Throughout Southeast Asia, the monsoon season generally refers to the "southwest monsoon", the time of the year when the prevailing winds blow up from the warm, wet equatorial seas, bringing in rains and storms. This southwest monsoon generally starts in May or June, reaching a fever pitch between August and October (typhoon season in Vietnam and the Philippines) then tapering off by November.
Rain and overcast skies mark the weather throughout the monsoon season.
At best, areas affected by the monsoon experience a few days of sunshine, punctuated by continuously rainy days. As July turns into August, the rains intensify - tropical depressions evolve into storms or typhoons that emerge from the Pacific and roll west, crashing through the Philippines and Vietnam and inflicting casualties along the way.
By December or January, the winds' prevailing direction reverses. Now the winds blow from the north, driving cold, dry air from China and Siberian Russia into Southeast Asia. This signals the beginning of the dry season, generally lasting until the winds shift again in May, ushering in another monsoon season.
How the Monsoon Season Affects Southeast Asia's Destinations
The countries with landmasses closest to the equator - Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Philippines, and Singapore - have a tropical equatorial climate, uniformly humid and wet throughout the year.
These countries do not experience the climatic peaks and valleys that occur in the rest of the region: little to no typhoons, but no extended cool, dry periods, either.
The monsoon's effects are more clearly felt in the rest of Southeast Asia; the onset of the rainy season plays havoc with some of the region's most beloved tourist sites.
The Thailand beach locales of Phuket and Koh Chang experience dangerous rip currents during rainy season; these claim several lives a year, usually tourists who weren't briefed on the perilous local tides. In June 2013 alone, Phuket's rip currents killed three tourists in as many days. (Source)
- Find out more about Thailand Weather.
In Vietnam, the river passing by the historic town of Hoi An experiences yearly flooding; the Tan Ky Old House beside the river displays high-water marks on their walls for tourists to see. Unwary tourists may be trapped in their hotels, or worse, killed by flash floods.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia, the monsoon weather brings about a positive change in at least one major tourist destination. "The Angkor temples are at their aesthetic best during the wet season," the folks over at Canby Publications tell us. "The surrounding moats and reflecting pools are full, the jungle is lush and moisture bring outs the colors of the moss and lichen covered stones of the temples.
"In the Philippines, the change of wind direction affects the beach island of Boracay: the southwest winds render White Beach dangerous to swimmers. The beachfront is defaced with transparent plastic shields set up by locals to protect against flying sand.
Most of the tourist action moves to Balabag Beach on the other side of the island, which is shielded from the worst of the wind.
- Find out more about Weather in the Philippines.
The island of Bali demonstrates what happens when you cross the Equator: the monsoon season there is the opposite of those locales further north. Bali experiences its heaviest rainfall between December and March; just as Vietnam and the Philippines are bracing themselves for typhoons between June and September, the dry and cool season commences in Bali.
In general, mobility is somewhat restricted during the monsoon season. Some ferries serving island destinations cease operating out of safety concerns, and some overland routes are made impassable by floods. Booking flights becomes a hit-or-miss affair, too: flights are more prone to delay or cancellation during the rainy season.
But it's not all that bad: proceed to our next page to find out why traveling during monsoon season can be a good thing, and read up on our monsoon travel tips.
Peak travel season in Southeast Asia coincides with the beginning of the dry season: the outdoors are relatively free of rain (barring the occasional light shower) and the temperature varies from cool to tolerably warm. The dry season turns into all-out summer (hot and dry all around) before giving way to the monsoon season - the wet rainy months from May to October beloved of rice farmers, but mistrusted by travelers.
American tourists may find the monsoon season somewhat inconvenient; after all, the beginning of the monsoon rains coincides with the start of the summer break, the only extended period available to most U.S.-based tourists for undertaking family travel.
Pros and Cons of Monsoon Season Travel
If you think there's nothing good about traveling during monsoon season, you're wrong. There are a few advantages to planning a trip to coincide with the local monsoons.
