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Last update: Mar 15, 2021

 

The climate in Myanmar.

The Southwest monsoon over India and Southeast Asia is among the most impressive weather systems on earth. The summer monsoon brings 80% of the subcontinents' rainfall and its arrival is of critical importance to over a billion people. India and Myanmar are similarly affected by the monsoon rains; and both countries receive huge amounts of rain.

Myanmar has a typical tropical monsoon climate with three seasons: the hot period, the monsoon and the cool and dry winter. The hot season starts somewhere in March and lasts till May, the rainy season starts around the end of May and ends in October, and the cool, dry season stretches from November to March.

The monsoon weather you will encounter depends very much on where you are going, because Myanmar has some of the wettest areas on earth but also some much drier zones. The coastal zones and beaches bear the brunt of the monsoon rains, for reasons explained below. Your weather can be an occasional monsoon shower, but also flooding and torrential rain. A bit of rain in a tropical climate is not so bad, it brings some well needed cool wind and fresh air along!

 

When is the best time to visit Myanmar?

Winter - November to February.

The winter is the best time to visit; this is the busy high season for tourism. The weather is warm but not stifling, and some cool nights are possible but most of the time you will probably use air conditioning. In November there is little rain but beautiful cloudy skies and fresh sparkling greenery everywhere. December and January are slightly cooler. Sometimes a cold spell might occur in January when one needs a light jacket and sweater.

The hot season - March until May

From sometime in March, it will slowly but surely get quite hot; the daytime temperature can be around 35 degree Celsius, but also soar up to about 40 degrees. This is the time of sweaty nights, which are unbearable without air-conditioning, and days when you have to avoid the sun in the afternoon and drink lots of water. The few Mango rains will not bring much relief.

The Monsoon - May until October

The monsoon season usually enters southern Burma around May 15, and arrives in Yangon around May 20. With the arrival of the first rains, and the pleasant monsoon breeze, temperatures drop as the hot season is left behind.

The Monsoon season can cause rainstorms and perhaps some flooded streets in Yangon; and landslides in mountain areas.

The end of the monsoon is much less clearly defined; the rains taper off during the last months. Thus, the monsoon starts quite suddenly (within a few days) and ends gradually; it starts with a bang and ends with a whisper.

October is the transition period between the rainy season and the cooler dry season, and by the second half of October the rains should be decreasing. However, depending on the Weather Gods, there can still be a lot of rain.

October and November are the best time for photography because the landscape is still lush and green; and there are often blue skies with some clouds as a backdrop.

The exception to all this warm weather is the Shan plateau, which is in Shan State. The mountain towns of Nyaung Shwe and Pyin-U-Lwin are at an altitude of 900 to 1000 meters, and the mountain climate creates very cool mornings and cold nights. Most of the year you can do without any air-conditioning.

Climate chart of Bagan.

Average max and min. temperature in Bagan
Average maximum and minimum temperature in Nyaung-U, Bagan.

 

The monsoon flow over the mountain ranges.

The north-south alignment of the Burmese mountain ranges creates zones of heavy and little rainfall during the southwest monsoon. The rain shadow effect from the Arakan Yoma (Arakan mountain range) at the western seashore is the cause of a much drier region in the center of Myanmar. This area is called the Dry Zone.

Average annual rainfall map Myanmar
Monsoon wind flow over Myanmar / Average annual rainfall map.

 

The Arakan Yoma is a major mountain range on the western side of Myanmar that blocks the monsoon wind flow. During the Southwest-monsoon the humid air from the ocean is pushed up by the Arakan mountain range; the air cools down at higher altitude (the orographic effect) and forms monsoon clouds, and huge amounts of rain fall on the coastal areas. Once inland the air has become much drier - this is the rain shadow effect in central Burma. The Irrawaddy Delta is not sheltered by mountains and thus receives the full brunt of the Southwest-monsoon.

 

Annual rainfall in the four Monsoon zones in Myanmar.

Myanmar can be roughly divided into 4 climate regions: The Dry Zone, the Coastal regions, the Shan Plateau (Shan state), and the Irrawaddy River delta. Most of the precipitation comes from the southwest monsoon winds during the summer monsoon months.

Inle Lake is situated in the southern Shan State at an altitude of 900 meters and has a typical mountain climate. From November to February temperatures drop sharply at night to below 10 degrees Celsius. Mornings are quite cool but around 10 am quickly warm to the usual tropical temperatures of over 25 degrees Celsius.

