A PROVINCE BATHED IN YELLOW
By Andrew Biggs
Greetings from the haze hub of the world.
I write this column from my bedroom in Samut Prakan, which is where I am supposed to stay for the whole day if I am to believe official government warnings.
For the last five or six days, everything has been bathed in yellow. This has nothing to do with my home décor, and I’ll have you know none of my marble tiles or linoleum is anything near yellow in color.
I’m talking about outside.
Thailand is obsessed about being the “hub” of everything from aviation to auto manufacturing. It is a word that has creeped into the Thai language and it is a good fit — a monosyllabic word without consonant clusters.
Well, if ever there was a hub for toxic yellowy haze that stings your eyes and gives you more sinus issues than a cocaine addict, then here it is.
There is a real feeling of twilight at 10 in the morning. I can look at the sun with a naked eye for a start. I can barely see the end of my street, which makes me feel as if I am in one of those Netflix apocalyptic zombie series. It would not surprise me if my neighbors were to suddenly run out of their yards foaming at the mouth.
My driver is not foaming at the mouth, but he is sick. He coughs regularly. He claims it’s “not from the pollution” but rather from his girlfriend, who caught the flu following a trip to Isan. This is why he is a driver and not a rocket scientist. I send him on a trip to buy face masks; they are sold out.
My breathing is labored and I’m suffering from painfully itchy eyes. There are little black pieces of stuff in them, and when I look in the mirror, I am reminded of some pretty terrible hangovers in my past — only this week there isn’t an Absolut in sight.
Yesterday was the worst. My work took me from Samut Prakan (dangerously high levels of pollution) to Rama 4 (dangerously high) over to Siam Square (dangerously high) and then back.
That was the day we allegedly had respite thanks to cloud seeding. The government sent up planes to artificially induce rain in an effort to disperse the pollution. It was like treating a third-degree burns patient with a Panadol and a dab of calamine lotion.
Samut Prakan is a leafy outer-lying suburb of Bangkok. Okay, so there are no leaves; we uprooted the trees and filled in the canals years ago.
Just last year we systematically chopped down the trees along Srinakharin Road, the last bastion of any semblance of nature. I watched them as trucks lopped them down, one by one, day by day. It was truly heartbreaking. They’d been there since my move here back in 1993, which means I had spent a quarter of a century with those trees. In a week they were gone.
Downtown Samut Prakan is a bit like downtown Minburi is a bit like downtown Nonthaburi. The only difference? There’s no “buri” at the end of Samut Prakan. Everything else – the concrete, the dangling live electricity lines, the broken footpaths, the urban despair – is identical.
And it has the greatest proliferation of sweatshops and automobile garages crammed into one province. We’ve had every ecological and industrial disaster known to mankind and they are as common as Songkran. I’m serious. Every year there is an industrial incident here.
Around the time I first moved to Samut Prakan there was a huge news story. A scrap metal beggar rummaging through a supermarket trash heap here found a Cobalt 60 radioactive container.
A radioactive container just outside a supermarket entrance? How long had it been there? That beggar then decided to open up that container. In the following months of the controversy his hands slowly melted. He was one of three who died; another 2,000 people were exposed to the radiation. I wonder what happened to all of them.
Remember the Phraekasa rubbish fire of a few years ago? Guess where that was?
That was 2014, and for one month we endured a fire that burned over a refill with thick smoke blanketing the area. Again, every morning my house was bathed in smoke and it didn’t feel good to be alive, breathing that day in day out.
More recently — six months ago — we had the Guardian newspaper come to Samut Prakarn. What an honor to have such an esteemed newspaper take the time from its busy schedule to take a tour of my backyard.
Why were they here? Because Thailand is now the “garbage can of the world”. Those are the Guardian’s words, not mine. China has refused refuse from the west, and guess where it goes now? This is what the Guardian said about their daytrip here:
“A factory visited by the Guardian in Samut Prakan province illustrated the mammoth scale of the problem. Printers made by Dell and HP, Daewoo TVs and Apple computer drives were stacked sky-high next to precarious piles of compressed keyboards, routers and copy machines.
“The Samut Prakan factory sits in the middle of hundreds of shrimp farms and there were concerns it was poisoning the landscape, with no environmental protections or oversight in place.”
Good lord. For the first time in my life I’m glad to be allergic to seafood.
This week Samut Prakan had the dubious distinction — again — of having the worst air pollution in Thailand. All maps of Thailand showing levels of “PM 2.5” use a special color for Samut Prakan. It’s a deep purple, and it designates a level of toxicity in the air that is beyond “difficulty breathing”. It is now “downright dangerous,” or a level in which pregnant women are in danger of miscarrying.
But why would it not be?
Of course we are breathing in dangerous particles. There are actions and there are outcomes, and there is no other possible outcome for humanity when we choose to allow factories to spew out pollution, waste to stack up, and cars to jam our roadways.
Srinakharin Road is now one of the most clogged arterial roads in Bangkok. They are building the skytrain there and traffic is ground to a halt every day. There is a two-kilometre stretch that takes 30 minute to get through and there we all are, spewing out foul polution from our collective exhausts the entire way.
How stupid we humans are. So much technology and ground-breaking advancement and we still think burning fossil fuels is the best way to get around.
Yesterday a particularly rabid bus driver roared past me on Sukhumvit in the right lane, which buses are banned from using, in an example of methamphetamine-charged road rage to get to the next bus stop just a few seconds faster.
It’s okay. As long as you’re not crashing into me, I can live with your recklessness. But what was so much worse than that was the billowing black smoke that accompanied each one of his gear changes.
My prediction is that with expected strong winds, this haze will dissipate. Maybe it has already on this Sunday morning. The haze crisis of Samut Prakan will be over — or will it be?
It is never over. We are just prolonging our inevitable end, thanks to our own hub of long-term stupidity.