In Muar, it was 'like ash hitting you in the face'

Air relatively clear last evening, but residents tell of how bad it had been

HAVING been in Kuala Lumpur since the haze hit the region last week, I was spared the worst of the haze.

As I headed out on my 2 1/2-hour car journey to Muar yesterday, armed with two bottles of water and one surgical mask, I did not feel ready to handle a town with an air pollutant index (API) of 300, much less 746.

Seriously, 746? That shocking figure set off a flurry of text messages from my Malaysian friends in the morning. Their country has not seen these levels of haze since 1997. Finally, the haze - which has been choking the region this past week - has truly hit home.

As I travelled south on the highway, the signs were not good. Visibility - I could only see about 500m ahead - was significantly reduced in Selangor and Negeri Sembilan. As I neared Malacca, I could smell the acrid air inside the car, which set off a throbbing headache.

But then, a surprise. Relatively clear air greeted me when I reached Muar, a coastal town in northern Johor known for its juicy otak. It was just after 4pm and while the sky was still overcast, the smell of haze was faint.

"You should have been here yesterday. Our mouths were constantly dry and you can almost feel like the ash is hitting you in the face," said electrical repair shop owner Ng Chuen Kay, 53.

Part-time cleaner Koh Geok Choo, 50, said the haze burnt her eyes and made her heart beat faster when she rode her motorcycle around town. "This is definitely the worst haze Muar has ever had," she said.

Since the API readings here show a 24-hour average, Muar's reading at 5pm yesterday was still 507, though the air had cleared somewhat when I got there.

Supermarket assistant Afiqah Azhar, 19, said this was the clearest she has seen Muar in the last four days. The day before, we could not even see that blue building, she told me, pointing to a shophouse about 200m away.

"I hope this haze stays away," said Ms Afiqah. "Our business has dropped by at least 60 per cent because everyone stays home."

Earlier in the day, the government declared emergency status for Muar and the nearby town of Ledang.

Schools and government offices will be closed today.

As I headed back towards the capital, I had an idea of where the haze had gone. In the evening, the government announced that it was shutting schools in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur due to the worsening haze. Malaysia's capital city, which had escaped the haze for the past week, was getting its turn. Well, at least I have my mask ready now.

chengwee@sph.com.sg