Thailand is typically thought of as hot, tropical and the perfect place to get a little more vitamin D before heading home after the holidays. For those of us who have lived here for some time, however, we know that a hat, scarf and coat are essentials during the winter season, especially here in the north.
But when talking with friends back at home, one utter of how its “cold” here in Chiang Mai is responded to with groans, moans and a general consensus that I must be lying. So, if it really isn’t that cold, why, oh why, do people end up quite literally freezing to death every year and, perhaps not quite so importantly, why didn’t anyone warn me to bring my warm coats from home?
The truth is, Thailand is just not prepared for the cold, like England is not prepared for the snow. (England still refuses to invest in adequate snow clearing vehicles as its deemed not financially viable, so on that basis how do you think Thailand deals with the few months of surprisingly cold weather? That’s right, they don’t.) Temperatures fluctuate over ten degrees each day (compared with the one or two degree changes in England), and you can really feel that change.
Thai people aren’t used to the cold, but tolerate heat quite well. Fifteen degrees is a seriously cold day; meanwhile, when thermometers reach the mid-30s they don’t even break a sweat. Most of the architecture is built for the heat, with high ceilings and thin walls (not to mention those drafty bamboo shacks on the mountains), and most of the cars sold here lack heaters. It is this lack of warm shelter, paired with a common lack of warm clothing, which often leads to more serious consequences.
Don’t get me wrong, the “cold” weather we experience here is nothing compared to the horrific negative degree temps of Canada or Russia (which I for one never want to experience…ever), but that hasn’t stopped the Director General of the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, Wiboon Sanguanpong, declaring ten Thai provinces as cold disaster zones at the end of 2014.
And this is nothing. 2013 year saw a whopping 45 provinces declared as disaster zones and in 2012, 33 provinces were too cold to handle.
Sure that sounds dramatic; governments love to use these buzz words to excite the population (and the media), but the reality is that many people every year die as a direct result of the cold…or more specifically, a direct result of not being adequately protected from the cold.
2013’s winter saw 63 fatalities reported by early January, including a British man. The cold affected many, with the youngest at just one month old, the oldest at 81 years old, and all ages in between. This year’s official count is not yet published but it’s usually around the same number each year.
Reports at the end of 2014 showed clear evidence for temperatures reaching 0 degrees Celsius on the top of Doi Intanon. There’s even pictures of frost etching its way across the ground. Yesterday, the weatherman claimed it hit minus two degrees on the peaks and earlier this week it was even reported (although later denied) that it began snowing in Nan province.
Yet there is some good that comes from having your province declared as a “cold disaster zone.” The government immediately offers financial aid to anyone in these zones to help people cope with the chill. According to reports at the end of 2014, the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department began coordinating with provincial administrations to provide assistance to victims and even formulate preventative measures against the cold (like a bigger sun, perhaps?) and against other potential disasters such as fires, haze, illnesses and road accidents caused by thick fog. Ad hoc centres have also been created to provide blankets to the poor and the homeless. It’s nice to see the government still attempting to do the “social welfare” thing from time to time.
This should be a non-story. People shouldn’t be dying of the cold in Thailand. Over 25,000 people died due to cold-related illnesses in the UK in 2014, leaving the 63 of Thailand barely scratching the harsh icy surface. But for such a tropical country, it makes headlines. And rightly so, as it just shouldn’t happen. Yet it seems to be that the main killer in this case is not the cold itself but education and funds, or lack thereof. The majority of fatalities in 2013 resulted from simply not being wrapped up warm enough. To think, even a thin blanket could have saved those that died.
So for all us privileged westerners who, even if found on the streets, are most likely have somewhere warm to go and something cosy to curl up in, this matter shouldn’t be tossed aside. If you still are thinking the cold in Thailand is an over-hyped, overplayed issue, perhaps try sleeping in a t-shirt and shorts with no shoes in a bamboo hut in the windy cold winter. Statically, a cold day in Thailand at around 15 degrees Celsius is 40 percent less than the average daily temperature of Thailand, so who would be prepared for that? In comparison, 40 percent less than the daily average in the UK comes out as a bitter 8 degrees…in the summer.
Anyone who wishes to donate cold weather clothing and blankets to villagers living in cold disaster zones can drop them off here at the Citylife office anytime during business hours (weekdays, 9am-6pm).