  500 to 1000 mm The dry zone - Mandalay and Bagan.
The Dry Zone, in the middle of the Irrawaddy Valley, is located in the lower Sagaing and Mandalay districts. The average annual rainfall in the Dry Zone is less than 1000 millimeter. Mandalay and Bagan are in the famous "Dry Zone".
1000 to 2000 mm Shan plateau - Kalaw, Nyaung Shwe, Taunggyi, Pyin-U-Lwin, Hsipaw, Lashio.
The Shan Plateau, also known as Shan Hills or Shan Yoma is a vast mountainous area which has an average elevation of about 1000 meters but can go to a height of over 2000 meters. Because of its elevation it has a typical mountain climate. Usually, it receives between 1500 and 2000 mm of rain annually.
2000 to 3500 mm Irrawaddy delta - Yangon, Bago and Pathein.
Yangon, Bago and Pathein are all in the Irrawaddy River delta. Annual rainfall in the delta region is approximately 2500 millimeter. Yangon gets an average of 2700 millimeter of rain a year.
3500 to 6000 mm Coastal regions - South: Dawei, Myeik. Mon state: Mawlamyine.
West: Ngapali, Thandwe, Chaung Tha, Ngwe Saung, Mrauk-U, Sittwe.
The coastal zones in Arakan/Rakhine in the west and Tenasserim/Tanintharyi division in the southeast can receive huge amounts of rain; between 3500 to 6000 millimeter of rain annually. Strong monsoon winds and high waves make swimming hazardous. The beach resorts in Ngapali close in June in preparation for the southwest Monsoon.

These two satellite photos show the vegetation difference between the hot season and the end of the monsoon season. The effect of the mountains on the rainfall is obvious, as is the central Dry zone.

Satellite photo Myanmar
The satellite images are from the LANCE Rapid Response MODIS system (NASA). We acknowledge the use of data products or imagery from the Land, Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE) system operated by the NASA/GSFC/Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) with funding provided by NASA/HQ.

 

How dry is the Dry Zone?

How dry is the Dry Zone? As the graph below shows, the annual precipitation in Mandalay is about the same amount as that in Amsterdam. Except in Amsterdam, it can rain the whole year but in Mandalay it falls in less than six months.

Yangon is super-wet compared to most monsoon area cities like Phnom Penh, New Delhi and Vientiane, but Mandalay gets much less rain. Yangon gets more than three times the yearly rainfall than Mandalay (2700 mm versus 830 mm); see the graph below.

The Dry Zone is the official name, but the correct term for the central area would be the "Much Drier zone." The Dry Zone is only really dry in winter - just like the rest of Myanmar. Then, as the hot season starts, the dry zone very slowly becomes a semi-desert, and Bagan becomes a sandy plain between thousands of stupas. The monsoon reverses this trend, and towards the end of the monsoon the plains and rice fields turn bright and green.

Lastly an interesting fact: the old capitals of Burma like Bagan, Ava and Mandalay were founded in the central dry region; but for obvious reasons they are all on the banks of the largest river of Myanmar, the Irrawaddy. The river would have been essential for irrigation and transport.

The first king of Bagan, King Anawrahta, was a prolific dam- and canal-builder, and managed the irrigation of the Dry zone with water from the Irrawaddy and Zawgi river. Thereby, he changed Upper Burma into a significant rice growing area, and also introduced Theravada Buddhism there.


Annual rainfall of Asian cities
Graph of the annual rainfall in Myanmar compared to Asian cities.


Myanmar gets on average much more rain than Thailand, and that is because of the effect of mountains on the monsoon rains. Mandalay and Bagan however get much less rain than most towns in Myanmar, because they are situated in the dry zone.

Annual rainfall of Myanmar cities
Comparison of the annual rainfall in Myanmar cities.

 

Tropical diseases during the monsoon

The monsoon has not only a transforming effect on the landscape, it also influences the wildlife and ... the mosquitos. Plants with fresh greenery appear, snakes escape flooded fields and search higher ground in the villages, and mozzies start their happy buzzing in search of prey.

During the fierce fighting between the Japanese and allied forces in WW2 many casualties were caused by tropical diseases like malaria, beriberi and dysentery. The summer monsoon brings rain and warm weather - perfect conditions for mosquitos. Because of the monsoon Dengue fever and malaria are seasonal; though there are always some mosquitos even in winter.

For Myanmar, the recommended basic vaccinations are DTP (Diphtheria-tetanus-polio), Hepatitis A, and Typhoid vaccine. The Rabies vaccine is optional, there are pre-exposure vaccinations available, which do not provide full protection. In case of a dog-bite you will still need to see a doctor. A full course of pre-exposure vaccines simplifies and shortens the course of post-exposure treatment. More on Rabies and post-exposure treatment (PEP) below.

Hepatitis B is very different from Hepatitis A. Hepatitis B is spread through blood, semen, or other body fluids from a person to person, and is thus easily avoided. There are long-term vaccines available against Hepatitis, one of them is Twinrix. Twinrix is a vaccine which protects against Hepatitis A and B; it is a mixture of two earlier vaccines.

