Travelling Through A Burning Hell In South East Asia, And No One Cares.

Haze Kuala Lumpur

Travellers throughout certain parts of south east Asia have in recent weeks faced disrupted or cancelled flights, rerouted travel plans, smoke filled landscapes and other minor inconveniences that are minor symptoms of an ecological catastrophe known as the Haze. A catastrophe that is going largely ignored on a local and global scale. 

A few weeks ago in Indonesia, one of my planned trips to Kalimantan to visit an Orang Utan sanctuary was cut short due to the haze. This was an annoyance at the time but of course plans were changed and I along with everyone else did other things instead and simply got on with the rest of our trip.

That’s what you do right?

Interupted Travel.

As a traveller it was a part of the trip I had been looking forward to and of course it was disappointing that I wasn’t going to experience it, but things don’t always go to plan when you are backpacking and a big part of being a traveller is learning how to adapt and change to those situations. That wasn’t the problem.

The bigger problem for me personally was the level of apathy or even ignorance of the reasons why, not just from other travellers on the ground, but the worlds media too.

Yes I missed my chance to see Orang Utans in Kalimantan, but those very same Orang Utans very existence across both Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo is being threatened partly because their habitat is being razed to the ground. Which is more important here?

Vast swathes of Indonesia is currently burning on an industrial scale, increasing clouds of smoke and smog into the air that are large enough to choke the life out of large parts of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. It costs billions of dollars to the respective economies of each country, causes countless respiratory diseases and even deaths, and is a huge contributor to the destruction of countless wildlife habitats and puts already endangered species such as the Orang Utan at further risk.

This environmental disaster is colloquially known as the haze. It happens every single year. And it is both deliberate and premeditated.

An Environmental Disaster.

Every single year vast tracts of jungle and farmland are systematically burned to the ground. It isn’t just the trees and grass that burn, the ground across much of the jungle in Borneo itself is largely made up of combustable peatlands, and can keep the fires burning for weeks if not months and make them almost impossible to control.

These fires release levels of CO2 and toxic gas into the atmosphere in a short period of time than many western nations do in a year, and that creates a cloud of toxic smog known as the haze.

And this isn’t just an environmental disaster it is a very human one too, with hundreds of thousands of deaths every single year attributed to the haze, and negative health effects for countless others.

Why Does This Happen?

It happens because the huge and powerful logging, paper and palm oil companies want to expand their empires even more and clear even more land for their destructive industries, and let’s not waste any time bullshitting here, they set these fires purposely either through direct or indirect means. I’m not having any of this absolute crap that they ‘may’ in some way be involved and it needs to be investigated that the respective governments and powers that be peddle every single year. They are involved. They are the ones who are doing it. And they get away with it frankly because of the huge sums of money involved. Or is it just all a huge coincidence that these companies move in to expand into the burned down areas of rainforest as soon as the fires are put out?

The haze is caused by the logging, paper and palm oil industries, and is effectively sanctioned by successive and numerous governments who are too incompetent, too corrupt or too complicit to do anything about it.

This is illegal deforestation on an absolutely industrial scale.

The federal system of government allow powerful elite local governments who have vested interests to control and veto any legislation aimed at curbing destructive practices, and this is not a new thing. It has been happening for the past two decades at least and creates the perfect storm for cronyism and corruption.

Government support and subsidies for the palm oil industry in particular, and weak lip service in catching and convicting those involved ensure that this will continue for the foreseeable future. Despite technically having extremely strict plantation laws, very few convictions have been made, or even sought for that matter, against those industry heads responsible for these environmental crimes.

A Lack Of Interest.

And yet what do we do about it? We put on little surgical masks handed out at hotels and major airports and roll our eyes at how it affects our travels. I have spent a lot of time in Singapore and Malaysia in recent years, and every single year the haze has a negative impact in some way. It happens so frequently and so intensely that so many people simply view it as normal.

Television adverts calmly give out public health warnings in Kuala Lumpur that citizens should wear their masks or set their car’s air con units to not utilise outside air. Surgical masks are given out as if they actually make any difference and everyone grumbles about how their lives are being disrupted.

News reports state how tourists experiences are being affected by the haze, tourism industries bemoan the fact that their image and their bottom line are being affected.

I’ve heard plenty of backpackers and travellers complain about their cancelled flights, their ruined trips, the obscured views of the cityscapes that they had travelled to see. I have heard no one complain about the scale of the widescale environmental  destruction that is taking place.

Wake up people. This is about more than your cancelled flight. Major industry is being allowed to destroy some of the worlds last primary rainforest for pure, simple greed.

