Thailand is a watery country; look down out of the plane windows as you fly towards Bangkok and you’ll see a network of rivers, canals and waterways, all gleaming silver in the sunlight. In places, there are vast lakes, too, and then of course there’s the fact that Thailand straddles two different seas. Could things really get any more aquatic than that?
The answer is a resounding yes. It’s not just that the land itself is filled with water; the skies are too – at least during rainy season. All of Thailand experiences massive tropical downpours, with different regions experiencing a monsoon at different times. On Samui and the surrounding islands, it typically coincides with the month of November, if it can be said at all that the weather can be pinned to a calendar.
No-one can be at all sure quite when the bad weather will arrive and when it’ll depart again. Usually the last week of December is marked by blue skies again, well, most of the time, but this isn’t set in stone. If you’re holidaying here then it can be difficult if you’re holed up in a hotel room for days by rain that never lets up. That’s the worst case scenario. At times the monsoon is just a question of waiting out the rain; in a few hours it’ll be sunny again.
The word monsoon refers to the seasonal winds that dredge up moisture from the Indian Ocean; the result is that all that water has to fall somewhere, and in this case it’s on Thailand, which then undergoes its rainy season. The wet weather isn’t just rain. Storms can be extraordinarily intense, with very heavy downpours, massive thunder and the kind of semi-continuous lightning usually seen in the movies. Humidity levels soar, and skies can be totally overcast with the air itself seemingly growing dark. Sometimes it’s like looking at a sepia photograph.
Naturally there are some dangers that come with all of this. Predictably, the rains can cause flash flooding. Samui’s ring-road is definitely at risk. Some parts may be fine, but if you’re driving along, you may suddenly come to a deep flood. It’s best to wait it out. Almost miraculously, the water can go down extremely fast. Facebook updates mean you can get reports from other drivers almost instantly – along with melodramatic footage. Some flooded stretches can be very short but deep, but that doesn’t mean to say you should grit your teeth and drive. Take a look at what other drivers are doing, particularly the locals. Black spots for flooding include parts of the beach road in Chaweng, outside Big C on the Chaweng ring-road and further back at the Bophut traffic lights.
Naturally, it can also be dangerous to go swimming. You probably won’t want to anyway, given the heaving battleship-grey of the seas, but some people seem undeterred. The water will have large semi-submerged obstacles to negotiate (think entire tree trunks), weird currents and if you’re at all near what was a stream, it’ll have turned into a raging torrent that pushes debris hundreds of metres out to sea. Walking along the shore might seem OK, but you should beware of being pulled out to sea by sudden freak waves.
A couple of other caveats. Watching a storm from the safety of your balcony may not be as safe as you think – beware of sudden bolts of lightning. It’s best to go inside and close doors and windows. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t stand under trees either. And don’t even think about using the hotel pool while there’s the remotest chance of thunder and lightning. Avoid water, high ground, electric wiring, fences and walls, too.
Unplug your computer from the mains as a power surge could fry its innards. And, obviously, don’t leave it out under an open sky no matter how sunny the weather is. By the time you remember it’s still out there, the clouds will have rolled in and it’ll have filled with water! It’s a good idea to invest in an umbrella and a rain poncho (head for the nearest convenience store) and make sure you have a pair of shoes with good grips on them, which will come in handy if you face mud and slime.
If you’re caught out in the rain, take shelter, just as the Thais do. Most rain will last between 15 and 45 minutes. Whatever you do, don’t set off afterwards on your motorbike or in a car thinking that since the rain as stopped, it’s safe. The roads may be filled with stretches of mud or sand, or they may simply occur in tiny, unnoticeable patches – just enough to occasion that nasty skid that’ll see you in hospital. Occasionally a track or even a road may be so severely damaged that it becomes impassable. A small puddle can hide a massive pothole. Winds may have weakened palm trees and huge branches can suddenly drop.
If you’ve come to Thailand determined to soak up the sun and spend as much time by the sea or resort swimming pool as possible, it’s best not to take a chance on the monsoon, but choose instead another time to come. There are other activities that can be undertaken in the rainy season, but these won’t feel like a good substitute if it’s a true beach holiday that you’re after.
You can certainly travel to Thailand during the rainy season and in all probability you’ll have a wonderful vacation, but you should be prepared for cloudy days and plenty of rain. Statistically it’s unlikely your travel plans will be severely impacted, but you need to make allowances for this. Just as with everywhere in the world, it’s possible to get caught out. The best news is that Samui and its neighbouring islands have a microclimate that means that they experience less rain than most other parts of the country and also experience a shorter monsoon season.