Cambodia · Expat · Thailand

What to do + what to buy when you get sick in SE Asia

Hey, I’m on holiday! I don’t want to get sick! [Angkor Heart Bungalows, Siem Reap, Cambodia 2017]

I was quite ignorant about sickness and health when I first moved to SE Asia back in 2009. Yes, I had gotten a nasty bout of food poisoning when I traveled to Thailand when I was 16, but I didn’t know that getting sick is a regular thing for explorers and expats here. Yes, a regular thing.

Welcome to the Jungle, baby. You’re gonna die…

Nah, you’re going to just feel like it.

So, let’s start off with food poisoning, the shits, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and having the sweats and chills while squatting on the bowl.

Some folks automatically assume street food is the culprit, but I’ve gotten plenty sick from outwardly clean-looking restaurants, too. There are a few contributing factors. For starters, many people do not handwash with soap. Secondly, there are no sanitation codes of conduct or restaurant inspections.

Although Bangkok is supposedly attempting to clean up and regulate food stalls. My rule is this: if the food has been pre-prepared and is lying out, I would hesitate to eat it unless I took it home and nuked it. I think made-to-order hot foods are a safer bet if you are going to eat it street side.

Made to order papaya salad [Lamphun, Thailand, 2017]

Another possible concern is I have seen them fumigate Somphet Market (where the cooking schools go) in Chiang Mai with some evil-looking bug sprays while the people were still selling their food. The billowing white smoke poured through and all the sellers did was cover their produce with a cloth, if they did anything at all. They did this regularly, but I don’t know if this has changed. This is the kind of stuff you have to deal with.

But you still gotta eat, right? [Food stall, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2017]
Look, I don’t want to frighten you. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who pass through the region who don’t get food poisoning, but it might happen and you want to know what to do.

Despite all those crazy rules people tell you to follow (like to not brush your teeth with tap water or to avoid this particularly shaped ice), and even if you are extra cautious, you could still get sick. Don’t worry! Find a pharmacy and buy this:

25 baht = 72 cents = lifesavers

/1/ Activated charcoal is a lifesaver. It absorbs toxins and even helps with bloating and gas. Those anti-diarrhea pills from the States? Forget about them. You need something that will fight the poison in your body, fast. Plus, activated charcoal will stop the – flow, too. And you don’t have to wait too long for it to start working.

I rememeber hearing this strange rumor back when I lived in Chiang Mai that you can’t take them after you get sick. But this is not the case. Hours before I had to teach, I got unexpectedly sick and kept running to the toilet. I took two pills and then another, when I feared the worst, but I was able to go to school! Seriously, I don’t know why more people don’t know about these little guys. Plus, the best thing is they are super cheap!

*Peppermint tea and ginger are other nice natural remedies for milder symptoms.

Royal D is a rehydration power you mix with water, and those other little pills? Well, we got a regular pharmacy in the house here…

/2/ The great thing about SE Asia is pharmacies or chemists are everywhere. Pharmacists speak English (to varying degrees), and after you explain your symptoms to them, they can usually help. Yeah, sometimes they don’t know if what’s making you sick is viral or bacterial, so it’s not a perfect setup, but if you need antibiotics, you can get them without a long wait, prescription or it costing the Earth.

What are these called? We don’t know, so we call them ‘centipede eggs’. 😀

/3/ Centipede eggs. Ok. You might not believe me, but the Chinese are traveling more and as a result, they’ve brought their super-strong-resistant-to-antibiotics colds and flus to the region. So in addition to the fact that hand washing with soap hasn’t caught on, coupled with the stress of traveling and being in new situations and touching all kinds of surfaces, many foreigners here get sick, even if you didn’t get sick a lot back home.

I was incredibly sick when I was living in Chiang Rai this one particular time and, of course, I had to travel to Laos to do my visa run. It was pure misery because I had a bad cough. I kept these ‘centipede eggs’ in my mouth the whole time, and they helped relieve my cough a lot.

In fact, when I was visiting Thailand last month, I saw them everywhere sold in bulk. I think the effectiveness of them has been discovered.

Probiotic drinks! Another good thing to have on the road.

/4/ Make your own powerful brew. But even though SE Asia has some nice medicine (is that an oxymoron?), building up your immune system and staying strong is obviously the best way to go.

For my first year teaching in Cambodia, I was sick at least every semester. I tried so hard to exercise regularly, take 1000 mg of vitamin C every day and get enough sleep. Yet nothing worked. I carried hand wipes with me, asked the school to put up signs, “Please wash your hands with soap” in all the restrooms, you name it. I felt like I tried everything and it was getting frustrating.

