The best clothes to wear while traveling through Southeast Asia are cotton, linen and silk. Unless we are talking about Gore-Tex (or other similar lightweight materials), synthetic materials and thicker clothing is a no-no for obvious reasons – Weather & Climate.
Let’s change tack and talk a bit about weather and climate. People often use the word ‘tropical’ without really giving it much thought other than hot and humid. One may hear – “tropical this” or “tropical that”…
Well then, let us allow ourselves to get a little technical for a second. The region of Southeast Asia is indeed TROPICAL, as it lies within the tropics – that is to say in between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Our lovely Equator lands right dab in the middle!
To simplify the subject, there are two seasons in this region: the dry season and the rainy season. The latter occurs as winds from the Gulf of Thailand and Indian Ocean move across the region bringing moisture-laden air far inland. Normally the rainy season begins around mid-May and often lasts well into October. From my experience late-July to September is when it really comes down.
However, the downpours seem to be fairly consistent as to when they occur. Sometime after 2PM (1400 hours) and before 5 PM (1700 hours) is when it really pours. This isn’t an exclusive nor is it a hard and fast rule. You may get showers at other points during the day. However, this is when the fiercest rainfalls tend to occur. An individual can almost set one’s clock by this and organize his or her daily itinerary around it! Such showers normally don’t last long, but often they are enough to flood streets and noticeably increase the water level of local streams or rivers.
There are times when the rains do indeed cool down the day, yet it has been my experience that the aftermath of such a rainfall increases humidity, making the day that much more uncomfortable and muggy.
By contrast the dry season is just that – DRY! Normally from November to April there is little to no rainfall. We did experience some pretty serious downpours in early December of 2012 in northeastern Thailand. I remember several my locals commenting on how old patterns of weather were not the same as they used to be. Climate change? Global warming? I honestly don’t know. Suffice to say there are more exceptions to the rule than there once were.
Generally speaking, however, the above information still holds true, despite Mother Nature’s occasional hiccups! The driest period tends to be January and February. Yet in February of 2011 in Kao Yai National Park in Thailand, I experienced some impressive rainfalls, though they lasted less than 10 minutes.
Straddling the end of the dry season and the start of the rainy season is the hottest period of the Southeast Asian calendar. From March to June the temperatures hover between 34°C and 42 °C, depending on how far from the coast you are or what altitude you are at. Coastal areas and highlands being more moderate and in Cambodia’s case (at least) deforested lowlands in the interior being extremely hot.
The peak tourist season is from November to February and is often considered the cool season by locals. Here you can find days ranging from 25 °C to 34 °C 34. In 2013, we experienced a two week period in December when the temperature was about 24 °C to 28 °C and we actually felt a bit chilly in the morning! (Our bodies had become that accustomed to day after day of doggedly hot weather!)
Now back to clothes – I opened up this article with materials such as cotton linen and silk. They help you breath. Loose fitting clothing is just good common sense.
Moreover, a tourist to Southeast Asia will not need to pack a lot (regardless of which season you choose to travel). Packing light is just common sense. Clothing in the region is fairly cheap and if there is something you forgot, you will have no problem whatsoever finding what you need.
Moving around a lot in a region where public transport is always not the most efficient dictates that carrying a light load will make the experience that much more comfortable.
Respecting the local culture is paramount – most temples or historic sites will not allow you in with tank tops, short skirts or pants. Avoid tank tops, mini-shorts, and mini-skirts. Though common gear among tourists and backpackers, locals commonly look them down upon. Few will ever say anything to you directly ever – but many do look upon it as disrespectful. It really is your decision on how you wish to present yourself. Don’t forget – Buddhist temples require long pants, long skirts and no tank tops throughout the region.
You might think socks are unnecessary, but it really depends what kind of vacation goer you are. Personally I would often wear cotton socks at night to protect me from mosquitos that love biting one’s ankle. If you like trekking through the various National Parks a good pair of ankle high sneakers or boots are a must. Leeches folks – particularly in the rainy season! Like wise, the traction such footwear provides are excellent for visiting the various ancient ruins scattered throughout the region. At the end of the day sandals, flip-flops and high heels in the Southeast Asian interior are only for the insane! Save it for the beaches, hotels and other touristy areas.