Paradise Burning: Fires rage in Pai and Mae Surin, Thailand

Fires and smoke near Wat Phra That Mae Yen, Pai, Thailand

Fires and smoke near Wat Phra That Mae Yen, Pai, Thailand (Joe Grez/Joup)

I’ve settled in North Thailand for nearly five months splitting time between Chiang Mai and Pai which is situated about 120 km northwest of Chiang Mai. The bulk of my time has come in Pai, and I’ll not lie nor will I gloat, but it’s been pretty good. I live a simple life in a fan cooled room staying in a guest room of a family with whom I enjoy (and I’d like to think they the same). I’ve negotiated with the owners for a long term stay which has saved me on my limited budget. I hire my motorbike by the month doing the same. The choice and quality of food both Thai and Western in Pai is excellent and inexpensive. I lack not in activities either. I know the valley fairly well now and have seen most surrounding villages and sites. I can go running, swimming or practice Muay Thai on any day I choose.

The climate in Pai for the “cool” season? Perfect for someone that comes from Chicago. Highs of 30 C (mid to upper 80s F) during the day and Lows of 20 C (low 50s) at night. Sometimes cooler but generally nothing another blanket can’t take care of. It’s really ideal sleeping weather from late Nov. till Feb. But then something happened, and I wasn’t ready to get out of that bubble.

It’s early March and a blanket covers the valley. Just having returned from Chiang Mai for my visa extension, I descend into Pai from the mountains on my motorbike. I twisted and turned it through the corkscrew of a mountain pass, Thai Route 1095. From roughly 2500 meters looking down, the grey sitting over the valley smokes all noticeable recognition of the greens and browns that normally color the view. It’s changed…overnight. I rode to Chiang Mai for a mere three days to sort my business with the Thai Government only to find this on my return.

As I continue my decent into the valley, through the main town of Pai and finally to my guesthouse the visibility improves, at least at ground level. But the smell lingers. Not so much at my guesthouse on the west block of the town center, rather on the outskirts as you approach, especially in the foothills near Wat Phra That Mae Yen.

I settle for a bit after my near three hour trip from Chiang Mai. Even taking a break in the middle of trip like that still required me to unwind. After a brain clear and shower I great my friend Ouy (guesthouse owner/attendant). We exchanged pleasantries in Thai and I go on to ask him about the smoke in the valley. Being later afternoon he brought me just outside the grounds of the guesthouse and his home to show me a snake of fire that wound up and over a first foothill and into the distance of the larger hill. Yes they were ablazing and for quite a mile as well. I honestly didn’t notice it coming in and he told me that fires begin in the late afternoon, burning into the night and dying out by morning only to start the cycle again the next day.

Of course my first questions is “Why?”

Snake like Fires raging at dusk. Pai, Thailand

Snake like Fires raging at dusk. Pai, Thailand (Joe Grez/Joup)

As the sunset brought forth another cooling night in Pai the fires blazed on. I didn’t know what to make of it. On one hand, the multiple snake trails of hillside fires lit the night in impressive fashion, maybe something out of a movie; but this did not sit right with me.

Ouy had told me early that the fires are “Mai Dee” (no good) because they smoke the town and valley until the rainy season. He says that it lessens but the sky is still cloudy most of the time because the smoke has nowhere to drift. Once the rain comes it washes the haze right out of the valley. The smoke is noticeable at night as well when it clouds the thousands of shining stars in the night sky. It’s a shame really.

Ouy told me Thais start the fires for numerous reasons but couldn’t be sure of the exact reason. I’ll not discredit him for his uncertainty, I just feel that he was being polite in refraining from comment. He did elude that it had to do with the smaller villages outside the main town of Pai.

So online I went. Most of the fires to the North and in Laos and Myanmar are generally by farmers to clear rice stubble. But this is on farmlands and there are no rice fields on the hillside I assure you. So further research brought more ideas. Those being:

  1. They burn the brush to prevent larger fires in the future dry season because the fires department in the area might not be able to handles such large blazes.
  2. They clear lines to again prevent a larger fire from spreading.
  3. To cultivate the Teak Trees.