Then I bought an emersion blender and started to make a concoction of ginger, water, lime, and a little turmeric to drink almost every morning.  The bf did a similar thing when he taught in China. He always carried with him a homemade mix of ginger, garlic, honey and lime in a thermos.  It seems extreme, but honestly, it’s the only way we’ve found to teach without being sick all the time.

It’s funny because I asked one of my colleagues why he started his Jiva probiotic drink and he shared a similar story. He said he was always getting sick and wanted to do something about it. So, if you are in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap you can pick up his healthy drink at health food stores and restaurants. And if you are in Chiang Mai (and I’m sure in Bangkok or other major cities), you can find probiotic drinks there, as well.

These little gems are great for travel sickness, but some folks use the inhalers for sinus problems.

/5/ Smell this. One of the unique things about SE Asia is the smell. Nothing like that open sewer smell to stimulate your appetite – NOT. But there are nice inhalants you can use for such lovely occasions. I like them for traveling on a bus or plane. Some people stick them up a nostril and that’s a little strange to see, this stick hanging out of their nose, but hey, I’ve seen stranger things here.

These are from Japan. I only buy the best. Hahahaha. Nah, we just have one of those cheap Japanese stores that have tons of stuff in Siem Reap.

/6/ These days, I also travel with a mask on. Yes, they look ridiculous until you get used to them. I figure there is no better way to ruin a vacation (okay, there are lots of ways) than getting sick or feeling nauseous. It helps with the pollution, too. At least carry a handkerchief to cover your mouth and nose, you’ll most likely use it when you’re sitting in traffic behind some diesel truck.

Yellow oil! My mom introduced me to this. We use it for mosquito bites and as a kind of ‘smelling salt’.

/7/ All you need is a spoon and some hot water. Mosquitos can also cause quite a headache when you’re on holiday here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a tourist’s legs tenderized by mosquito bites. It’s alarming, actually, but if you aren’t prepared, they will devour you. The good news is there are plenty of natural sprays here and mozzie coils are often burned at outdoor settings like restaurants.

However, we have discovered an amazing remedy! If you have access to a kettle and a spoon, you can make the bites go away. First, boil water. Second, stick the spoon in the hot water for a few seconds. Wait for the spoon to cool down a bit, testing it on your bite, until you are able to hold the back end of the spoon on your bite longer. I’m not sure how it works, but after you apply the hot spoon on your bite, your bite will stop itching and go away entirely.

This works. This works. This works!

You might have to dip the spoon in the kettle again. Some hotels have little coffee and tea stations in each room, so if you do, then you’re golden. We did this when we were in Malaysia. Of course, we do this at home all the time.

*Tiger Balm also works on bites, but the spoon method makes the bites go away!

I hope these help! Yes, yes, stay hydrated, too, and happy travels.

What have been your travel remedies?

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25 thoughts on “What to do + what to buy when you get sick in SE Asia

  1. I’ve never heard about those little black pills and how fast they work. In Malaysia there’s an equivalent called Po Chai pills, and they work very well with stomach ache food poisoning. I find in SEA the doctors or pharmacists are quick to prescribe antibiotics – a little bit of sick, they will push it to you. At least that was my experience when I got sick in Malaysia and Singapore.

    When I got sick there, I’d get the high fever, chills and shaking and would not be able to do much but sit at home. Having moved to Australia, not once have I been sick in that capacity – like I”d get a cold but I’d still be able to function pretty normally. Like you, I’d get sick many times a year in SEA but here in Australia very rarely. Even if I did get sick, it’ll last two weeks max.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ohhhh, yeah. The colds and flus are a different breed out here. That’s why I mention the Chinese. I know they love to just take antibiotics for everything and that’s why we have these crazy strong colds now. We’ve created little monsters. Like you, I didn’t get sick very much in the States. A common cold wouldn’t put you down for very long either.

      I’ll keep an eye out for those Po Chai pills you mentioned. They had charcoal when we were there, so that was a relief. Unfortunately, getting the stomach bug is so common here that we forget that this is NOT normal back home. Cleanliness is overrated, right? 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you get a cold, you never get the same strain of cold twice. You become immune to it. So the more germs you are exposed to, the tougher you get 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, this is the most useful post I’ve read in a long time, even for those of us not in S.E. Asian. The hot spoon makes sense — I just read the latest study on jellyfish stings, and the most effective neutralizer is vinegar, followed by heat. I guess heat works across the board!

