What do you do when the country you are visiting is unexpectedly clothed in a thick cloud of smog? Before visiting Malaysia, “haze” was not a common word in my vocabulary, but it has become one I have had to use far too often in the past couple of weeks, as most conversations with Malaysians – when not discussing the corruption of Najib – have revolved around this horrible, horrible haze. I have been to cities before with bad air pollution (cough, cough Beijing) but had never experienced this quantity of smog ever before. In KL, we bought tickets to go up the tall Menara tower, for views over the city – but could not see past the nearest skyscraper: everything else just blended into a brown dusty mist. When we went out into the countryside to the Cameron Highlands, the haze followed: walks through the mossy forest were interrupted by coughing fits and shortness of breath, while the vistas over the rolling hills of tea plantations were ruined by the fact you couldn’t see further than a few metres. It wasn’t until we reached Georgetown in Penang that our patience finally ran out: the news was filled with stories of how many Malaysian schools had been closed because of the haze, and citizens were advised to stay indoors as much as possible. Nice as our heritage-style guesthouse was, having to stay inside for the remainder of our Malaysian trip did not much appeal. Alex had been away for a week and a half and had yet to see the sun – when we looked up, there was no blue, no cloud, just an unending expanse of grey – and I was getting tired of constantly feeling like we were walking behind a car exhaust.
A bit of internet research revealed that haze is an annual phenomenon in Malaysia and Singapore, can last several months (!!), and is caused by illegal fires in Sumatra, Indonesia, that are started to clear forest land for crop planting in the dry season each year. A lack of cooperation between the three countries and a lot of finger-pointing has meant that little progress has been made on the issue, and until they start to crack down on the forest fires, Malaysia and Singapore will continue to be choked by the haze each year.
For us, enough was enough. The joy of flexible backpacking, and not booking things too far ahead, is that it’s not difficult to change your plans on the hoof. After an afternoon spent searching every flight, train and bus combination out of Malaysia for the following day, we settled on an overnight train up to Thailand (which luckily does not require a visa for a short trip), and a ferry over to Koh Tao, a paradise-like island where we spent 5 days staying in a bungalow on the beach front, learning to scuba dive, stuffing our faces with Pad Thai, and above all, enjoying the nice clean air. Breathing never felt so good.
A few photos from Koh Tao
We have now come back down south for a few days in Singapore and the haze has unfortunately returned – but it’s much easier to deal with after 5 days in such a beautiful island!