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.
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.
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:
/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.
/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.
/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.
/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.
/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.
/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.
/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.
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.
LASTLY, IF YOU DO FEEL A COLD OR FLU COMING ON, CONSIDER A SPICY PAPAYA SALAD TO HELP YOU.
What have been your travel remedies?