The continual pitter-patter of rain on our rooftop here in Siem Reap has stopped, the geckos are no longer seeking shelter inside, and the green frogs that graced our steps night after night have gone. The wet season has ended and the rains have stopped, but the myths about monsoon in Cambodia don’t seem to be going anywhere.
Afternoon Rains Do Not Fall Like Clockwork
Guidebooks, magazine articles and websites covering the climate in this part of the world typically generalize on the subject of the weather here. You’ll read countless times about how the monsoon rains arrive like clockwork each afternoon.
We’ve just spent our first full wet season in Cambodia and while it’s true that it’s more likely to rain in the afternoon, it frequently rained in the morning, the middle of the day, the evening, and overnight. Sometimes it didn’t rain at all for a day or two, while at other times it rained relentlessly for three days.
It is true, as weather charts attest, that it does rain more in the afternoon than the morning, however, nothing runs like clockwork here in Cambodia, particularly the weather.
The Myth of The Wet and The Dry
High season has well and truly kicked in. It begins in December, coinciding with the start of the dry period. We recently did a tour where the guide, having recited the same old script far too many times, told our group how Cambodia has two seasons, the wet and the dry, and the wet had ended and the dry started. Tuk tuk drivers will tell you the same.
The Tourism Cambodia website states that the wet season lasts from May to October, bringing with it 75% of the annual rainfall, while the dry runs from October to April, with a dry and cool November-January period and a scorching April. Hmmm… in fact, October is one of the wettest months in Cambodia, and November is still very wet. In November 2013 much of Cambodia was underwater from floods that affected 21 provinces from September through November.
The reality is complex. The free Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide by Canby Publications goes some way in better explaining the nuances, identifying four seasons: December-February, cool and dry; March-May, hot and dry; June-August hot and rainy; and September-November, cool and diminishing rain.
According to data gathered at the Siem Reap weather station at the Angkor International Airport, in Siem Reap the the wettest month in 2013 was September, when it rained for 77% of the month, and after that October, then July, and then August. There was very little rain in May, although there were more thunderstorms than other months, and the rain diminished in late June-early July, and there was also brief lulls for periods in August and early September.
Northern Australia’s Six Seasons
Our experience in Cambodia this year reminded me of the weather patterns of the monsoonal north of Australia, which has a similar tropical savanna climate and six main seasons and two transitional mini-seasons as identified by Australia’s northern indigenous peoples, who have been observing weather patterns for 50,000 years.
There, Dhululdur is the pre-wet season from October to November; Barra’mirri is the growth season, December to January; Mayaltha, the lush flowering season, February to March; Midawarr, from March to April, the fruiting season, which includes Ngathangamakulingamirri, the two-week harvest season in April; Dharratharramirri, from May to July, the early dry season; and Rarrandharr, from August to October, the main dry season; while the period known as Burrugumirri, from July to August, is identified as the time when marine life such as sharks and stingrays give birth.
Having said that, because there are so many indigenous tribes in Australia, especially across northern Australia, who are living in different areas with different micro-climates, along with different languages and dialects, there are also different seasonal calendars.
In the Northern Territory’s Katherine region, for instance, the Jawoyn people identify the seasons in their area slightly differently: Jiorrk, from January to February is the main part of the wet; Bungarung, from March through to mid-April is when the last of the rains fall; Jungalk, from mid-April through May is the early hot dry; Malaparr from June to August is the cooler middle-dry time when burning of the land takes place (a preventative measure against bushfires); Worrwopmi in September and October is the hot and sticky early build-up; while Wakaringding in November and December is the build-up, marked by brooding thunderstorms, when the first rains fall.
If you’re interested in learning more, see this piece on The Lost Seasons on the ABC site and the Indigenous Weather Knowledge project on Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology site. There’s more insight here too on Climate in Aboriginal Australia.
While the months when different weather cycles occur obviously differ between Australia and Cambodia, Australia being in the southern hemisphere and Cambodia in the northern hemisphere, indigenous Australians’ more nuanced understanding of the seasons more closely reflected our experience this year.
The Only Constant is Inconsistency and Unpredictability
If there was one constant here in Siem Reap, and in Battambang and Phnom Penh where we also spent a lot of time this year, it was the continual change and the unpredictability of the weather. As a photographer, Terence is constantly checking weather websites so we know when to schedule activities and photo shoots. Never has he spent so much time looking at storm patterns and never have I made and changed plans as much as I have during the last six months.
What surprised us most was how quickly the weather could shift and wouldn’t settle in as we’d envisaged it might. There were days where it would rain like mad for half an hour then the clouds would pass and the sun would come out and a gorgeous afternoon would unfurl. In some cases it could be raining heavily in one part of the city and in another the sun would be blazing.
