What’s Up with the Air Con? 39

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Seriously, I do not understand the whole air conditioning use in otherwise incredibly hot Third World countries. It defies rational understanding and I challenge you to come up with a good reason for this small bit of insanity.

Basically in almost every hot Third World country it is apparent that the air conditioning has only two settings: broken and maximum.


man sleeping with teddy bear on south american bus

Colombian man sleeping with teddy bear on south american bus -- note everyone sleeping with blankets

It never ceases to amaze me. You are walking around, let’s say Colombia, and it will be about 90 degrees Fahrenheit/32C with 90% humidity and you will be sweating from every pore on your body. You are sweating from parts of your body that you would have not thought had sweat glands to start with.

You get on your overnight bus and they have to AC set up so high that you could hang meat there without running the risk of it spoiling…. ever.

As a result, you need to be prepared. If you don’t board your bus with long pants on and some sort of sweater or blanket, there is little chance of you getting a moments respite as icicles slowly form on your lower lip. I kid you not. When I am taking an overnight bus in Central or South America or SE Asia, I wear jeans, wool socks, boots, a T-Shirt, and a fleece zip-up.

And there have still been at least two occasions where that has not been enough layers to keep me warm enough to avoid sleep-killing shivering. Once, on a bus from Cape Town to Namibia and another time on a bus in Ecuador, I actually saw the locals arguing with the bus driver at stops about the air con.

His reply? “It isn’t too cold. We don’t have it set very low at all.”

hmong women smiling at Bac Ha Vietnam market

to think they are smiling wearing about four layers of heavy clothing at about 90+ degrees 😉

What I don’t understand is simply… why?

The locals that live in these climates are very used to the hot weather. In fact, the amazing thing is seeing them walk around on a normal, hot day wearing jeans, boots, two layers on top, and sometimes even a winter coat. When they visit the US or Europe, then inevitably talk about how brutally cold it is — even when they are talking about temperatures around 60-70F/15-20C.

Then the same folks think very little of bundling up in all their winter clothes to hop on the bus. I simply think the whole thing is funny, and also annoying to a certain degree. And almost completely inexplicable.

Hell, I am amazed they even sell winter clothes in some of these places. Well, I was amazed, until I encountered the Third World Air Con Phenomenon.

I love some good oddities I have encountered around the world: Chinglish signs, weird festivals, and the strangeness of time. But none of those caused me to lose any sleep.

It isn’t just buses. The bar of the hostel I am staying at right now in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia also has its AC set on high constantly. So you bounce in from the patio around and walk right into a freezer. The train I took up here from Singapore was so cold that I had to get up and go to the area between the cars 5-6 times to defrost.

Why? Why? Why?

Also realize that these are usually countries with fairly severe energy generation problems. And what is one of the biggest drains on any electrical system? Air conditioning.

The best I can figure is that is is some sort of pride thing. “Hey, look at us, we have working air conditioning here. Want to feel how amazingly good it works??”

Except no, I really don’t want to feel it. If I wanted to go to Norway in the early winter…. you can fill in the rest.



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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

39 thoughts on “What’s Up with the Air Con?

  • Angie Orth

    And this is just reason No. 9,439 that I’m not ashamed to still carry my baby blanket with me around the world. It has come in handy in 3rd world countries for just this reason!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      why didn’t I get to see the famous baby blanket in Spain?! I am putting that on my list of things to talk to you about in 2012 in person.

  • crazy sexy fun traveler

    Haha you are speaking out of my mouth 😀 I wear more layers only when on the bus and I just strip off then when leaving 😀 Horribly cold all the air con around SE Asia! I so hate it! I left Europe cos of winter to get some nicer temperatures and not to freeze out.

  • 50+ and on the Run

    Even in the US, the movie theaters are frigid–it was over 100 F for 50 days this summer and yet the theaters were icy–I always take a sweater and socks! I keep thinking, “who’s paying for this??”

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I totally forgot about movie theaters, but to be fair… they don’t hold a candle (pun intended) to South and Central American buses.

