Traveling to Asia in winter has some advantages: big holidays and fewer tourists, to name a couple. Plus, if you aren't a fan of cold temperatures and winter's dreadful lack of sunshine, you can always hit Southeast Asia where weather will be pleasantly sunny during dry season.
Most of East Asia (China, Korea, and Japan) will be dealing with cold and maybe even snow during winter. Meanwhile, the busy season will just be gaining momentum in Thailand, Vietnam, and other tempting destinations.
Although the equator slices neatly through Indonesia, most of Asia resides in the Northern Hemisphere. "Winter" in this part of the world still refers to the months of December, January, and February.
Traveling During Chinese New Year in Winter
You certainly don't have to be in China to enjoy the festivities or be affected by Chinese New Year! The Lunar New Year celebration (dates change every January or February) creates the largest human migration on earth for around two weeks. A massive portion of Asia is affected as people head home or out to their favorite places to enjoy a holiday.
Top destinations around Southeast Asia become busier during the event. Even distant Sri Lanka sees a boost in Chinese arrivals during the holiday. Book your flights and accommodation accordingly.
Winter in India
With the primary monsoon season finishing sometime around October, India begins to enjoy more sunshine, which in turn attracts more travelers throughout the winter season. The exception to this rule is in North India where snow will blanket the Himalayas and shut down mountain passes at higher elevations. Skiing season will begin in Manali by the end of November each year as a result.
What to Pack: Although the snow-covered Himalayas are beautiful, you'll need to gear up with boots and warm clothing. If you would rather stay in flip-flops, winter is a great time to get to Rajasthan (India’s desert state) to experience a camel safari. The beaches in the south—especially in Goa—get busy in December for the annual Christmas celebrations there, so you'll want to pack some lighter beachwear.
Average Temperatures and Rainfall by Month (New Delhi):
- December: low of 48 degrees F; high of 74 degrees F; precipitation of 0.2 inches
- January: low of 46 degrees F; high of 69 degrees F; precipitation of 0.4 inches
- February: low of 52 degrees F; high of 77 degrees F; precipitation of 0.4 inches
Winter in China, Korea, and Japan
These countries obviously occupy a vast and geologically diverse piece of real estate in East Asia, so you’ll still manage to find a few southern points with good weather in the winter. Okinawa and some of the other islands are pleasant throughout the year. But for the most part, expect wind, snow, and miserable cold throughout China—especially in mountainous regions. Seoul, South Korea, will also be freezing. Even Yunnan in the southern part of China will still be cold enough at night (40 degrees F) to make shivering budget travelers squeeze around small stoves in the guesthouses.
What to Pack: Since all three countries are located primarily in north- and central-east Asia, you'll need to bring enough clothing to keep you warm against the Arctic chills that blow through China, Korea, and Japan much of the winter season. Pack down jackets, gloves, a warm hat, and extra socks.
Average Temperatures and Rainfall by Month (Beijing):
- December: low of 21 degrees F; high of 38 degrees F; precipitation of 0.3 inches
- January: low of minus 13 degrees F; high of 9 degrees F; precipitation of 0.2 inches
- February: low of minus 6 degrees F; high of 16 degrees F; precipitation of 0.2 inches
Winter in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, despite being a relatively small island, is unique in the way that it experiences two distinct monsoon seasons. Winter is the best time to see whales and visit the popular beaches in the south such as Unawatuna. While the southern part of the island is dry in winter, the northern half of the island is receiving monsoon rains. Fortunately, you can take a short bus or train ride to escape the rain.
What to Pack: In order to prepare for your Sri Lanka vacation, you'll need to bring extra tops and a hat to shield yourself from the hot-and-humid weather of winter in South Asia. To travel more responsibly, consider bringing a reusable straw to cut down on plastic as you take advantage of Sri Lanka's king coconuts for staying hydrated.
Average Temperatures and Rainfall by Month (Unawatuna):
- December: low of 57 degrees F; high of 71 degrees F; precipitation of 7.7 inches
- January: low of 55 degrees F; high of 72 degrees F; precipitation of 6.7 inches
- February: low of 55 degrees F; high of 74 degrees F; precipitation of 3.3 inches
Winter in Southeast Asia
While East Asia is mostly freezing, Southeast Asia will be basking in the sun. Winter is the perfect time to visit Thailand and other destinations before heat and humidity climb to unbearable levels in spring. January and February are busy-but-pleasant months for visiting the region. Around March, humidity increases enough to put a sticky damper on the fun.
Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are mostly dry during winter, but points farther south such as Singapore and Indonesia will be dealing with rain. Peak season for islands such as the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia and Bali is during the summer months when rain slows. Regardless, Bali is such a popular destination that it stays busy throughout the year!
Top destinations in Vietnam such as Hanoi and Ha Long Bay are far enough north that they will still be cool in the winter. Many travelers have found themselves shivering and baffled as to how somewhere in Southeast Asia could be so cold! January is the best month to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and although it will be busy, temperatures will still be tolerable until humidity gets worse in March and April.
Big Winter Events in Asia
Asia has plenty of exciting winter festivals other than the Lunar New Year. Additionally, Christmas and other Western holidays are observed with decorations and events, particularly in urban hubs. Hearing Christmas music in late October is not unusual in some East Asian countries!
- Thaipusam in India: This is a chaotic spectacle that brings together more than a million Hindus at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Some devotees in attendance will pierce their bodies while in a trance-like state.
- Setsubun Bean-Throwing Festival in Japan: During this fun, quirky holiday in February, Japan celebrates the coming of spring by throwing beans to frighten away evil spirits.
- Christmas Throughout Asia: Big cities in countries such as Korea and Japan celebrate the holiday with enthusiasm. Streets and buildings are decorated with lights, and no matter the religion in an area, there's a good chance that Christmas will be observed in some form. This is especially true in the Philippines (Asia's predominantly Roman Catholic country) and in Goa, India.
- Chinese New Year: Although the dates change annually, the effect Chinese New Year celebrations have on Asia do not. Flight and accommodation prices often increase during Chinese New Year as Chinese travelers head to all corners of Southeast Asia to enjoy warmer weather and holiday time.
- New Year's Eve in Asia: Even countries that celebrate Chinese New Year (or Tet in Vietnam) may celebrate December 31 as New Year’s Eve. Shogatsu, Japanese New Year, is observed on December 31 and includes poetry, bell ringing, and traditional foods. Additionally, large numbers of Western travelers are often on the move to warm, social destinations such as Koh Phangan in Thailand to party and welcome the new year at the Full Moon Party.
Winter Travel Tips
- Although traveling in Nepal can certainly be enjoyable in winter, there is a greater chance that mountain passes will become closed and flights canceled due to weather. Allow enough time in your itinerary.
- You'll find inexpensive warm clothing to buy in the parts of Asia that get cold during winter. But as always, expect plenty of fake stuff when purchasing from markets. Those North Face gloves may feel more like South Face as your fingers continue to freeze!
Although temperatures stay warm, winter means monsoon season in some southern destinations of Asia. Rainy days increase as seasonal rains make everything green again and put out wildfires that have sprung up in the dry fall months. Additionally, places such as Singapore experience the most rain during November and December.
Even the slow seasons in places such as Bali can be enjoyed during the winter months. Unless a tropical storm system is nearby, monsoon rains don’t typically last all day, and there will be far fewer tourists crowding the beaches. Traveling during monsoon season does present some new challenges, but travelers are often rewarded with cheaper prices for accommodation and fewer crowds.