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Sai Yok National Park, Thailand. (Adam Bodley)

Beauty Behind the Veil

"...the diffuse nature of air pollution and the ease with which it spreads means even some of Thailand’s national parks are at risk of suffering poor air quality."

Is Air Pollution Affecting the National Parks of Thailand?

A couple of years ago I stayed for a few nights in Nam Nao National Park, an isolated and mountainous national park in the northeast of Thailand. Driving through the park one evening after a day’s hiking, just as the sun was setting, I spotted a large male elephant nonchalantly walking down the road toward me. Although I've encountered elephants in the wild before, it still came as a shock to unexpectedly see one up close and personal like this. Thailand’s national parks can offer many such exciting encounters with nature.

Here, to coincide with the theme of this year’s World Environment Day – #BeatAirPollution – I will explore some of the recent problems Thailand has been experiencing with air pollution and how this might be impacting the country's national parks.

Well-known as a holiday destination, Thailand is hugely popular with tourists for its beautiful beaches and dazzling temples. However, a sometimes overlooked aspect of the country is its wealth of national parks, from the mountainous regions of the north to the tropical rainforests of the south. Are these potential places to head for to avoid air pollution, or are the national parks of Thailand being adversely affected as well?

Air quality in Thailand hits hazardous levels

Long-term residents of Bangkok, Thailand’s bustling capital, are used to its notoriously noxious air pollution, which mostly arises from vehicle emissions. During the early part of 2019, however, this pollution reached hazardous levels when one of the most dangerous types of air pollution exceeded safety guidelines. Known as PM 2.5, this air pollution consists of atmospheric particulate matter of fewer than 2.5 micrometers. Traffic was again to blame, in addition to agricultural burning, combined with slow-moving air currents.

During this time residents were advised to remain indoors or, if they needed to go out, to wear specialised masks to prevent them from inhaling the fine particles, and schools across Bangkok were closed. The high levels of PM 2.5 meant I was unable to go for a run outside, which was unfortunate since temperatures during January and February are typically cooler, making it one of the few times of the year in Bangkok when running outside is a viable option.

It is not just Bangkok that suffers from high levels of air pollution. The province of Saraburi, about an hour’s drive northeast of Bangkok, often records the worst air pollution in the country. High levels of particulate matter are emitted during rock quarrying and limestone mining in the province, forming a thick haze. This has implications for the air quality in one of Thailand’s most well-known and most visited national parks, and also its oldest, Khao Yai National Park, part of which overlaps with Saraburi province.

Sunrise at Chiang Mai's Huai Nam Dang National Park. (Adam Bodley)

Toxic haze is an annual problem across many provinces in the north of Thailand as well, particularly around the Chiang Mai region. Air pollution hits danger levels between January and March each year. Smoke from forest fires combines with smoke from rice stubble being burned off to prepare fields for the next crop, forming dense clouds of pollution that can cause health problems and can even result in flights being diverted to enable aircraft to avoid the smog. The pollution around Chiang Mai was reported to be the worst in the world in 2019.

Thailand’s national parks