  • Erin

    Agreed! The worst thing is, what if you wear your warm clothes and then the air con is broken? Then you’ll be boiling.

    I had to take a fleece with me around Bangkok to wear on the skytrain, in shopping centres and cinemas. And I’d take it off to go outside. It’s just not right!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      that is the thing for me — just bringing the damn clothing around is annoying. I don’t have room for this crap that I clearly don’t need. And when I say I clearly don’t need it — just walk around — you clearly don’t need it.

  • Emily in Chile

    A similar thing happens in Chile. It’s not that hot here, nor is it that Third World, but most places don’t have heat/air because of the cost associated with running it, and people swear that sudden temperature changes make you sick. Yet for some reason my office feels like the Arctic in summer, and I always have to bring a sweater to work even if it’s 90 degrees outside! I’m with you, I don’t get it.

  • ElizabethJ_Bird

    I hate the over use of Ari Con. I feel like I am always freezing when I am inside during the summer. Its also really bad on airplanes. I end up using around 10 blankets and still thining im in a fridge.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      the bummer for me is even carrying the extra sweater, fleece, or blanket in the first place. I don’t need it for anything else. Just taking up dead space in my backpack.

  • Audrey

    I know!!! I took an overnight bus in India and it was like being in an ice box! Thankfully I brought my sleeping bag on board, but my friend across the aisle didn’t, and he had to stick his arms inside his t-shirt to try and stay warm. He eventually found some blankets next to the driver…

  • bethany

    Ok, I can relate but in the opposite way. Coming from Serbia and in Greece all the heaters (not air con) have the same problem. Hot freaking air blowing from the ground up. Your feet are on fire and then it just goes up your whole body. Awful. I got a nose bleed one time because of it. So freaking horrible.

    Night trains, can’t sleep because it’s so hot and dry you can feel yourself getting sick as your throat becomes drier and drier. Absolutely unbearable. I don’t understand it – why waste the money on ridiculously high heat like that?? Whenever we board any form of transportation now I have every type of thing possible – tank top to fleece. It’s ridiculous. Makes no sense at all. I wrote a long transportation rant today (just for myself, I can never publish it – too many swear words) and thought to myself – “I think Michael would understand me.” Now I know you would!

    Sometimes you just can’t find the logic in how other people (and entire countries) think.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I have had friends tell me this in the ‘Stans for sure. They NEVER roll down the windows in cars or buildings. And crank the heat up to max. So it is stiffling in the winter. And in the summer, the AC rarely works in the cars, so they drive around smoking, with no AC, windows rolled all the way up, 100 degrees inside. That is actually worse than the max AC in my book.

  • Tobias

    I came home from the Philippines 2 weeks ago, and still haven’t been able to shake of the cold i caught there from the over use of AC. Why would i want my hotel room to be 17 degrees?! Why do i need to feel like I’m stepping into a fridge every time I get into a taxi? I just don’t get it….

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      You are right — happens almost everywhere. The whole thing is shockingly funny…. until you get sick.

      • Steph

        Haha, I just got off a bazillion hour Colombian night bus and I can back this up. It’s totally puzzling. I’ve been refrigerated on buses everywhere from Thailand to Eastern Europe and it’s so bizarre… and annoying!

  • The Travel Chica

    I have heard horror stories about the air conditioning levels on Colombian buses.

    I do not get the A/C thing either. It just makes it so much worse when you have to go out in the sweltering heat.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I wish it was just Colombia. I think I can count about 12 countries (so far) where this has been laughably funny.

  • Tyler @ roundtheworldtravelchallenge.com

    We are all a bunch of Goldilocks looking for “just right”. I don’t think the little bear lives in hot countries, though:)

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      LOL. I love that. True, we are all just Goldilocks, with out own “heat prejudices.”