- Off-peak prices and capacity. Booking a hotel is a breeze during the rainy season. Hotel rates and airfare can come down by up to sixty percent of peak season rates, because the summer-season crush has fled with the onset of the rains. And getting around on local transportation can be easier and less crowded.
- Cooler weather. The monsoon season comes on the tail of the hottest months of the year - the afternoon showers in the first two months of the rainy season can come as a cooling relief, although the high all-day humidity can be stifling.
- More scenic sites. As mentioned in the previous page, places like the Angkor temples benefit from the increased rains: the canals are topped up, and the lush greenery makes the stone templework feel more alive.
Which is not to say that traveling during the monsoon season is entirely free of downsides.
The rainy season increases risks to travelers in more ways than one.
- Greater health hazards. A number of diseases particular to the rainy season can strike even the healthiest tourist down. Mosquito bites spread dengue fever; feces-ridden runoff can contaminate the groundwater, spreading cholera, hepatitis, leptospirosis and food poisoning.
- Riskier travel. If you've gotten past those washed-out roads and cancelled flights to get to your destination, the dangerous rip tides at your overcast beach resort or the flash flood at your riverside stop just might do you in.
- Reduced travel options. See above: roads are prone to flooding and flights are prone to cancellation due to inclement weather. Some ferries and bus operations cease altogether, and not a few hotels and budget inns close down as the tourist tide dries up.
Dos and Don'ts of Monsoon Season Travel
You can enjoy all the benefits of travel during the monsoon season - and very few of the downsides - if you prepare adequately for your trip. Follow the dos and don'ts below to ensure that you'll remember your monsoon trip warmly, instead of regretting it entirely.
- Monitor the situation. Before you make your way to a particular location, check the local weather to ensure a safe trip. Most Southeast Asian countries now have online resources that let you check in on the local climate from anywhere.
Keep your ear open for English-language TV or radio forecasts in your destination; the Asian feeds of CNN, BBC or other news cable channels can provide up-to-date weather reports on your neck of the woods.
- Pack carefully. Traveling during typhoon season carries with it particular dangers; make sure your baggage reflects the risk you face. Moisture and humidity? Bring plastic bags and other waterproof containers for documents and clothes; put silica gel packs in your handbags. Mosquitoes? Bring DEET along. Electricity outages? Bring extra batteries and a flashlight. Read this article for more details: What to Pack for Monsoon Season Travel in Southeast Asia.
- Prepare for mosquito season. More rains mean more pools of standing water, where mosquitoes can breed. Cases of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever proliferate throughout the monsoon season. Put DEET (or any other mosquito repellent) in your travel toolkit; even better, read this article on how to prevent mosquito bites.
- Don't wade in flood waters. Cities like Manila, Jakarta and Bangkok are often overwhelmed by flooding during the monsoon season. Don't wade into the overflow if at all possible. If this is unavoidable, take a long scrubby shower as soon as you get out of the floods.
The flood waters are horribly unsanitary - they pick up whatever's in the sewers and bring it gushing out to the surface. These waters are breeding grounds for cholera, leptospirosis and a million other nasties you probably never got shots for.
Another reason for avoiding the flooded streets: the cloudy waters obscure hidden traps like open manholes. It's not uncommon for an unsuspecting wader to just disappear, never to be seen again.
- Avoid raw vegetables. Fecal-to-oral diseases like cholera spread like crazy in the monsoon season. So this is a good time to leave the raw veg aside. (The Vietnamese, who love their raw herbs and vegetables in their pho and other dishes, experienced a serious cholera epidemic in 2008.)
- Allow plenty of waiting time in your travel itinerary. This is the monsoon season, where buses and planes can be canceled without further notice. Arrange your itinerary with some allowance for delays - ask your airline or bus about their policies for schedule changes, cancellations and refunds, and make sure you have a fall-back accommodation just in case you're forced to stay an extra day.