Malaria risk

The chance of catching malaria is very small during the winter season because your chance of getting mosquito bites is quite low. If you visit rural areas (e.g. trekking) or jungle areas the chance of mosquito bites and malaria is higher.

The malaria risk assessment by the US, the UK and French authorities is dissimilar, and they usually do not take the monsoon into account:

  • The U.S. advice from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Areas with malaria: Present at altitudes <1,000 m (3,281 ft), including Bagan. Rare transmission above 1,000 m. Estimated relative risk of malaria for US travelers: Moderate.
  • The UK advice from Travel health pro UK : There is a low risk of malaria in Myanmar: awareness of risk and bite avoidance recommended. (travelhealthpro.org.uk)
  • The French advice: Risk of malaria transmission if you stay in a rural environment. No risk in Yangon, Mandalay, Inle, and Bagan.
    Vaccination paludisme (malaria): Une prophylaxie antiamarile est indispensable pour les zones risques. L'OMS (depuis novembre 2011) considere que dans la zone Yangon Mandalay Inle Bagan, il n'y a pas de risque pour les touristes et que la prophylaxie n'est pas indispensable.

So, it seems that the malaria risk assessment is not hard science; but more like an educated guess by each countries' health authority.

The map of Myanmar below shows the areas where malaria is endemic; and endemic means: the disease is permanently present in a certain area. An epidemic on the other hand, is the start of a quickly spreading disease, if it spreads worldwide it is called a pandemic. Essentially, endemic means it is confined, epidemic means it is an outbreak.

malaria map Myanmar
Malaria map for Myanmar,
from www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.

Note that this map corresponds roughly with the Average annual rainfall map. Mosquitos need fresh water to reproduce, and Rakhine state in the west and Tenasserim/Tanintharyi state on the southern coast get lots of rain during the monsoon. There is a direct relation between malaria transmission and high rainfall areas.

Ngapali beach seems to have a higher malaria risk, because mosquitos are present year-round. The coastal zone of Arakan/Rakhine gets massive amounts of rain and has plenty of water for mozzies to breed in even in the dry winter season. The flat area between the beach and the mountains, one or two kilometers wide, has many lakes and swamps, and this is where those mosquitos breed.

CDC malaria chart
CDC: Seasonal Malaria chart.

In short: malaria depends on the weather and is seasonal in Myanmar. The chance of catching it is higher in endemic areas like jungles and swamps, and in high rainfall areas. Even in the second world war the experts knew that malaria is seasonal - see the chart below. And if you are travelling during the monsoon, after nightfall, when the mozzies start humming; it is smart to "spray and cover up."

malaria chart Myanmar
Seasonal Malaria chart for Myanmar, 1945.

Some people always get mozzie bites no matter what; in that case just get the malaria pills. If you go trekking, sleep in very cheap guesthouses or homes, get drunk and wake up in the local park, or are a mosquito magnet then take all the stuff you doctor advises you. Do plenty of research on vaccinations and consult a travel doctor before you travel to Myanmar.

Myanmar does not have the modern hospitals of Thailand, and it used to have a higher malaria rate than its neighbors, especially in the mountainous, remote western areas of Rakhine and Chin state. But there are currently several succesful programs for malaria prevention, and eventual elimination by 2030. In the last ten years Malaria cases in Myanmar have dropped quickly, see more: www.rfa.org ( RFA, Radio Free Asia, 1-11-2018: Malaria cases in Myanmar see huge drop).

Bottom line: you are more likely to catch a food-borne disease (dysentery, typhoid fever, traveler's diarrhea) in Myanmar, than in Thailand. Avoid fish if it is not local, I believe the necessity of keeping fish fresh is often not understood and practiced. For example, seafood and fish poisoning (fish, shellfish, prawn, shrimps) seems to be quite common in Myanmar. Fish is often cooked just a very short time, which may not be long enough to kill any pathogens.

Food Safety advice.

The safety precautions in countries like India or Myanmar can be summarized as: "Boil it, peel it, cook it, wash it or forget it!" Around 30% of people travelling to a developing country will experience some degree of traveller's diarrhea. Usually this will be over in one or two days, sometimes you will need medication. Over-the-counter diarrhea medicine can help, for example Loperamide slows down the action of the bowel and is very effective. You can buy Loperamide in any pharmacy; Imodium is a brand name for Loperamide.

This is the basic food safety advice for developing tropical countries:

  • Do not eat any uncooked food.
  • Only eat fruit that has been washed and peeled.
  • Only eat really fresh fish - during transport it is often not cooled properly.
  • Do not eat salads.
  • Be careful with street food.
  • Avoid food that has been allowed to go cold and was exposed to flies.

It is best to drink only bottled water. Hot tea, coffee or chai are safe to drink.