  • Ali

    I was on a ferry from Bari, Italy to Dubrovnik, Croatia and the air con was so insanely cold I couldn’t stay in my seat. It was freezing outside too b/c it was an overnight ferry, the wind was blowing, and there wasn’t a place to sit that didn’t get hit with spray from the ocean. Unfortunately my backpack was in the luggage hold, and I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I tried to sleep on deck on a lounge chair and ran into the bathroom about once an hour b/c it was the only place on the boat that was warm. Awful.

  • Dyanne@TravelnLass

    Uh, as I sit here pecking in my pj’s with my fleece jacket on – in Saigon… I guess you could say that I agree.

    Nutso. Leastwise for public buses/trains. That’s why I always bundle up in LAYERS whence moving from place to place in developing nations.

    My pj’s/fleece here this morning? Just too lazy to turn down the a/c (yes, minutely adjustable) in my new permanent (leastwise for a month) digs here in HCMC.

    btw, nice pic of the Bac Ha market Hill Tribe lasses – I was there just last week.

  • Holgs

    The notable 3rd world exception to this for me was a bus in Mozambique – on a 40deg+ (Celsius) day, they decided using the heating (probably as an extension of the engine’s cooling system) was a good idea.

  • Micamyx|Senyorita

    When I travel via bus at night, it is the only time i bring a jacket or warmer with me here in the Philippines. It is rarely cold in the morning or when the sun is up. When I cannot tolerate the coldness of the airconditioned bus and there is no option to turn it low, i would cover the individual AC with the window curtain LOL

  • Rease

    Oh my God YES. I freaking HATE being on buses with crazy AC! I always bundle up and carry extra blankets and scarves. I don’t even care if I looked like a mummified bum, I need to sleep and with AC threatening to freeze my nose clean off, that can be pretty impossible.

  • Unisse

    I live in SE Asia. Philippines to be exact and I guess I like having the air con cold in buses or in hotel rooms because of the heat we experience outside.

    We’re used to having hot weather so we wish for it to be cold. It’s kind of the opposite with those of you who have winter. You want to escape the cold so you find countries where it’s hotter.

  • Roy Marvelous

    I don’t get it either! It’s almost as if people from these countries find it exotic to be freezing cold.

  • Dita

    Indonesia resident here. I have aircon at my place and on occasions I have it turned on, I normally set the temperature between 26-28°C. That’s equivalent to Jakarta’s temperature on mornings or cooler days, which I find most comfortable. This is actually seen as oddity to a lot of people (“why would you get an aircon if it’s not cold?”), and some don’t even know we can set the temperature level!

    Singapore is another aircon-crazy country. Virtually all closed public space are airconned to what feels like 16-20°C. I don’t know whether things are still the same now, but a decade ago, I and plenty of classmates dress for winter whenever we go to classes. Even so, there were local guys who came in with shorts and girls with tanktops, so maybe they’re already used to the 16°C tropical life?

  • Jade Johnston

    Have you experienced the Air Asia freeze out yet? They charge 15 US for a airline blanket so be prepared. I always take my sleeping bag with me no matter where I go…always

  • patricia

    I’m from the Philippines. I can’t stand the cold either but when the weather gets hot here (and yes, it can get really hot, the type that gives you headaches, makes you lazy to move and just plain cranky), i always look for an airconditioned room or go to an airconditioned place (like the mall) because it just makes everything better. i guess if you don’t have our weather, you can’t relate

  • Anji

    I know exactly what you mean! I dont understand it myself! I remember being on an AC bus in India and freezing away. And when I told the driver to bring it down, he told me that I had bought an AC bus! It’s funny how things work on that side of the world!

  • Alex

    After living in New York City for four years, I can tell you this is far from only a problem in third world countries… only it’s reversed.

    I used to sleep completely naked WITH A FAN in the middle of the winter because my apartment building had the heat up so high. I can only begin to imagine the money they were wasting on attempting to boil us all to death.

  • Dee Ferrell

    That’s why I always bundle up in LAYERS whence moving from place to place in developing nations.My pj’s/fleece here this morning? It just makes it so much worse when you have to go out in the sweltering heat. I do not get the A/C thing either. Virtually all closed public space are airconned to what feels like 16-20°C.

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