Help me plan my awesome Southeast Asia journey
August 30, 2010 11:14 AM   Subscribe

What is the best time of year to travel in Southeast Asia?

So, I decided to forgo Burning Man this year in favor of an epic, 3-week journey through Southeast Asia. I'm figuring that I'll want to hit up Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. I'd think this would be doable through some combination of planes/trains/buses.

The question is, when? I've been told that I should plan around the weather AND tourist traffic. For example, I've heard that December is the worst time to visit, since tourists flood the place, making everything more expensive and less pleasant.

Although I was originally thinking of December, I could also go for January or February. I suppose I could wait longer if necessary ... but I don't really want to ;)
posted by Afroblanco to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Frankly, I found that the best fruits are in season in July. It's also stanking hot and humid, and once in a while the rain will pour buckets (most days nothing happens or there is a brief storm). This was definitely not tourist season. In April, the weather was much cooler, but there was a distinct lack of delicious activity. By the way, I travel for food...

Northern Vietnam is not to be missed, and definitely gets to jacket-weather in the winter (when you are talking about going). Especially if you would be interested in visiting the mountainous areas with the terraced rice farming and Hmong villages, keep that in mind.
posted by whatzit at 11:25 AM on August 30, 2010

I should have added that my experience in these seasons was for Northern Vietnam and Thailand (Bangkok and around).
posted by whatzit at 11:26 AM on August 30, 2010

The question is, when? I've been told that I should plan around the weather AND tourist traffic.

Late October/Early November is probably your best window; you might get a couple of rainy afternoons but those can make the unbearable heat slightly less so.

That said, three weeks will require a lot of scrambling around if you plan on visiting those four countries. Additionally you may have to adjust your dates if you plan on relying heavily on mass transit (simply because some roads can become impassible during particularly nasty monsoons). This will be less of an issue in Thailand.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:37 AM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

4 countries in 3 weeks?!

Forget the season and do yourself a favour and be a bit less optimistic about quantity and a bit more focussed on quality. Xmas is best for Hanoi because it's cold. The rest is hot. And wet. And sometimes wet and hot.
posted by peacay at 12:09 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I went in July and it was hot but fantastic. Not high season but there were lots of students on summer holidays. I think a month would be a great amount of time to see just Thailand, maybe a bit of Laos but I don't like rushing things.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:44 PM on August 30, 2010

I went to Thailand a decade or so husband went the previous year. He went late October and I went early November. These are actually good dates because it's the tail end or right after the rainy season and the beginning of what is their "cool" season. (In quotes, obviously-however if you visit Northern Thailand in the hilly regions occasionally you actually might need a sweater, at least in the evening.) The one thing you might want to note is that sometime during that time the country of Thailand has a festival known as Loy Kratong. Honestly if you are able to go during that time I would because it's pretty fascinating to watch.
(The exact date is a bit moveable, just like our Easter is, so you'd have to check on that if it interests you.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:51 PM on August 30, 2010

I'm agreeing with whatzit July is when the best fruits are around. I also go for food! Erm..and family. I'm originally from Malaysia and it's definitely hottest June, July and August. Unless you're very heat sensitive, it's still manageable. Most stores have fans and some A/C if you're doing a lot of street pounding and need a break. Many have a giant one out front to attract customers in. Street vendors will sell you fruit juice made fresh as you order.

You might also research various local festivals/holidays and plan around those. End of January could be a good time to catch the Lunar New Year (February 3, 2011). I believe all of those countries celebrate it and will have plenty of festivities in the week leading up to it.
posted by vilandra at 1:27 PM on August 30, 2010

> 4 countries in 3 weeks?!

That was what I came here to post too. You're trying to do way too much. You'll spend about ten per cent of that time just travelling.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:04 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

First off, due to the state of the world economy and tensions earlier this year in Thailand, tourist numbers are way down. Having said that, anytime between November and early March is your best bet for weather. In fact, the northern parts of Thailand, Lao, and Vietnam will actually be cool at night during December and into early January. I've already booked my flight over for the month of February as seats on points are limited.

As others have also pointed out, your itinerary is beyond ambitious and verging on nuts. Where you should go really depends on what you're looking to do while you're there.

Bangkok is probably your best bet for both a flight over from the U.S. and a jumping off point to the rest of SE Asia. Spend a couple days there acclimatizing, enjoying the best food in Asia, and attaining your onward visa. Since hill country is far superior and less touristed in Lao, the only other reason for a visitor to stay in Thailand is the beach - some of which are completely built up and overrun, but there are real gems away from Pattaya, Phuket, Samui, Ko Phangan, Ko Tao, etc. Email me if you'd like some advice in this area.

Cambodia obviously has one of the greatest sites in the area and Siem Reap is a direct flight from Bangkok or a day by land. Phnom Penh is alright... mostly just another SE Asian capital, but there is an amazing unspoiled area near the Vietnamese border which is a cheap flight from there called Banlung. Ratanakiri province consists of jungle, waterfalls, a volcanic lake, and a national park. You can rent a motorbike and drive through countless villages if you're interested in exploring rural life.

