Traveling around Asia in May means enjoying spring weather in East Asia but possibly dealing with the start of the monsoon in Southeast Asia.
Everyone loves mild weather and spring flowers (the cherry blossoms will just be finishing in Japan), but heavy rain can turn outdoor activities into a soggy mess.
One option, a very tempting one, is to flee the southwest monsoon's arrival in May by heading to destinations farther south.
Wildflowers will be blooming in East Asian destinations such as China and Japan. Tokyo averages 12 wet days in May, but the busiest travel time of year begins the first week of May with the Golden Week holiday.
May Holidays and Festivals in Asia
The secret to enjoying massive Asian festivals is timing. You need to book in advance to avoid paying inflated prices for hotels that are near the action. Arriving a few days early is a good idea. Large festivals cause traffic and crowds at popular sites to get even worse.
- Golden Week: (begins April 29) Four major holidays hit at once to create Golden Week, Japan's busiest time. Golden Week extends from the end of April into the first week of May and will certainly clog transportation and accommodation as many Japanese people travel for the holidays. Be ready for some serious crowd surges during and immediately following the holiday.
- Buddha's Birthday: (dates vary by country) Although dates vary by country and year, most Buddhists in Asia observe Gautama Buddha's birthday on the first full moon in May. Also known as Vesak Day, the event is a national holiday in much of East Asia. Alcohol sales are often banned to respect the holiday, and temples get busier. Interesting note: Gautama Buddha was born in modern-day Nepal sometime around 563 BCE.
- Full Moon Party in Thailand: (dates change) Although Thailand's busy season begins to wind down in May, you may not notice at the rambunctious Full Moon Party. Thousands of people gather monthly at Haad Rin on the island of Koh Phangan to party on the beach. The monthly event has grown large enough to influence the flow of backpackers through Thailand. The islands are particularly busy before and after the party, meanwhile, Chiang Mai gets a bit quiet for a few days.
- Gawai Dayak: (begins May 31) Borneo's Gawai Dayak festival celebrates indigenous culture and traditions. The festival begins on the eve of May 31 and runs through the next day.
Where to Go in May
While pretty much all of East Asia will be warming up with pleasant weather and spring showers, a large portion of Southeast Asia will be scorching hot and ready for the monsoon to start if it hasn't yet. Rice farmers will be watching closely.
April and May can be the hottest months in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia until heavy rain cools down weather a bit. Fortunately, the rain also clears the air of dust particles and smoke from burning fields.
The later in May you travel to northern parts of Southeast Asia (particularly Laos and Myanmar), the greater the chance that you'll encounter monsoon rains.
The farther south you travel in Southeast Asia, the better chance of drier weather. Much of Indonesia will be enjoying lovely weather in May, as will East Timor. May is an ideal "shoulder" month to visit Bali just before the tourist floodgates open even wider in June.
Places with the Best Weather
- Bali and nearby islands such as Nusa Lembongan
- Malaysian Borneo (rain is about the same in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu)
- Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
- Nepal (May is often an ideal month for trekking in Nepal)
- China (May is a great month to visit China)
Places with the Worst Weather
- India (extreme heat)
- North Sumatra (rain)
- Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos (heat and rain)
- Langkawi Island, Malaysia
- Burma / Myanmar
- Much of Vietnam
- Hong Kong (heat, humidity, and rain)
Of course, you'll always find exceptions to the lists above.
Mother Nature doesn't really observe the Gregorian calendar, and weather is shifting throughout the world!
Singapore in May
Although rainfall in Singapore isn't much heavier than usual, humidity will be thick on the many sunny days in May. Afternoon showers pop up frequently in Singapore; be ready to duck into one of the top-notch museums for exhibits and extra-strength air conditioning!
India's Heat in May
May is three-showers-a-day hot in New Delhi and other polluted urban centers in India. But it's also the last month to visit before heavy monsoon rains begin in June.
Haze in Thailand
Although the choking smoke from agricultural fires in Northern Thailand dissipates once the rains begin, it may still be a problem in May if the monsoon is slow to arrive.
Slash-and-burn fires and dust in the air raise particulate matter to dangerous levels. The airport in Chiang Mai has even been forced to close on some days due to low visibility! Travelers with respiratory problems should check conditions before planning a trip to Chiang Mai or Pai.
The Best Islands to Visit in May
While rain begins around Thailand and islands such as Koh Lanta mostly close down for the season, other islands in Malaysia and Indonesia are just beginning to wind up for their busy seasons.
The Perhentian Islands in Malaysia begin to get busier in May, and the diving gets better. June is the peak month on Perhentian Kecil where sometimes all accommodation on the island becomes booked. Tioman Island in Malaysia gets rain throughout the year, but May is a good month to visit.
Mount Everest Climbing Season
The most bids for the Everest summit are made from Nepal in mid-May when weather is most favorable. Everest Base Camp will be buzzing with activity as teams get resupplied and prepare to climb.
May is generally the last month to enjoy spectacular views while trekking in Nepal before summer humidity messes up views until September.
Traveling During Monsoon Season
If you'll be traveling in Southeast Asia in May, you may find yourself dealing with the beginning of monsoon season. Don't despair! Unless a tropical storm is shaking things up, you won't have perpetual rain day in and day out. Plus, sights and attractions won't be as crowded.
Like any other time of year on the road, traveling during monsoon season has its advantages and disadvantages.
Temperatures may be more pleasant, but the mosquito population increases. Prices are often lower in the "off" season, although May is so soon after busy season that tour operators and hotels may be reluctant to start doling out discounts just yet.