin in Koh Phangan. Be adventurous, head off the beaten track – you won’t be disappointed, unless you’re secretly xenophobic that is.

10. Do not have unprotected sex with a stranger

It may be stating the obvious but you’d be surprised how many stories you hear of holiday makers coming out to Thailand and having unprotected sex. Generally speaking, ‘bar girls’ (as they are perhaps derogatorily known) are the only women in Thailand that would actually consider being ‘picked up’ by a drunken Farang (foreigner) for a one night stand – and whether you like it or not, they have probably done it ‘quite a few times’ before. There is a very high rate of HIV/AIDS in Thailand – be sensible. 😉

So there we have it – the 10 things you should avoid doing in Thailand. If you have any additions please feel free to add them below as a comment…

Tiger temple – Wat Pa Luangta Bua, Thailand

Tiger Temple, or Wat Pa Luangta Bua, is a Buddhist temple in Western Thailand (about 38KM from Kanchanaburi). The temple keeps numerous animals, among them several tame tigers that walk around freely once a day and can be petted by tourists. Rumours have it that they are drugged to stop them eating the tourists – although this is certainly unproven.

In 1999 the temple received the first tiger cub; it had been found by villagers and died soon after. Several tiger cubs were later given to the temple, typically when the mothers had been killed by poachers. As of 2007, over 21 cubs have been born at the temple and the total number of tigers is about 12 adult tigers and 4 cubs.

Once a day, the tigers are led on leashes to a nearby quarry. Originally they would roam around freely in this area, but now with the increase in the numbers of tourists, as well as tigers, when they are brought to the canyon they are always chained. Thai staff and western/Thai volunteers lead tourists around by the hand to pose with and take photographs of the tourists using the tourists’ cameras. I generally felt quite uncomfortable with the tourist petting session as the tigers looked like they had been sedated with something. Apparently this is “the way they are” after lunch, in the afternoon heat, but I still decided against it and opted for simply taking a couple of photos.

According to some information I found on Wikipedia:

The Tiger Temple practices a different conservation philosophy than in the west. In western zoos and parks, the emphasis is on providing a natural environment for the animals. In the temple, at least until the sanctuary is completed, the animals seem to be treated more as family members. Although it may be possible for the offspring of the current generation to return to the wild, their parents will live out a life within the temple grounds. Their conservation philosophy seems to be working, as while projects elsewhere often need to resort to artificial insemination, over 10 cubs have been born at the temple in the last three years despite having no breeding program whatsoever.

Costs and getting there

The temple opens daily for visitors at about 1pm, and the tigers are walked back to their enclosures at around 4pm. Due to the pressing need for income, the temple now charges 300 Baht admission. The most common way of visiting the temple is to go on a tour from nearby Kanchanaburi for 300 Baht per head, or to hire your own Songthaew from the bus station for a group for less than 1000 Baht. Day trips are also available from Bangkok. Prices current as of July 2006 and do not include temple entrance fee. The temple now receives 300 to 600 visitors a day and above the 300 Baht admission fee, there are donations boxes all over the temple. To get ‘special’ photos with the tigers (ie more ‘intimate’ ones than just petting them), visitors are asked to give a mandatory ‘donation’ of 1000 Thai Baht. Insane.