Traveling Asia in winter has some advantages: big holidays, snowy landscapes, and less tourists, to name just a few. But if you aren't a fan of cold temperatures and that depressingly nuclear-white winter sky, you'll have to get to Southeast Asia to warm up nearer the Equator.
Most of East Asia (e.g., China, Korea, and Japan) will be dealing with cold and snow, meanwhile the busy seasons will just be gaining momentum in Thailand, Vietnam, and other warmer places.
Chinese New Year in January or February is one of the largest events in the world; you certainly don't have to be in China to enjoy the festivities. But don't think you'll have to give up Christmas or December 31 as New Year's Eve while traveling to Asia in winter. Western holidays are observed with decorations and events, particularly in urban hubs. Hearing Christmas music in late October is not unusual!
India in Winter
With the primary monsoon finishing sometime around October, India begins to enjoy sunshine that attracts more and more travelers. The exception is North India where snow will blanket the Himalayas and shut down mountain passes at high elevations. Skiing season will begin in Manali.
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, Goa in particular, get busy in December for the annual Christmas celebration there.
China, Korea, and Japan in Winter
These countries obviously occupy a vast and geologically diverse piece of real estate, 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 F) to make shivering budget travelers squeeze around small stoves in the guesthouses.
Southeast Asia in Winter
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 the 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.
Points farther south such as Indonesia will be dealing with rain during the winter. Peak season for islands such as the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia and Bali in Indonesia is during the summer months when rain slows.
Although, Bali is such a popular destination that it stays busy throughout the year.
Hanoi and Ha Long Bay — top destinations in the north of Vietnam — 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. Yes, it will be busy, but temperatures will still be tolerable until humidity gets worse and worse in March and April.
Sri Lanka in Winter
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!
Traveling During the Monsoon Season
Although temperatures stay warm, "winter" means monsoon season in some southern destinations. Rainy days increase as seasonal rains make everything green again and put out wildfires. Indonesia experiences the most rain during December and January.
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 less tourists crowding the beaches.
Traveling during monsoon season does present some new challenges, but travelers are often rewarded with cheaper prices for accommodation and less crowds.
Asian Festivals in Winter
Asia has plenty of exciting winter festivals. Thaipusam in India is a chaotic spectacle, with over a million Hindus gathering at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Some devotees pierce their bodies while in a trance-like state.
Japan, despite the cold, will be celebrating the Emperor’s Birthday and the Setsubun bean-throwing festival.
Christmas in Asia
Christmas has caught on in Asia, even in places that didn’t celebrate before. Big cities in countries such as Korea and Japan celebrate the holiday with enthusiasm; streets and buildings are decorated with lights.
A large Christmas celebration takes place in Goa, India, each year, and Christmas is a really big deal in the Philippines — Asia’s predominantly Roman Catholic country. No matter the religion in an area, there’s a good chance that Christmas will be observed in some form; it may be as small as giving sweets to the children.
Chinese New Year
The dates for Chinese New year change, but the affect it has on Asia does not. Chinese New Year is one of the most widely celebrated festivals in the world. And although celebrations are certainly exciting, the massive migrations of people traveling to enjoy the 15-day holiday or going home to see family certainly bog down transportation.
Accommodation prices often skyrocket during Chinese New Year as Chinese travelers head to all corners of Southeast Asia to enjoy warmer weather and holiday time. Plan accordingly.
New Year’s Eve
Even countries that celebrate Chinese New Year (or Tet in Vietnam) may "double dip" and 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.
Large numbers of Western travelers are often on the move to warm, social destinations such as Koh Phangan in Thailand to party and celebrate.