    I don’t think we have charcoal tablets here, but damn, I want some. Noroviruses are hitting California pretty hard and they are so unpleasant.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Autumn, what are you talking about??? You are in California! You guys have everything!!! 😀 I’m sure there is charcoal somewhere…maybe some health food store? Or online? I think I saw something like that…

      Didn’t know that about the jellyfish. I think I just have that horrible image of someone peeing on you when you get stung. Followed up by heat, eh? Good to know! Hope we never need it! Cheers.

      Like

      1. LA has most everything, including terrible traffic if you have to drive to a health food store. 🙂 But yeah, you can get everything online. Except for Chinese woodlock ointment I’m pretty sure that’s still as illegal af.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Heck yeah California has activated charcoal! Try Whole Foods if the drug store doesn’t have them. My sister in law swears on taking them every time she drinks to eliminate hangover. I haven’t had as much luck, but they are useful when you feel like you may have eaten something that could be bad news.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow, this is so informative. Do they have those charcoal pills in other parts of the world or just in SE Asia? Those would have saved me in Mexico City 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I need to try that hot spoon trick when I get bitten next—I’m usually the first person to get bitten by a mosquito and the bites stick around for ages.

    Yes to activated charcoal tablets! I’d never seen them in England, but they have them here. A friend gave me some when my stomach was all in knots, and I was surprised it actually worked. He swore by them, and I think do too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, it seems like back home we’d never need activated charcoal. I don’t recall ever having a stomach bug. But hey, you never know. Yes, those little buggars work. Thank god!

      Good luck with the hot spoon treatment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m going to try that early morning drink magic. I’ve tried staying healthy and washing hands and pretty much everything you did, but I still get that cold every semester when my kids start sniffling. Twice this semester. Ugh.

    Hooray for charcoal! Back in the States I had one friend who used it, because her family was into alternative medicine years before it started gaining ground in the mainstream. Fortunately I think more people are getting used to these remedies.

    One thing I like to use is colloidal silver. It’s helped me speed up the healing process for colds. Now I don’t know about more traditional Korean medicine, but most of the stuff I see here or am prescribed seems pretty standard Western fare. But in Taiwan, we had green oil for mosquito bites! Actually it was kind of a cure-all, I think, because they said it was good for headaches and other stuff too.

    Super interesting! It would be fascinating to do a study of medicines of different Asian countries!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember colloidal silver. I also remember echinacea, which never seemed to work for me. I guess because you have to constantly keep it up. Yes, working with children means getting sick. I hate it.

    Hopefully the drinks does the trick for you. Unfortunately, you have to drink it regularly. But fortunately, those ingredients are cheap and you can make it to your tastes. Honestly, I’ve been lax lately and a little bug got me! (The irony of the timing of this post is not lost on me) Such a reminder that we have to be vilgilant about our health here!

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  7. Practical article. I would add that neglecting to use disposable paper towels contributes to “the s***s.” How so? While soap ruptures the membranes of some cells, in most cases it just makes it hard for germs to adhere to one’s hands. Unfortunately we generally don’t wash with soap long enough to do either with great effectiveness. So a lot of the benefits of washing up lay in the use of disposable paper towels to mechanically remove germs while drying. “Disposable” is key because drying with a dirty kitchen towel is worse than not washing up at all.

    I know, I know, an environmentally minded person would have problems with what I just wrote, however, there-ain’t-no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch. Air dryers don’t remove any bacteria and jet-air dryers not only do a poor job of removing bacteria, but what it does remove becomes a bacteria aerosol further spreading germs. That and when the compressor turns on, there’s a massive draw on electricity. The environmental impact is nearly identical.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. Wiping hands dry is important. Fortunately/Unfortunately, we have a towel in the WC…all the expat teachers search out the driest part 😂

      Like

  8. Wow, you sure have a lot of experience being sick, haha. Thanks for sharing! I rarely get sick but I am often attacked by mosquitoes and I always carry a repellent spray and Tiger Balm. I will try the spoon trick next time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Youre very lucky! You must have a killer immune system for China! Not being a teacher helps too 😥 Yes, the spoon is like magic!

      Like

  9. Great…do we want to visit Asia? 🙂
    Charcoal pills…ok I think I’ll have ask my sisters..1 is a licensed pharmacist at a major teaching and research hospital and another an emergency medicine doctor here in Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This whole article made me go 😱. Haha! I cannot believe the fumigation and the food! I’m feeling a little underprepared for visiting SE Asia now, but if I do, I’ll be glad to have these tips.

    For all those in the states, we definitely have activated charcoal. Amazon has it cheap, though I’m sure you can find it elsewhere. My sister in law swears on taking it to prevent hangovers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s what I thought. I thought I saw it on Amazon. Anyway, you might be coming out here, eh? Keep me informed!

      Like

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