I’m not sure which days I liked more, when we woke to grey skies and heavy rain and had to walk in ankle deep water to get anywhere, only to be pleasantly surprised when it cleared in the afternoon to reveal a perfect blue sky, a clarity of light that reminded me of early spring in Sydney, and swimming pool weather. Or those late afternoons when we would watch in amazement from our balcony as slate-grey clouds dramatically rolled in, quickly blackening the sky.
The Downside of Visiting Cambodia in Monsoon
For travellers, the unpredictability of the wet season means that it’s a gamble to visit during monsoon. If you’re on a tight schedule and have just a few days in Siem Reap then you’re going to be very disappointed if it rains the entire time, ruining your temple plans, despite there being a lot of engaging indoor things to do.
The rain makes the temples very slippery and sometimes there is so much water around, some may not be accessible at all. At times there is no way to avoid being ankle- or even knee-deep in water so leave your best walking shoes or hiking boots at home. Each night you’ll be scraping mud off your soles and wiping splatters from your clothes.
Then there are the floods. Heavy rain that started in Cambodia in the third week of September and continued throughout October and November this year – not receding until the end of that month – caused flooding in 21 provinces. The floods affected 1.7 million people, resulting in around 150,000 people being evacuated and almost 200 deaths. You can read about that here.
Most of Cambodia’s cities are set on rivers, and when the water peaks they inevitably flood the streets, forcing tourists to stay in their hotels or leave town. The flooding can be so bad in places that roads are cut off completely, requiring detours that could add many hours to a trip or, if you visit remote temples, stranding you completely.
In October-November, the usual 2.5 hour journey by car between Siem Reap and Battambang stretched to seven and eight hours. It’s still a slow journey overland between the two cities and from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh as the roads are damaged with colossal pot holes everywhere.
Monsoon Best for Budget Travellers and Photographers
If you’re a budget traveller or a slow traveller, however, with no fixed schedule and all the time in the world, the wet season is a wonderful time to visit. We absolutely love it.
The countryside is lush and the rice paddies are an incandescent green. Farmers fish in their flooded rice fields and kids play in the water and catch frogs. Butterflies flutter about and geckos and frogs are in abundance, making music at night.
There is water everywhere, moats and pools prettily reflecting the temples, while the water on the sandstone and laterite bricks enhances their colours, making the most intricate details on decorative carvings stand out. The lime coloured moss and lichen that dapple the temples is also more pronounced.
In practical terms, accommodation is plentiful and rates as low as they’ll get. You can get five-star hotel rooms for the price of a four- or even three-star, a three-star can come close to high season one-star prices. We spent two months while we searched for an apartment at a lovely mid-range hotel for which I was able to negotiate budget rates. There were some days when there were no other guests and we had the property entirely to ourselves.
The restaurants are empty and the streets are quiet, especially in Siem Reap, which can get uncomfortably busy during high season. Best of all, there are no crowds at Angkor Wat during the dampest months while we often found ourselves alone at many other temples. Bliss.
- Research the weather before you book – do some thorough research well ahead of time so you know what you’re getting yourself into to determine which season is right for you. I’ve found the Travel Indochina site’s weather posts to be the most detailed of any when it comes to describing weather in different regions of Cambodia, as well as Vietnam and Laos. Also look at historical weather patterns – I like how they’re presented on www.weather-and-climate.com which is easy to use.
- Use Weather Underground – for checking 10-day forecasts and how weather will change throughout the day we’ve found this site to be the most accurate weather site, and Terence used many websites throughout the season, continually comparing them on a daily basis so he could plan his photo shoots.
- Be prepared – bring quality walking shoes with good grip so you don’t slip when exploring the temples; leave the white runners at home, as they’ll be brown by the time you leave. A quality wet weather jacket will get used but you might find it too steamy; you can buy cheap light ponchos ($1-2) and more durable ones ($10) at markets, along with cheap hats and umbrellas. Zip-lock bags, sold in supermarkets here, will keep tickets, money, phones, and cameras dry.
- Be flexible – try to build additional time into your itinerary so you can extend your stay if you find you arrive and there are three days of rain but it’s going to be clear the day you plan to leave. Have contingency plans for activities to do indoors in case of rain.
- Book last minute – there’s no need to book flights and hotels well ahead of time. There are plenty of hotels and we were continually booking accommodation at the last minute and finding some fabulous deals.
- Book local – there’s no need to book tours from home before you travel during wet season. Book when you arrive and use local tour companies so you can be sure the money is staying in the community. Visit the travel company’s office so you can discuss options and whether it’s going to be possible to change a tour date at the last minute if it rains.
Have you been in Cambodia or other parts of South East Asia during monsoon? Would you return during the wet season? We’d love to hear about your experiences and any tips you have.