Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

By Stephen Ewashkiw | March 21, 2014

11,499 km so far.

The air quality hasn’t improved much since we left Chiang Mai; this morning as we rode out of Li, thick smoke visibly clung to the road. We could smell the scent of it hanging in the air, and we knew before long we’d see scarred earth all around us.

All That Glitters

It is hard to make clear just how many wats there are in Thailand. Every couple of kilometres another appears, rising up to the heavens, gold and glittering. The thinking when it comes to building temples seems to be: the bigger and the shinier, the better.

Just outside Li, we spotted two magnificent, flamboyant archways covered in mirrored tiles, beckoning us in. Beyond them is Wat Phra That Duang Diao.

One of the smaller temples at Wat Phra That Duang Diao.

One of the smaller temples at Wat Phra That Duang Diao.

There is a long road leading to the temple grounds. This morning, about a dozen gardeners were raking, trimming, and sweeping, to ensure that there wasn’t a leaf out of place. Gleaming gold buildings filled with statues of Buddha dotted the area, and local holy men (and boys) were inside, dusting Buddhas and cleaning the glass in the windows.

Skinny careworn dogs lay almost catatonic in the shade. A few of them were able to stir themselves enough to run after us as we walked around.

man patting dog in thailand

Cute and friendly fella, at Wat Phra That Duang Diao.

All around the grounds butterflies swooped and fluttered. They seemed to be emerging from their cocoons and then almost immediately finding a partner for mating.

Emerging butterfly at Wat Phra That Duang Diao.

Emerging butterfly at Wat Phra That Duang Diao.

It was quite a sight, in an astounding setting, surrounded by temples, forest, and wandering monks.

Note from the future: We learned later today from Withaya (see below) that local businessmen pay for new buildings, gates, statues, sometimes even whole new temples, as a way to get more riches in the afterlife, or a better deal when they are reincarnated. Hence all of the glitzy, colourful temples.

Purple Haze

Fields and forests are burning all around us. Some of the burn is to clear farmers’ fields and prepare them for summer crops. Much of the burn, however, is illegal forest clearing, so there can be more land for farming next year.

We rode past acres and acres of land that had recently been burned, and the smell of smoke hangs heavy in the air.

We also rode past many signs telling people not to clear the land with fire.

Please don't burn stuff sign ignored by everyone except Stephen.

Please don’t burn stuff sign ignored by everyone except Stephen.

Some warned of the fire getting out of control, some warned that the fires kill the habitat of wild animals. Many species in Thailand, including the Asian elephant, are endangered because of habitat loss due to human activity like this.

The annual burning also causes cyclical increases in asthma attacks, and keeps some tourists away from the area, because the news reports about Chiang Mai’s pollution problems are very critical.

None of the warnings and signs seem to work, however, since the fires continue to burn.

Roadside fires, near Li.

Roadside fires, near Li.

It is all relative though. The AQI (Air Quality Index) readings for this area at its worst are better than anywhere we visited in China on a good day.

Spidey Senses Tingling

Smell is an incredible sense. Its ability to transport us through time and space to specific moments is a wonder. As we rode past the recently burned landscapes, the smell of YogaOasis in Tucson, where I did most of my yoga teacher training, fills the air.

Some of the trees being burned are the same kind of tree that is used to make the incense they burn every day at YogaOasis. While the smoke might be irritating for some, I feel embraced by it.

Glorious-smelling downhill, outside Thoen.

Glorious-smelling downhill, outside Thoen.

The scent makes me feel like coming home as I am transported to the many early mornings I have walked into the studio, ready for the day’s lessons.

For Cyclists Only

Galabag Guesthouse (17.63410°N 99.22839°E) outside Thoen is a cyclist’s dream. Run by Withaya “call me William”, the polished teak home is gorgeous, and sits on a landscaped property filled with several kinds of palm tree, thousands of bromeliads, Spanish moss, and firestick cacti among countless other plants and trees.

plants at home stay thailand

One of the hundreds of plants at Galabag (School) Homestay in Thoen.

William caters to cyclists exclusively, which is something we haven’t encountered before in our year of travelling.

If you’re cycling these parts, it’s listed on OpenStreetMap as School Homestay. Don’t waste your time with the hotels along the highway, this is the place to stay.

Stay here if you're in Thoen.

Stay here if you’re in Thoen.

William and I sat in his yard, which he told me is a few degrees cooler than his neighbour’s thanks to the shade his trees provide. We talked about Thai politics and the difficult situation the country is facing. He said things may be challenging, but at least they are free to talk about it now. This hasn’t always been true here.

Just today the courts threw out the results of February’s election, so who knows what’s next.

Withaya took us on a tour of town, stopping in at friends’ shops, visiting a local temple, and telling us a bit about the area.

Young monks practicing their chanting at a temple near Thoen.

Young monks practicing their chanting at a temple near Thoen.

It is great to have a local tour guide who can help us get a real feel for the place we’re staying. This is a rare, and special, treat.

Tonight we are having dinner with him, prepared by a woman who runs a small restaurant in town. She always cooks dinner for his guests, which we then get to enjoy sitting in his beautiful garden, as we learn more about his life, and Thailand.

We had no idea when, dissatisfied with the hotel options in town, we went looking for the homestay what a rare surprise was waiting for us. Experiences like this are what keep us going day after day.  

Want to see the route map? View it on Ride With GPS.

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