It's called the Land of Smiles, but it could equally be called the Land of Sun. That is, it could be, if it weren’t for the torrents of the monsoon that crossed the country each year. Yep, just as you thought those shimmering Andaman beaches and the sparkling, sun-kissed bays of the Thai Gulf were always sunny, there comes a downpour of epic proportions. Streams pour down the dusty roads, the Indian Ocean gets peppered with raindrops, and the beautiful waterfalls of Thailand's jungle-dressed backcountry become stronger than ever.
The phenomenon is known – predictably – as the rainy season. Occurring at different times in the north and south of the country, and affecting the various terrains and towns of the Land of Smiles in different ways, it's really important to consider the impact it will have on your holiday. Cue this guide, which outlines the various ins and outs of the Thailand rainy season, so you can decide when is best to go where to do what and with who. Enjoy…
When is the Thailand rainy season in the north?
Northern Thailand follows a simple two-season pattern year to year. The high season runs with the dry weather from December to May, while the low season comes with the rains, which hit cities like Chiang Mai and the central plains in spring, lasting until November. It's also worth bearing in mind that temperatures will gradually increase from the start of the high season until the coming of the monsoon, so visits in March and April will be some of the hottest and driest possible.
When is the Thailand rainy season in the south?
Okay, this is where things get a little confusing. The rainy season in the south of Thailand follows a very curious pattern; occurring at different times on the east coast, where the Indian Ocean meets the rugged karst cliffs of the Andaman (think places like party-mad Koh Phi Phi and Phuket), and the west coast, where the Thai Gulf hosts Full Moon parties and beach shacks (think the likes of Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, Koh Samui et al).
On the western islands - where LBW visit on their cleverly-named Island Teaser West itinerary - the monsoon descends on the beaches around April time (although things can get blustery and a little wet in late March) and begins to recede again in September and October.
In the east – where we head on our Thailand Teaser East trip - the rains come a little later. This side of the Thai peninsula, above the waters of the Thai Gulf, they begin in earnest around September and don't stop until well into February.
What's the Thailand rainy season like?
Unlike other monsoon seasons across Asia (think the endless downpours of India), the Thailand rainy season isn't actually all that bad. Yes, you can get hefty and elongated bouts of rainfall that will keep you locked up in those bamboo beach shacks for hours on end, pining for the beach and for the sun to put his hat on. However, those are rare. Instead, the Thai monsoon takes the form of intermittent bursts of heavy rain, broken up by longer periods of cloudy skies and warm, humid weather without a breeze. In the south, there can also be stormy seas and big waves.
Should I travel during the Thailand rainy season?
Time for the question that's on everyone's lips: is it okay to travel during the rainy season? Well, that's entirely up to you, and depends entirely on what it is you want out of a trip to the Land of Smiles. Some of the negatives are undeniable: the risk of rain, the blustery seas that can prevent swimming, snorkelling, diving and even hitching boats across to islands you want to see. But then some of the benefits are obvious too, like the smaller crowds, the really low hotel rates and the chance to see a different side of the country to most; when there's mist over the jungles and gushing waterfalls in the woods.
It's also worth bearing in mind that hitting Thailand during the rainy season doesn’t mean resigning yourself to months of torrential downpours – this isn't India after all! It is still possible to enjoy the beaches, explore the temples and hike the hills during the monsoon, precisely because the rains often stop and there are also long periods of calm before the next storm.
Dodging the rains
Of course, one glance at the yearly rotations of the rain in Thailand and it's easy to see how travelers could dodge the monsoons by flitting from islands east to west, and heading up north just as the weather suits. A typical itinerary that lets you do that would be to follow a trip (like LBW's Island Teaser East) in September and October, when the rains are buffeting the western islands, and head over to chill in the Andaman, between the rugged cliffs of Railay and the shimmering bays of Koh Phi Phi (just as we do on our Island Teaser West trip), in December, when the rains move away.
You could also tag on a jaunt to the northern reaches of Thailand straight after, because the weather will be at its best during January and February in places like the temple-topped town of Chiang Mai, hippie-infused Pai, and fun-loving little Kanchanaburi on the bends of the River Kwai – all spots we hit during that six-week Treasures of Thailand blowout!
Organizing your travels through the Land of Smiles like this will ensure you never (or at least almost never) catch a shower, maximizing time spent roaming night markets and kicking back on beaches, swinging in hammocks, hiking the jungles, SCUBA diving in the coral reefs, chomping on pad Thais, meditating on the mounts – the list goes on!
Dangers of the monsoon
In the central part of Thailand, the monsoon is also capable of wreaking some serious havoc. Regular flooding takes place in this flat part of the country, and heavy bouts of sporadic rainfall can really take their toll in the summer months. That means it might be worth considering avoiding these areas and heading for either the highlands or the beaches during the months between June and October. We hear Koh Phangan is partying hard that time of year…
Have you traveled to Thailand during the monsoon season and have anything to add? We'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below. Or, if you think it's time you hit the road and explored the much-covered Land of Smiles, its beaches and golden-topped temples, then be sure to head over to our itineraries page.
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