What can we do as travellers about this? Sadly very little. There are of course actions such as boycotting products or companies that use palm oil,but it is so widespread and so ‘hidden’ in many ways I understand completely the complexities in taking such an action and honestly I’m not even sure it’s possible. The best thing we can do as travellers for the moment is make ourselves aware of these issues, to spread the word. To make people understand what is going on and that it is wrong.

And that is what I hope to achieve, even in a small way, here. Will it make much difference? Probably not.

I don’t know what the answer is. I really don’t.

I just wish the media would pay more attention to what is one of the biggest environmental crimes of our time. I wish more people were aware of the issues around why their flight is cancelled again or why they suddenly can’t see three feet in front of them. I wish more pressure was put on the respective governments to get off their arses and do something about it! But of course nothing will happen until these industry heads are truly brought to justice and removed from society (by whatever means deemed just) and the industries themselves systematically dismantled. Slaps on the wrist and tiny fines simply won’t cut it.

What do you think about the haze? Has it affected your travels recently? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

Flight Shaming Is Wrong And Will Not Help The Environment.


Palm Oil Is Burning Borneo.

Plastic Free Travel: Taking The Single Use Plastic Water Bottle Challenge.

Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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Posted in Responsible Travel
22 comments on “Travelling Through A Burning Hell In South East Asia, And No One Cares.
  1. Julie says:

    This is all so scary, simply because there is so little we can do about it. It’s sad and so infuriating at the same time because you see it going on under your very nose and no one seems to realize the seriousness of it all. It’s like everything else that’s going on in the world, and ordinary people are trying “to do their bit” to change the system and change the world, or rather I should say “save the world”. Unfortunately for the moment it’s not enough, probably will never be enough, but we mustn’t give up hope and in the meantime we share stories like yours and who knows, bit by bit, little by little we can at least make a difference.

  2. Claudia says:

    Raising awareness is important, Mike. I am a strong believer in the power that people have to change the course of events. I see more and more people slowly taking notice of what is happening in the Borneo. Italian media (though a niche at the moment) have talked about it and continue to talk about it. I have less hope for a class action though, because although this is a humanitarian catastrophe, international human rights law is not suited to the needs of collectivities yet, and there is no legally binding instrument that states that we have a right to a clean environment. You have already done your share by putting this post out!

  3. I hate that it’s called haze, it sounds so natural and normal. This name doesn’t fit the toxic choking reality, making it seem the accepted norm.
    I haven’t experienced it all that badly in SEA, luckily for me. I have seen the horrific smog in China though and that was terrifying, although not caused by the same industries described here.
    Thank you for writing this, people need to know that the ‘haze’ isn’t something they should just shrug off as an inconvenience, that it is something far more destructive and sinister.

    • Exactly! That is such a good point! ‘Haze’ just sounds like a natural fog doesn’t it? It certainly doesn’t convey how serious and sinister it is or the fact that this is a fully man made and avoidable catastrophe. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Sandra says:

    It is the society (and the media) we have today in the Western culture isn’t it? We are fed what we crave, not what we need. Unfortunately for the majority of travelers the traveling experience is about them, their journey, their reward, their stories, not about the world around them… The media doesn’t inform anymore, it entertains; and this is not their idea of entertainment… Luckily for us, there are posts like these that we can share around in the hopes it will raise awareness.

  5. sohibyosi says:

    yes..and the local police investigation said that local, malaysian and singaporean investor also behind this.
    just know about michael huxley after watching an episode of 360 documentary news in Indonesia national television network.
    it’s great to know that you’re not only traveling but also care about environment.

  6. orionsmcc says:

    I am quite astounded by how little reporting there has been in the international media about this. And its not like the news cycle is currently preoccupied by anything else. Sad for the wildlife in Indonesia, and sad for the people in the region that are subjected to the poisonous smog innocently known as “haze”

    • I suppose it isn’t a ‘sexy’ enough news story for much of the west, and I feel like a lot of SEAsia has sadly gotten used to it as a way of life. Oh it’s the haze again, no news there. You are totally right, sad is the exact word.

  7. sathyadev says:

    It is an issue of grave importance . We as travellers overlook this issue as it just is an addition to our travel woes.

    The regulatory bodies need to do something seriously to curb this menace which can make breathing difficult in times to come

  8. Hoang ngoc linh says:

    Something needs to be done by the authorities.

  9. travelena1 says:

    I went to Kalimantan to see the orangutans earlier this year… Amazing! BUT I had no idea about this issue!! Thanks for bringing it up. I’ve been thinking about how to make my travels more mindful and meaningful… I don’t have an answer yet, but this article gives me a direction of thought..

  10. Jim says:

    This is a massive issue! Why are more people not talking about this?

  11. Andrew says:

    I did hear about this in SEAsia earlier this year but as you say it was more in terms of flights delayed and selfies being ruined, I have to admit I never even gave it a second thought beyond that. This has really opened my eyes

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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