In the same way as the passing of the shortest day in UK (21 December) is a huge psychological boost to the majority of people who hate the cold and the dark and look forward to the ever increasing light levels that this tipping point brings in the year, in Myanmar we are just reaching our own tipping point – almost half way through monsoon and believe me we are counting the weeks.
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 last until 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 is the term for the wind that carries heavy rains to southern Asia and to the rains themselves. The monsoon arrives abruptly with the seasonal reversal of winds blowing from the cooler ocean to the much warmer land mass. Here in Yangon in 2017 an early cyclone with heavy rains hit over the April Thingyan holiday period and the light ‘Mango rains’ started in mid May with the monsoon starting later in the month.
Not all of Myanmar shares the same weather experience. Yangon is located in the southern lowlands region with its cloudy, rainy, hot, humid summers, May to October. It has less cloud, scant rainfall, mild temperatures and lower humidity during winter – November to April.
Mandalay is in the dry zone which still receives the monsoon rains but about one third of the Yangon precipitation. The climate varies in the highlands depending on elevation; there is a subtropical temperate climate at around 2,500 m, a temperate at 3,000 m, cool, alpine at 3,500 m and above the alpine zone, cold, harsh tundra and Arctic climate. The higher elevations are subject to heavy snowfall.
The day to day reality of the monsoon in Yangon can be hard work. To start with the light levels are low; it is mostly grey with heavy cloud cover turning to black as heavy storms blow in with violent intensity. The rain is not predictable, it can rain heavily all day or just part of the day but once it starts it is almost always intense and incredibly noisy.
The streets and plastic filled drains cannot cope with the volume of water and it is common for quite serious flooding to occur and prolonged power cuts – but life goes on. People bale out their homes, light their candles or use battery powered lights and fans, the buses get through, eventually. When on the streets you have to be prepared to get very wet feet and everyone wears sandals, flip flops or if you are a very posh security guard – wellington boots. Washing gets done but never seems to dry even in doors. I left my apartment for 17 days and came back to clothes and bedding that had absorbed so much humidity they were wet and very mouldy. I have got through 2 umbrellas already.
But on the bright side, the dusty trees have been washed, it is very green out of town, the rice paddy is planted and it has cooled to the point where I do not need air conditioning during the day (only at night). If it is dry first thing in the morning it is now comfortable enough to walk the 3 miles to work.
Paddy being planted
On Monday I am going on a field trip to a small organisation involved in child protection issues. It is located in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state in the far north near the Chinese boarder. Here it will be cooler with the chance of more predictable rain. Our host told me as I rode on the back of his motor bike last time I visited, that as a child it always rained on the journey to school, stopped whilst he was at school and started to rain again just as it was time to leave – and this is exactly what we experienced during our last visit.
The end of the monsoon is much less clearly defined than the start; 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 whimper. In the meantime we will slog it out waiting for the down hill tipping point and in the meantime just dripping.