Best Time to Visit Cambodia and Laos
Cambodia and Laos, two of the three countries that make up modern Indochina, are situated in what is known as the Indochinese Peninsula, or Mainland Southeast Asia. Tourist travel in Indochina often means visiting two or more countries during the same trip, as this not only saves money, but also because it is easy to travel between each, with few problems getting visas and with travel being so cheap in Indochina.
Both of these two countries were included in what was once the ancient Khmer Empire, which also included parts of Thailand and Vietnam. Predominantly Buddhist countries, Cambodia and Laos have many temples and temple complexes, many of which are around 1,300 years old, and the most famous of which, Angkor, was the imperial capital of the Empire. Broken into their own independent nations after the fall of the empire, they have both seen war and conflict over the centuries, including being part of colonial French Indochina.
Monks in Laos
Nowadays, they are both very popular tourist destinations, with hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Throughout Mainland Southeast Asia, tourism has become a major part of each country’s economy, and with the spectacular sights and attractions that can be found throughout Indochina, the tourist industry in Cambodia and Laos is improving and increasing every year.
When to Go
Situated in Southeast Asia, Laos and Cambodia can be visited at any time of the year, and when to go often depends on what you are looking for, and whether you can put up with the crowds. With so many people visiting these two tourist hotspots in recent years, picking the best time to go requires a little knowledge of each country, its climate, and its high and low seasons for tourism.
Both countries experience a two-season climate based on the two monsoon systems that influence most of the countries in Southeast Asia. Since they both have wet and dry seasons, the dry season is often the most popular time to visit, but that is not to say it is the best time to go.
Seasons in Cambodia and Laos
Cambodia has just two seasons, the wet season and the dry season, and both can be good times to travel to the country. The dry season comes to Cambodia from November to April, when the temperatures are at their lowest for the year, and when the rains have all but gone. Roads are drier than in the wet season, and places that are inaccessible due to heavy rains become more open for tourists.
The dry season is also the peak season in Cambodia, and the most popular sites, such as the Angkor Temple Complex are at their busiest from December to February. The southern coast of Cambodia is also busy during the months from December to March, and the waters around Sihanoukville are at their clearest, while the sunshine is warm and pleasant. Diving is one of the most popular activities in the coastal areas in the dry season.
The wet monsoon season in Cambodia is not all rain and dull skies, and from May to the end of October, the weather is hot an humid. Temperatures reach their peak from May to July, with the hottest temperatures hitting around 38 degrees. In Cambodia, the monsoon season is also known as the “green season”, and the landscape is lush and verdant, with the rice paddies full of water and tall rice plants. Majority of the rain tends to come in the afternoons and early evenings, and the mornings are normally bright with plenty of sunshine for traveling around.
The monsoon season is the low season for tourism in Cambodia, and there are fewer tourists in the country, as most people cannot handle the high temperatures and humidity. In the north, the Angkor temples are surrounded by lush green vegetation and the moats are filled with water, making it a great time for photography, especially with fewer visitors crowding the best spots. Traveling around many of the popular sites is still possible, and Tonle Sap Lake, the heart-water of the country, it filled to overflowing, and the fishermen in their leg-driven boats are plying the waters for the fish to sell in the markets.
More remote areas such as Battambang can become inaccessible during September and early October, as the heaviest rains fall in the outlying regions during this time, making the unpaved roads quagmires of mud. However, more urbanized areas such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are clear and easy to travel to and around, and often have more sunshine in the mornings than in the dry season. This is not a good time to visit the coast, however, as the monsoon rains can make the coastal areas dangerous, and there is a bigger chance of tropical storms around the coasts.
Laos also follows the typical Asian climate of wet and dry seasons, and the dry season in Laos comes from November to March, ending a little earlier than in Cambodia. Being a little further north, the climate is changeable depending on how far north you are, and the mountains cause climate differences as well. Temperatures in most of the country are cooler and more pleasant, although the mountain regions of the Annamite and Luang Prabang ranges can get a lot colder in the months from December to February. If colder weather is your thing, then this is the perfect time to go trekking in the mountains, although travel is normally hard along the Mekong River, with lower water levels revealing sandbanks.
The dry season is also the peak season for tourism in Laos, and the busiest time is normally around December and January. The temperatures start to heat up towards the end of the dry season in March, and the country starts to prepare for the rains, although they do not come in full until June.
The monsoon season in Laos technically runs from April to October, although not all of the period actually has rains. April and May, while still part of the rainy season, are much hotter, with little rain and high humidity. Trains turn to dusty tracks, and it is no longer a good time to trek due to the increased heat and humidity, except in the mountains where it is a little cooler. This is a great time to travel to the mountains to visit the highland people of Laos, the Lao Soung.
June is the real start of the rains, and the temperatures start to cool a little with the coming of the monsoon. As this is the summer vacation season in Europe, it is a popular time for European tourists to Laos, despite the rains, and majority tends to head for the major cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, where the urbanizations means no muddy roads. The Mekong also becomes more passable during the rainy season, as the water levels rise again, making river cruises more popular.
While the rains come in short, sharp showers in most of the country, the lowland regions that are more remote can be cut off for several weeks due to impassible muddy roads. The northeastern areas, however, are not as wet, although the weather can be more unpredictable in the region. Hot days with lots of rain can be followed by cold dry days, which can leave you thinking you are no longer in Asia. The wettest part of the monsoon season comes in September and October, and even in the far northeast, the rains can make travel hard. Laos also has some of the world’s most unique cloud formations at this time of year, due to the country being landlocked with central mountains, and the rains can get heavier the higher up you are. In the lowland regions south of Vientiane, the towns and villages normally see less rain through October than in the highlands.
Overall, if you are looking for a dry, pleasant holiday time, where you can do the most traveling, then the months from December to March are the best option for both countries. With very similar climates, and only a few differences in the seasonal changes, deciding when to visit both places together can be a lot easier. However, it is good to remember that the dry season is the peak season for tourism, and there are a lot of tourists that crowd the popular sites, leaving hotels crowded and traveling by public bus almost impossible at the busiest times.
The rainy season can still be a good time for travel, and from March to May there is almost no rain, although it is hotter. If you do not mind the rains, then August to October are perfect months for traveling in slightly cooler weather, and are the perfect times to travel around the urban centers and the major tourist attractions. With fewer visitors to both countries, the rainy period of the monsoon season leaves majority of both countries open to freer travel and less crowds at the popular attractions, which means you can relax more. And with most of the rains coming later in the day, touring Cambodia and Laos together can be done cheaply and easily in the rainy season. Just remember to take a raincoat with you.
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