The Burning Season in Northern Laos and Northern Thailand is a floating period between February and May when local farmers burn their agricultural fields in preparation for the new planting season.
Burning is widespread and creates a layer of smog and haze over the regions. The air quality drops significantly, often to dangerous levels.
I traveled to Northern Laos in the first half of March and most of my pictures look blurry and hazy due to the smoke. Yes, the burning season in Laos is very uncomfortable.
It’s not impossible to travel but if you can, reschedule your trip to before March or after April.
When is the Burning Season in Laos?
Technically speaking, the burning season (anywhere it’s practiced, not just in Laos) happens at the end of the dry season and right before the start of the wet season.
Historically, the burning season was only from the end of March until the end of April.
Enter global warming.
With weather changing rapidly all around the globe, Laos included, the wet season has started sooner and sooner.
Today, the burning season in Laos starts as early as January and ends as late as June!
It’s still most serious in March and April though.
The end of Burning Season is marked by the festival of Songkran. It’s also known as the Lao New Year or more colloquially as the Water Festival.
It usually precedes the coming of the monsoon rains that will clear the air. However, as mentioned already, global warming has made it a bit more unpredictable.
Which regions of Laos are affected by the burning season?
The burning season affects all of Northern Laos, including Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Phongsavan, Nong Khiaw, Huay Xai, and Luang Namtha.
If you draw a line parallel to the equator at Vientiane, practically everything north of it is more or less affected by the burning.
Traveling in Laos during the burning season
I was in Laos in the first half of March. When I arrived in Luang Prabang in the first days of March, I could already tell that it was burning season.
The air was hazy and smoky. It smelled like burning everywhere. My pictures were all brownish and blurry.
Then I traveled north of Luang Prabang, through Nong Khiaw and Luang Namtha to reach Huay Xai in order to take the slow boat down the Mekong and get back to Luang Prabang.
While I was on the boat I realized just how bad air quality actually was. It was difficult to breathe. My clothes absorbed the smell and at the end of the day when I smelled them it was as if I had put my nose inside an exhaust pipe.
The Mekong River was supposed to be pretty and picturesque with lots of opportunities for pictures of the mountains that surround it. During the burning season in Laos, this is just not the case.
You cannot see further than a few hundred meters, breathing is difficult and it’s actually hazardous to health.
When I was back in Luang Prabang 10 days later, it was even worse than the first time.
South in Vang Vieng, it was a similar experience – haze, smoke, burning smell.
All the way south to the capital Vientiane you could still feel the smoke. I have to say it was a little better there. Since I’m comparing it to the gas chamber that Luang Prabang felt like, this is not a big accomplishment.
All in all – yeah, you can travel to Laos during the burning season. I did it. It is possible. There were also many other backpackers.
But was it pleasant? No. Was it hazy, smoky, and smelly? Yes. Was it bad for my health? Most certainly.
If it is possible, travel to Laos outside of the burning season. It’s really bad. And if you have asthma or other breathing problems – forget it.
Can you protect yourself from the smoke with a mask?
You can add some level of protection against the smoke by using a mask.
First things first, forget about the basic surgical masks. They protect against air droplets and are not fine enough to block the tiny dust and ash particles from burning.
When it comes to air pollution, particulate matter is as small as 2.5 micrometers. This is too small to be seen by the naked eye and small enough to enter the lungs and even the bloodstream.
The high-grade, high-quality masks that became world-known during the pandemic offer some protection against these small particles.
Masks such as N95, FFP2, and KN95 offer up to 95% filtration of particles as small as 0.3 microns. These are your best bet for protection during the burning season in Laos.
Why is there a burning season anyway?
Humanity has practiced agriculture for at least 12.000 years. Over this period, we collectively as a species, have perfected it to produce more and more food. It would not be possible to have a world population of over 8 billion had it not been for these advances.
One strategy to increase agricultural output is the so-called slash-and-burn technique.
It has been practiced all over the world throughout the ages, although nowadays it’s mostly still done in South and Southeast Asia.
In slash-and-burn, farmers cut down everything in the targeted area and leave it to dry during the dry season. Right before the rainy season, they burn it, creating a layer of extremely fertile ash and killing all weeds and pests in the process.
The drawback to this method is that it depletes the land quickly. Every 5 years or so the land is abandoned and farmers move to other places. You can see now that the method requires flexible ownership of the land and would not make sense for farming on the same land for decades.
To summarize, there is a burning season, because burning is an extremely effective (albeit only short-term) method for increasing the productivity of agricultural land.
Burning season in other countries
The burning season is not only a Laotian thing. Neighboring Southeast Asian countries also have their own burning seasons.
It actually gets much worse in neighboring Thailand, here the northern parts experience some seriously dangerous levels of air pollution.
In 2023, Chiang Mai became the world’s most polluted city for a few days. The air quality index hit 223, a number 15 times higher than the recommended maximum.
Toxic haze made it impossible to see anything more than a few hundred meters away. Smog blocked the sun. The air smelled like fire.
Cities like Chiang Rai, Pai, Chiang Dao, Mae Hong Son, Phayao, and Nan also experience severe air pollution during the burning season in Thailand.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore
Due to differences in climate and seasons, the burning season in Indonesia (mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan/Borneo) and in Malaysia (both Peninsular and Borneo) occurs between August and October.
It is just before the onset of the rainy season. Read about Indonesia’s rainy season here.
It’s caused by much the same culprits – the burning of agricultural fields and forest fires.
Squished between then, Singapore doesn’t really have agriculture going for it but still suffers from the burning season. There is much that can be done to stop the haze from traveling all around the region.
Nonetheless, the burning season in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore doesn’t get as bad as in Northern Laos and Northern Thailand.
Vietnam also experiences burning season but to a lesser extent than its neighbors in Laos.
People in Central Vietnam practice slash-and-burn agriculture and you may experience some poor air quality in these regions between May and July.
In the northern parts of the country, the rainy season starts somewhere in May and so the burning season is between February and April (flexible as anywhere else).
I was in North Vietnam at the end of February (both Sapa and Ha Giang) and the air quality was perfect. Turns out it’s much less likely to experience smoke and haze in Vietnam than in Laos.