The good news is that these rules need to be adhered to in India, but in my experience Myanmar's bacteria are less virulent. You can take a chance and try that unique Lapet Thoke, the famous Burmese Tea Leaf Salad. Enjoy it!

 

Myanmar: a high rabies endemic country.

Myanmar is classified by the World Health Organization as a "high rabies endemic country." Myanmar's dog population is about 4 million; and an estimated 600.000 people are bitten annually. In a Buddhist country like Myanmar, people are generally against the killing of any animal. That is why there are now about four million dogs in Myanmar, and 70 percent of them are strays!

Rabies is now more common than malaria, with around 600.000 bites and 1000 deaths every year. While the number of cases of rabies have actually remained stable over the past few years, prevention for malaria has drastically improved.

Municipal authorities in Myanmar's larger cities are culling the dogs regularly, with Yangon city killing about 2500 dogs each month. However, in smaller towns this is not the case. For example, in Nyaung Shwe, Inle lake, there are too many stray dogs; and sometimes at night you will hear a few dogs howling.

The small villages around Inle lake used to solve their stray dog problem by putting the dogs on a boat and moving them to the other side of the lake. However, the opposite village usually repaid the compliment by reversing the operation. It appears many dogs have now ended up in the main town, Nyaung Shwe.

Rabies is a 100% fatal disease but at the same time 100% preventable. If you get bitten, you should go to a hospital within 24 hours. The post-exposure treatment (PEP - post-exposure prophylaxis) should start as early as possible after exposure, preferably within 72 hours. The PEP treatment is available in Yangon but not in small towns and villages. For example, Nyaung Shwe has a very small hospital with few or no English speaking staff, so it is probably best to avoid it.

In Yangon or Bangkok, a full course of the PEP vaccine treatment costs around $200 including consultation; it is administered over a period of three weeks. For a dog bite a Tetanus vaccination is also required.

The Rabies catch-22.

If you are bitten by a dog, it is possible to just observe the dog for 10 days and see if it develops symptoms. However, the catch-22 is that it is compulsory to start treatment immediately after a bite. Also; observing the dog for 10 days may not be long enough.

And by the way, rabies is also endemic in other south-east asian countries, like Cambodia.

 


Burmese Toponymy - Colonial name glossary.

In 1989 the name Burma was changed to Myanmar and many other British colonial town names were changed - with the exception of Mandalay. This is a list of changes from the old colonial names to the new Myanmar names.

British colonial name - Myanmar name:

  old name       - new name
  Akyab          - Sittwe (Sittway)
  Amherst        - Kyaikkami (Kyaik-kami)
  Ava            - Innwa / Inwa
  Bassein        - Pathein
  Bilugyun       - Bilu Kyun, meaning Ogre island
  Demoso         - Demawso (Kayah state)
  Fort Herz      - Putao
  Gokteik        - Gokhteik (also: Goke theik, Goteik)
  Thibao         - Hsipaw  (also: Thipaw, Thibaw)
  Kyaukme        - Kyaukme (pronounced ChowkMei) 
  Kengtung       - KiangTung (also:
                   Chiang Tung, Kyaing Tong, Kyine Tone)
  Kyaik Htee Yoe - Kyaiktiyo (near Golden Rock pagoda)
  Magwe          - Magway
  Maymyo         - Pyin U Lwin (also: Pyin Oo Lwin)
  Martaban       - Mottama
  Mergui         - Myeik
  Moulmein       - Mawlamyine (also: Mawlamyaing)
  Mt. Victoria   - Nat Ma Taung 
  Myohaung*      - Mrauk-U (pronounced Myow Oo) *Myohaung means old town.
  Pagan          - Bagan 
  Pegu           - Bago (pronounced Peh kou)
  Prome          - Pyay 
  Rangoon        - Yangon
  Sandoway       - Thandwe
  Tavoy          - Dawei
  Toungoo        - Taungoo (Bago region)
  Taungup        - Taunggok (Rakhine state)
  Victoria Point - Kawthaung
  Yawnghwe       - Nyaung Shwe


Changed Myanmar state names. old name - new name Arakan state - Rakhine state Irrawaddy region - Ayeyarwady region Karen state - Kayin state (Capital: Hpa-An) Karenni state - Kayah state (Capital: Loikaw) Mergui district - Myeik district Tenasserim state - Tanintharyi state
Changed Myanmar rivers and lakes. old name - new name Chindwinn - Chindwin River Irrawaddy - Ayeyarwady River Inlay lake - Inle Lake Lemyo River - Lay Myo river, Laymyo river (Rakhine) Mong Pai lake - MoeBye lake (Moe Bye or Mobye Lake) Salween River - Thanlwin River Sittang River - Sittaung River

 


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