"...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.
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
Despite these concerns, Thailand’s national parks are well worth a visit. I myself plan trips carefully to some areas so as to avoid those times of the year when the air quality is likely to be low; this should be paid attention to especially if you suffer from asthma, allergies, or other chest conditions. It should also be noted that poor air quality in national parks is not just a problem for Thailand – up to 96% of national parks in the USA have air quality issues.
There are 127 national parks in Thailand, of which 22 are marine national parks – it is not possible to cover them all in detail here! Big cats still roam free in some of the more remote parks and have been captured on film by camera traps in recent years, although it is unlikely that you will spot one of these shy creatures while hiking around. Leopards have been photographed by camera traps in Kui Buri National Park in the western Thai province of Prachuap Khiri Khan, while tigers have been spotted in Mae Wong and Khlong Lan National Parks, also in the west of the country.
Khao Yai National Park, mentioned earlier, is one of Thailand’s largest and best-known national parks, with plenty of hiking trails plus campsites and other accommodation options. It is fairly common to spot wild elephants here, while other wildlife is plentiful and includes hornbills, sambar deer, and macaques.
In the northeast of the country lies Nam Nao National Park, mountainous and heavily forested. This is a park where having your own transport is highly recommended. However, the beauty of the park lies in its relative isolation. Nam Nao National Park, like many others in Thailand, has bungalows of various sizes that are available for rent and can be booked via the Thai Department of National Parks. As I mentioned earlier, one evening in this park, while driving back to my bungalow just as the sun was setting, I spotted a large male elephant nonchalantly walking down the road. I was relieved to be in a vehicle and not on foot at this point since although Asian elephants are often considered to be less dangerous than their African relatives, they can still occasionally be unpredictable and aggressive.
By way of contrast, Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, heading down towards the Kra Isthmus, the narrow strip of land that acts as a gateway to Thailand’s southern provinces, is a fascinating mixture of salt marshes and many limestone hills – more than 300 hills, in fact, which gives the park its name (khao sam roi yot means “300 hills” in the Thai language). This is a great place for bird spotters, especially during January and February when there are huge numbers of migratory birds making a stopover in the area on their way from other parts of Asia to Australia. Other distinctive wildlife in this national park includes dusky leaf monkeys and pangolins. A trip here is not complete without a hike up to Phraya Nakhon cave, with its famous royal pavilion. The roof of the cave has collapsed, and shafts of sunlight illuminate the pavilion, along with the hundreds of spider webs on the cave walls, causing them to shine brightly.
The western province of Kanchanaburi has a number of national parks and is within easy striking distance of Bangkok. Erawan National Park is renowned for its seven-tiered waterfall, the Erawan Falls, although it can often become very crowded. Sai Yok National Park offers a more peaceful experience, with hiking trails and boat trips along the river to take in the limestone cliffs and heavily forested river banks. Cobras can be seen swimming speedily across the river’s calm waters, and large black scorpions come out onto the forest trails to warm up in the mornings. The River Khwae Noi, which flows past Sai Yok National Park is part of the larger River Khwae system, more commonly known in English as the River Kwai, made famous in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai – the modern version of the bridge can be found in the province’s capital, Kanchanaburi town.
Khao Sok National Park is, for me, probably one of Thailand’s most memorable parks. This park, about two hours’ drive north of Phuket, comprises a huge natural forest surrounding a vast reservoir. Enormous limestone cliffs rise up at either side of the lake, giving the whole place an eerie feel in the early morning mist. Stars of the wildlife here are the Lar gibbons, which are quite easy to spot as they swing through the tops of the lakeside trees at dawn. Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of them, you’re sure to hear their unmistakable calls echoing through the forest canopy. It is possible to arrange one- or two-night hikes through the jungle of Khao Sok National Park, sleeping in caves or in temporary hammocks slung between two trees. If you want to relax and grab a bit more comfort after sleeping in the jungle, there are huts on floating bamboo rafts available, scattered around the edge of the lake.
No discussion of Thailand’s national parks would be complete without mentioning its marine national parks. Whether you’re a scuba diver, a snorkeler, or prefer to simply take in the scenery from the comfort of a boat, these parks are also not to be missed. At certain times of the year, it is possible to spot a whale shark, the world’s largest fish, cruising slowly just below the surface feeding on plankton; manta rays may also show up. Between October and December Bryde’s whales appear in the Gulf of Thailand, and whale watching trips are available.
The most famous marine parks are those located on the western, Andaman coast of Thailand. They include the Similan Islands, famous for snorkelling and in particular scuba diving, and Koh Phi Phi National Marine Park, which also has some fantastic diving and snorkelling, with the added advantage of its towering limestone karsts providing dramatic scenery both above and below the water. In the Gulf of Thailand is Ang Thong National Marine Park, near the islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao. On the eastern seaboard of the gulf lies Thailand’s second-largest island after Phuket, Koh Chang. The national marine park here also offers some great diving, including a couple of impressive wreck dives.
Poor air quality is a well-known problem in some of Thailand’s more built-up areas, such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but 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. So, although national parks are often thought of as places to go for some clean, fresh air, it may take a little planning to ensure that you get the fresh air you are looking for. As issues around environmental protection and pollution gain ever more awareness it is possible that more effort will be made to begin to curb air pollution, which will, in turn, benefit our national parks everywhere.