Should I go to SE Asia this summer or is it too rainy?
February 17, 2011 9:01 PM   Subscribe

I want to travel this summer - in the "backpacking" sense - and I'd love advice on where to go. I'm leaning towards ~6-7 weeks in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Burma..but I'm worried about the rainy season. Should I go somewhere else? How many countries should I hit? Any other advice?

So I've been to lots of places in Europe - often with family - but I've never really traveled on my own. This summer is probably my last chance to just go travel for 6 weeks, so I'm doing it. Ideally, I want to go somewhere very different form where I've been, and I've been leaning towards the whole Thailand, Vietnam, Laos idea. I'm worried that it's a bad idea because it's the "rainy season".

Should I still go? Should I go somewhere else and save SE Asia for another day? I've also thought about Greece, Turkey, Russia, China, Japan, South America...anywhere really! There's so many places I haven't been! What would you recommend for probably the longest and best trip I'll ever take for the next many many years?

I'd also love advice on how many countries and in what order to hit between late June and late August. I can obviously Google the details, but I thought this site would be a better place to help nail down which countries to go to, how many, what order, etc. But any and all advice is appreciated. Is the rainy season that bad?

Thank you in advance!
posted by User7 to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
We went to Thailand (Phuket) at the end of August a couple years back. Due to riptides, the main beach was closed to swimming for the extent of our stay, and at least once every day, there was a massive downpour. The boat trips we took ranged from idyllic to waves so rough we seriously questioned our life expectancy. Personally, I wouldn't recommend the ocean coast of Thailand in the rainy season.

From what I heard, the other side of the peninsula (Koh Samui, in the bay, for example) is much more pleasant than the coast along the ocean.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:09 PM on February 17, 2011

why not keep it local and do the colorado trail. 6 weeks is just about right, and its a fucking slice of heaven.
posted by H. Roark at 9:36 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can't speak for the other countries, but here in Vietnam during the rainy season, it doesn't usually rain the whole day. It'll be an awful downpour, but sometimes only for a few minutes to a couple hours. Unfortunately, no one can predict when it will stop or start raining. Southern Vietnam is bound to be very hot at that time, but it's still a fantastic place to visit. If you end up near Saigon, let me know and I'll show you around!
posted by hasna at 9:37 PM on February 17, 2011

I've only ever been to SEA approx Dec-Mar so can't really comment on the weather, except to observe that whenever I've been in a monsoonal area during the rainy season, the rain tends to only fall for an hour or two, and usually at the same time of day - see if you can find out more about how the monsoon works in those countries, because it doesn't necessarily mean rain all the time.

I wouldn't recommend Greece or Turkey during the European summer holiday period - high season, accommodation all booked out, could be hard to find a room as a backpacker flitting from place to place.

For SEA, I'd say about 3-4 weeks per country is an alright estimate. There isn't all *that* much to see in most of them, so you can cover the highlights (eg Bagan, Angkor, Luang Prabang) plus a few small towns & the capitals, a beach & a hill tribe & a trek & a river journey and get a pretty good overview & feel for each country. Obviously, one could spend *much* longer but you can cover quite a bit in 3 weeks apiece. Anything less than about 2 weeks & you'll barely get away from the capital & major highlight (eg Phnom Penh - Angkor & back) which will also be the most touristic route (easiest for you, but also less "authentic" with big air quotes around "authentic")

As a general rule of thumb, a lot of travellers say that the friendliness of the people & the less touristic-ness & less hassle is in a continuum from west to east: Burma is exceptionally cool & laid back & friendly, Laos almost equally so, more hassle in Cambodia, and the most in Vietnam - it's been on the trail for much longer.

If you only have 6-7 weeks, then you'll have to decide on some priorities. You'd probably land in Bangkok (regional hub), spend some time there, then head off to your choice of - I'd suggest - your two most preferred countries.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:47 PM on February 17, 2011

How many countries should I hit?

As few countries as possible. Ideally, one or two at the most. I don't know where the idea came from that we should just zip through as many places as we can in as short a time as is possible.

If you're zipping through a country, you really only have enough time to pull in the major sights, maybe grab a meal or two. If you stay for a while, you have time to really absorb the place.

I know you say you won't have this opportunity again for a while, but opportunities to travel can make themselves known if you have wanderlust (as I did for many years). With this long time to travel you can really indulge yourself in a more focused and stretched out experience.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:57 PM on February 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Why don't you tell us a little more about yourself? It would help with recommendations. For instance, are you a scuba diver? Because then you should put Malaysian Borneo on your list.
posted by cyndigo at 10:01 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just go, don't worry about the season. The weather is only a small part of your overall experiences. Go where you want to go and enjoy the weather you encounter.