I also used to live and work in Lao, and although I know the tourist numbers have swelled in the past ten years, along with the Burmese, the people are probably the friendliest in SE Asia. Since I don't know what you're looking for out of this trip, I'll give you a quick idea of what Lao has to offer. Si Pan Don (or the Four Thousand Islands) are in the far south and reachable by boat from Northern Cambodia. Probably not too much of interest to you all the way up to the capital Vientiane. North of Vientiane is Vang Vieng which, although extremely beautiful, is basically a pancake and dope hangout for those who aren't very adventurous (similar to Pai in Thailand). Further north is Luang Prabang, a beautiful town filled with some of the best temples in SE Asia, if that interests you. And continuing on up the country are great spots to depart on a trek from, such as Muang Ngoi and Phongsali. The latter having less tourists due to its distance from a major town/city.

Air Asia has some of the cheapest flights available and prices are based on how far in advance you book. If you'd like any other transport information or have any specific questions, feel free to either drop me an email or post here in the next day or so. Have fun!
posted by gman at 2:21 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd also like to add my voice to the mix in saying 4 countries in 3 weeks is INSANE. I managed to do Thailand/Laos/Cambodia in 5 weeks and I didn't even go to Chang Mai and had to take a direct flight from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap and spend less than 72 hrs in Cambodia to get that third country in.

November/Early December was great for me in that I completely avoided rainy season (friends who were there earlier had to push their bus out of mud on several occassions) and left just as all the Xmas tourists were arriving.
posted by furtive at 3:48 PM on August 30, 2010

December is fine for SE Asia. Yes, there are some tourists, but guess what? You're a tourist, too. They're not all bad, and when you're in countries with 80 million people, a few thousand tourists really isn't a big deal. If you go in December - especially in Vietnam - the weather will be a billion times more pleasant (not just cooler, but much, much dryer).

There's no way in hell I would visit the wet, stinking hot cesspit of SE Asia in monsoon season/summer for the sake of pretending I'm the first white person to go there. It's not like Europe; you won't find ten thousand tourists queuing up at 5am for museums/sights/etc (except, possibly, for Ha Long Bay).

I would scale back on the itinerary a bit, make it for december, and enjoy the hell out of your trip!
posted by smoke at 5:14 PM on August 30, 2010

Eh, you're going to stand out as a tourist no matter what. It's not really a problem though.

I visited Laos last Christmas and had a blast. I flew directly to Luang Prabang from Seoul and stayed a few nights. It was a little crowded but I had no problem finding a decent place to stay without a reservation, even though it was peak tourist season.

As others have mentioned though, you're dealing with some countries that don't even have railroads (Laos), let alone roads you can travel on all year round. For example, the bus trip from Luang Prabang to Vientianne will take you 12-14 hours, barring a flat tire or a (not so uncommon) accident. And you have to consider that up in LP, there's really only one way back, and that's another all-day bus trip back to the capitol.

FWIW, my next vacation is in February and I'm planning on going to Cambodia and Vietnam. Having been to Thailand, and having talked to a few people who've traveled in the region, I'd also suggest scaling back your itinerary. Frankly, I'd drop Thailand. Parts of it are beautiful, but a lot of it is also the most "touristy" and developed in the region. I just picked up a Lonely Planet guide for Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and that definitely seems doable in three weeks. (FWIW, I have a Korean friend who thinks Vietnam is way over-developed now and not worth visiting as compared to Laos and Cambodia, but I don't believe her completely.)

Then again, after having such a remarkable time in Laos I could see myself going back _there_ for three wholes weeks to see the northern and eastern parts of the country. Don't get too caught up in being a completionist about it all -- each of these countries has a ton of wonderful people, sites, and food, and you can't really go wrong _unless_ you over-extend yourself. Even a city like Vientianne, which has a reputation for being a bit bland, is incredibly charming IMO (and really, really cheap if you're spending USD).
posted by bardic at 11:57 PM on August 30, 2010

btw, Vietnam Airlines is great and has a lot of connecting flights out of Hanoi, most likely from Japan or Korea.
posted by bardic at 11:58 PM on August 30, 2010

Response by poster: Hmmm.... well, thanks all. Some solid advice here. Unfortunately, a number of people concentrated on the "where" and the "what" instead of the "when" (which was supposed to be the main focus of the question). But I suppose that's sorta my fault for not being more specific with my question.

Basically, I'm mostly interested in cities/towns/villages, with some interest in outdoorsy/nature-y things. I'd like to answer the question, "If I lived in southeast Asia, where would I live?" And yes, I'm interested in the great beautiful outdoors, but that wouldn't be the main focus of the trip.

And yes, I get it. Four countries in three weeks is probably unrealistic -- although I did three countries in 2 weeks in western Europe, and had an amazing time.

I'll probably post a few more questions about to this trip as the details coalesce in my mind.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:21 AM on September 7, 2010

Afroblanco, those 4 countries are always hot. Always. In (late) December, as I said, Hanoi (and the near surrounds) is coolish to cold, which makes it better for walking around. But it's stinking hot everywhere else. So your "when" is better being decided according to local events and festivals rather than according to season, imho. So the "what" and the "where" were mentioned because, for a lot of us who have spent a lot of time in those countries, they are the criteria by which decisions are made. *shrug*. I'm just sayin'.
posted by peacay at 3:02 PM on September 7, 2010

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