I didn’t buy it. There is no way that something of this nature and large scale could be to prevent something of a LARGER scale. And according to the Thai government slash and burn agriculture is indeed illegal.

As a few more weeks passed in March, Ouy was right in saying that the fires lessened (as least closer to the Pai Valley) but by no means had the smoke cleared. Then something else happened.

March 25, 2013 – Mae Surin a Burmese refugee camp near the town of Mae Hong Son and the Mynamar border burned to the ground killing 37 people and injuring 100 more, most of which women and children. The Bangkok Post reported that Thai Royal Forest Department issued a statement, “Local forestry officials have insisted no forest fire occurred in the area that day.” The RFD believe that it may be a result of a cooking accident despite eye-witness reports that wind-blown embers ignited the blaze. (READ ARTICLE HERE). A vigil took place then oddly a Christian burial of the remains of the bodies. (Most of Thailand and Burma especially in the northwest is Buddhist).

Ongoing relief efforts are taking place for Mae Surin and starting with the Thai government. They plan to have the village of over 300 people remaining rebuilt in a few months. This is not a plea nor an article as such, but if you want more information on helping or donating, please refer to The Border Consortium website.

A temporary camp has been set up near Mae Hong Son for the survivors till their lives can be brought back to some sort of semblance.

Something struck a nerve about this whole situation with Mae Surin. This stemmed from a conversation I had a week after my return from Chiang Mai, prior to this whole tragedy. I spoke with an Englishman and his Thai wife at a restaurant overlooking the Pai valley that I like to go and watch the sunset. Nice couple really…very educated, well traveled and yet humble. It’s a shame because I did not catch their names. At any rate the topic of the fires in the Pai valley had come up. Of course none of us really cared for it. He asked if I knew the cause of the fires in a tone of knowing. I told him my loose theory of burning a line to prevent larger fires. He laughed.

This middle-aged Pom has lived or been to Thailand for over 25 years either working or traveling. He took a stunning wife and they had a beautiful daughter. They currently split time between Australia and Thailand. I heard him speak Thai…fluently with his wife. Well, better then me at the very least. He told me he’d come to valley multiple times in his life drawn by the beauty. But this time he and his family had overstayed their welcome because they usually leave before the fires begin.

“They burn it to the ground to catch animals and grow mushrooms.” were his exact words. “It’s no more then that and it’s a real shame because they are destroying their country. The Thai government banned it but it’s still just slash and burn.”

My jaw dropped. I mean, why would the people here do such a thing, yeah there is no doubt the fires are man-made, but that? Surely there are very better ways to do either of those jobs. Yes, it produces but at what cost?

The Englishman and his wife were a great chat but I didn’t buy that explanation either. I just couldn’t see someone go that far for those results. What about trapping animals and just growing mushrooms in farms?

So really I was nowhere with this whole reasoning behind the fires and the unfortunate event in Mae Surin. No, sorry to the people of Thailand and the Thai government, I do not buy your explanation of a cooking accident starting a fire leveling a village.

Sometimes I frequent a small punk bar called the Blah Blah in Pai. It’s the only one of it’s sort and I can get the Sex Pistols, Ramones, Joy Division and the Reverend Horton Heat all in one evening. There is a picture of the King and Queen sitting with Elvis hanging over the bar, records sleeves siting on shelves and a miniature pool table in the back. All in this matchbox room.

As always at bars of this nature (especially in Chicago) I strike up the best conversation of music, movies and life in general. It’s more of a farang bar but the occasional Thai will come in. I happened to talk with a random Thai three days after the events of Mae Surin.

“It wasn’t a cooking fire,” he simply said.

“No then what was it? What is the same reason for the fires here?” I asked. He nodded yes.

“Then why do they start the fires here?” I had to follow up.

“To catch the animals and grow the mushrooms,” he answered.

Well that sounds all too familiar. Seems a bit extreme to me. Is there not a better way? This is such a nice place to ruin.

Joe Grez

Joe Grez

Joe Grzesik (JGrez) is still an artist developer trying to keep up with new technologies. Photography still has been one of his strongest passions. However, now his main focus has led him back to music where he teaches guitar, piano, saxophone and percussion privately. Music education can never be short changed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>