I travelled for 5 months in southern India over the monsoon season, two months in the Himalayas over winter and four months from Burma through to Laos via Borneo over a change of seasons. It's all amazing and I'm recalling now how interesting it was to be drinking Lao Beer at a bar hut on the banks of the Mekong while watching the rising waters inch toward our table. Good times.
posted by Kerasia at 10:15 PM on February 17, 2011

I've been in Vietnam and Cambodia during the rainy season and it's not bad. It really helps that it's warm! Yes, there will be a relatively short but heavy downpour most days, during which you'll probably want shelter. But it's not cold. Your sandals get soaked but then they dry out when it stops raining. (Good water-friendly hiking sandals like Tevas or Keens are super helpful.) IME you just carry a poncho on you and wear sandals and it's all good even if you have to keep traveling in the rain. Don't worry, everyone else will be wearing a poncho too, it won't be just you.

BTW, the flooded forests of the Tonle Sap (lake) in Cambodia are a spectacular part of the rainy season. Not sure if Cambodia is in the cards, but if it is, Tonle Sap is really special. I think there are some eco-friendly, responsible tour groups there, though I have no experience with them.

Anyway, I thought the monsoon rains were really fun. What better way to break up your overly-ambitious plans and give you a break than sitting under an awning, drinking coffee, watching the rain, and chatting with people?

So, yeah. Sandals. Poncho. Quick-drying clothing. Flexibility and a sense of humor. Arm yourself with these things and you will be fine.
posted by mandanza at 10:27 PM on February 17, 2011

I'd do Thailand for three weeks and Burma for three weeks. Or if Burma is too exotic or you can't get a visa, split the last three weeks between Laos and Cambodia. Go to Bagan if you go to Burma.

Frankly if you like to travel there's almost no way to screw this up outside of being too ambitious and spending the whole trip on a bus. Just don't plan on any beach time.

Also, based on personal experience, the rainy season in SE Asia beats out Turkey and Greece during the same time of year. My god the heat in central Turkey...
posted by MillMan at 10:36 PM on February 17, 2011

I was in Thailand for the first 2 weeks of October, the end of their rainy season, and while it rained almost everyday, it was still incredibly beautiful and a fantastic trip. I would suggest heading to the northern part near Chiang Mai. The best part about traveling in Thailand during the rainy season is that everything is significantly cheaper.
posted by ruhroh at 11:05 PM on February 17, 2011

there's almost no way to screw this up outside of being too ambitious and spending the whole trip on a bus

QFT. Don't be too ambitious. It's not so much that transport is slow (although that it is), it's more that there aren't many connections per day from point to point.

In India the journeys are equally as slow, but you can hop off a bus or train at some junction town, and there'll usually be an onward option of some sort available within the next hour or two, even at, say, 3am. India's a busy place with zillions of people, and the transport infrastructure reflects this.

In Burma, Laos & Cambodia, the next onward vehicle might not be until the following day, so that slows you down heaps. Thailand's pretty quick, modern & efficient, though. Can't speak for Vietnam as I haven't been there yet.

If you have a bit of cash up your sleeve, flights can be a good option. For example, I took a 1.5hr flight from Lake Inle to Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma for US$85, which saved me about 18 hours on a painfully slow & bumpy bus.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:12 AM on February 18, 2011

PS - I see you're really new here. If you do go to SEA then a previous question of mine might give you ideas on what to bring.

I'd really recommend Burma, by the way. It has that rare, magical quality shared with Iran, of a place still shunned by a majority of travellers, where people are overwhelmingly genuine & friendly & honest & interested in talking & sharing & cultural interchange. I've been there twice now & the second time I went back for a month knowing full well I wasn't going to see anything new. It's more about the people, they're just freaking lovely. Damn, now I want to go back again.

Make your own decisions, though, about visiting a place ruled by a bunch of hardcore assholes. You can largely avoid giving much more than a few dollars towards the junta, and as the Australian UNESCO representative there said (hearsay, from a kiwi i think who put the question to him) "yes, the people want & need you to visit - much more than any political boycott might achieve"
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:51 AM on February 18, 2011

Just go, don't worry about the season. The weather is only a small part of your overall experiences. Go where you want to go and enjoy the weather you encounter.

I'd add that adverse weather conditions can actually bring people together.
And then I'd also add that Siberia is no place to be anytime after August. Seriously.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:38 AM on February 18, 2011

I confirm that Vietnam and Thailand are fine in the rainy season. As others have mentioned, there will be a downpour almost every day but twenty minutes to three hours - not a 40 days/nights scenario. I can also confirm the part about adverse weather conditions bringing people together. During one of these storms in Vietnam my friends and I took shelter with some family in the middle of nowhere outside of Sa Pa, had some tea and snacks, watched TV with them. I hadn't thought about that in a long time...

Someone else said one or two countries and I would agree but I would be happy to go back to Vietnam and Thailand. Both relatively have their act together in terms of tourism and transport between major cities, with plenty of room for adventure if you're going out of the way. Incredible sights and great food without limit, but still within reach of something comfortable if you need a break from all the novelty. Vietnam, in particular, is rapidly developing. 5-10 years ago it was a different country, and the same will be true in another decade.

See, you could spend six weeks in Vietnam alone, without a doubt. I spent 2 weeks in the north and still had many things to do. 1 week in the south and 1 week in the Mekong delta, 2 to get lost in the central zones (Hue, etc).
posted by whatzit at 11:27 AM on February 18, 2011

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