Should you visit South East Asia in the rainy season?
The rainy season in South East Asia is a tempting proposition. Cheaper flights, abundant accommodation – and who knows? You might strike it lucky and get days of glorious sunshine. After all, almost everywhere you read seems to describe the rainy season here as having short bursts of showers in otherwise hot and sunny days. Well, yes and no. You’ve also got to be ready for days on end of torrential rain, swarms of mosquitoes and possible flooding. Read on for an honest account of what the rainy season can really be like in South East Asia – and decide whether you might be up for taking the plunge (pun intended).
1. Cheaper accommodation, fewer visitors
The price of flights and accommodation generally drops drastically during the rainy season, and if you’re looking for a bargain getaway, with quieter tourist attractions and plentiful lodging options then this may be the time of year for you. If you’re considering hitting a major hotspot like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, then it may well be wise to time your visit for the rainy months – particularly if you’re happy to tramp around in the wet for a few hours in return for shorter queues and less footfall at the sites. However, if your ideal holiday involves lazing on a beach or sizzling by the pool, I’d tread carefully. Nothing ruins the best-laid plans of a sun god or goddess like day after day of drizzle.
2. More mosquitoes
I would say this is a major factor to consider, speaking from very, very personal experience. Having visited this region in the drier, cooler months, I can testify that the mozzie count – unsurprisingly – skyrockets during the rainy season, when the little blighters thrive. This may sound like a minor issue in the grand scheme of things, but after several consecutive days of being eaten to death every night whilst asleep (repellent, long sleeves, trousers and mosquito nets did nothing) I swore I would never return to this neck of the woods in the rainy months. Before the previous night’s bites could even think about healing, a dozen more would be added – and boy do they itch.
3. Flooding and damaged roads
The severity of the problem here will depend greatly on where you’re going – with remote areas that are reliant on dirt/mud tracks being more susceptible to difficulties during rainy periods – but this is by no means an issue for rural areas alone. The photo below is of Phnom Penh, and I’ve also witnessed Bangkok streets become rivers in a matter of hours. For obvious reasons, traffic grinds to a halt, and all sorts of unpleasantness drifts by in the murky water. Its easy to become stranded, and walking suddenly becomes a rather unappealing option. Even the shortest showers in this region can easily see you slopping back to your hostel or hotel in sodden flip flops, and the hygiene issues relating to this are too numerous to mention…
4. Lush landscapes
One very apparent upside to the bucketloads of rain that will fall in this period are that the landscapes are generally much more beautiful. Lush vegetation is everywhere, and blooming flowers make for beautiful photo backdrops. This is particularly so if you happen to be on any of the region’s verdant islands, or in cities or towns like Luang Prabang in Laos, or Chiang Mai in Thailand, where the fertile forests and jungles are visible at the city’s fringes. Rain can ruin a lot of things, but there’s nothing quite like sitting under a canopy listening to water dripping from leaf to leaf, or raindrops pattering down onto heavy flower heads.
5. Less of an ‘atmosphere’
For every relaxing minute spent listening to the rain however, there’s a soggy evening out in search of food or a damp visit to a tourist spot that’s a tad disappointing. Rain can give some great photo opportunities, but good grief can it also kill the atmosphere. Street food options become a washout, sightseeing on foot becomes a sodden trudge around a town, and no matter how hot it is, getting soaked through is rarely a pleasant way to spend a day. Also, who wants to share miserable looking rainy travel pics on social media? It needs to at least be hotter and drier than the weather at home, dammit!
6. No sunbathing
Just like everyone secretly wants to spread the teeniest bit of jealousy to mates back home via drop-dead gorgeous pictures, I am yet to meet the person who is happy to come back from a jolly abroad looking paler than when they left. Whether you’re a sun-worshiper or not, you kind of want people to know you’ve been to an exotic country, right? And nothing shouts that louder than bronzed, sun-kissed skin. Well, if you’re planning a trip in the rainy season, don’t get your hopes up. Granted, you could well get glorious day after day of blue skies and hot sun, but you’re just as likely to get regular downpours. And as the heat builds throughout the day, you’re most likely to get them mid- to late-afternoon, just as the blazing sun starts to abate, and you’re considering some serious pool time. Even when rain isn’t on the cards, thick cloud can also put any notions of poolside tanning to rest. And if you’re as unlucky as me, you’ll burn so badly on the one actual day of sun that you have to hide from it for the rest of your trip…
7. Beautiful waterfalls and rivers
There’s nothing like a waterfall in full flow, or a majestic river swirling past to create a stunning scene – all the more important if you like your travel photography. If you’ve timed your visit for the tail end of the dry season, you may find that any watery attractions are looking a little barren; classic shots like the towers of Angkor Wat don’t look quite a spectacular when reflected in a muddy little puddle, for instance. So one benefit of heading this way when the forecast is rainy means that you can guarantee some great scenery to admire. Of course, this assumes that you’ll want to head out to said waterfalls/river/lake in pouring rain. You may already feel that you’ve seen quite enough water for one trip.
8. Really rainy day? It’s likely you’ll spend more money
For budget travellers – who may well be visiting in the rainy season to save money – this one is worth considering. If the rain is really persistent, it can be almost impossible (or at the very least, unpleasant) to rove around the town or area that you’re staying and soak up the atmosphere for free. This then leaves you with limited indoor options – most of which will see you parting with cash. (Unless of course you just sit inside your hotel or hostel room. But who wants to do that?). Sitting in a coffee shop whilst stealing some wifi, or reading a book? You’ll be forking out for food and drink, no matter how thrifty you’re trying to be. Visiting a museum? Whilst many are cheap in South East Asia, there will still usually be small entry fee, and perhaps a tuk tuk there or back if the rain is really heavy. Trying an indoor activity, such as a cookery class or yoga? More expensive still. And for some people who want to make the most of their visit, all of the above could easily fit into a rainy day, with time left to spare. Multiply that by several rainy days in a row, and you might find your funds depleting a little quicker than anticipated.
9. It can (sometimes) be less photogenic
South East Asia can be a stunning area to photograph in the wet. Get the right black and white filter, or capture the moment a drop of rain bounces off a huge banana leaf, or snap a group of monks with umbrellas, and you’ve got a great shot. These opportunities can be few and far between however, and it’s more likely you’ll spend hours trying to edit your photos so they don’t look quite so gloomy and sodden as in reality. Water obviously also poses other more permanent threats to camera equipment, and you don’t want photos of the trip of a lifetime ruined because your smartphone got caught in a thunderstorm.
10. When it rains in South East Asia, it really rains
Coming from the UK, I thought I knew all about rain. After all, rain is pretty much our default setting here. But South East Asian “rain” is something else. Think of it more like someone throwing a bucketful of water over you and you’ll be getting close. When caught in a short, sharp shower it can be a laugh – and a genuine experience – and at other times, the dramatic electrical storms and downpours that you get on muggy days can be terrific. But if you have holiday plans in the pipeline, and are dreaming of adventure, excitement and exploration just stop for a second. Now picture these scenes on overcast days in torrential rain. Still raring to go? Great! Less certain? Maybe pay that little extra to go at a sunnier time of year. And thank me later.