Before I left for my 6 month backpacking trip beginning in Sri Lanka, I made it a point to look up how to avoid sickness in SE Asia. I Googled, I scoured travel blogs, I even skimmed a few forums. I read it all. Don’t drink the water, don’t use ice cubes, don’t even rinse your mouth after brushing your teeth. Don’t eat raw vegetables, only eat fruits with a peel, always wash your hands with soap. The list goes on and on. And I did it all.
For three days.
Just three days into our trip, as careful as we were to only drink bottled water, avoid lukewarm foods and practically check off everything from the list above, we were sick as dogs. I won’t get as graphic as I could with ya, but let me just say that it was the worst sickness I’ve ever experienced. Worse than any flu or any food poisoning. And I’ve had some gnarly food poisoning.
My girlfriend Hillary, and I both wracked our brains over every single thing we had consumed during the 72 hours leading up to the moment we knew something awful was about it go down. There was nothing we could think of specifically that could have brought this on.
Travel Tip: Even if you think you’re going to be that one person that doesn’t get sick, (which is what we thought too) be sure to stay somewhere during your first week that has a private bathroom – preferably air conditioned or with well-ventilated areas by use of fans.
I had packed my SteriPen Adventurer (read my review here) which I’ve used plenty of times, but if you go traveling SE Asia without a way to sterilize your water supply, then be sure to always keep a bottle of water on hand. It’s also a good idea to keep a wad of toilet paper in your pack if you do happen to come across some, as this will become a novelty. Luckily I snagged a bunch from the airport upon arrival.
Fun Fact: Using TP in SE Asia is not a common practice, to say the least. Not only can the plumbing not handle flushing tp, there are also no trash cans to deposit the used tp in.
It’s one thing to be sick and sitting on the toilet in the comfort of your own home, holding a clean trash can you bought from Bed Bath and Beyond, with toilet paper and cool rags and A/C. But getting sick in Asia is a completely different story. Many toilets either take 20 or so minutes to flush, don’t flush, and/or are outdoors which means you better keep your eye out for creepy crawlies. Toilet paper is a luxury rarely found. Water is full of foreign bacteria silently waiting to wreak havoc. Trash cans – what are those? – there’s a compost pile out back. And A/C is straight up nonexistent in 100 degree weather. Let’s just say being ill is extremely inconvenient, sweaty, sticky, smelly, and any other disgusting adjectives you can think of. Whatever we had, it was downright debilitating. As we both laid (writhed, rather) in our beds, we began reciting all of the symptoms of Malaria and Dengue Fever we had learned about during the previous weeks. But none of these fit the bill.
Luckily for us both Hillary was sick first, throughout the night, spending several hours in the bathroom that she was fortunate enough to have to herself. During the early morning hours when she finally fell asleep, I woke with terrible abdominal cramps and had the privacy I needed in the bathroom alone.
Have you ever needed to relieve yourself from both ends? At the same time? With no trash can and one toilet that doesn’t flush? Just take a second to let that situation sink in. Got a grasp on it? Yeah. Not pretty.
Had we both been in that state at the same time? Certain death.
I kept a mental list of all the bizarre sensations I was feeling for the first time in my life. The area of my arms above my wrist and below my elbows were numb. My ear canals were blocked and stuffy to the point I could hardly hear anything except for my own breathing and heartbeat. The mattresses are thin and hard, and the immense pressure on my back and very empty stomach and bowels made every position I tried unbearable. Parts of my body kept falling asleep, tingling with pins and needles. But even worse was the lightheaded, faint, dizziness I experienced at the exact moment I knew my stomach contents were about to be expelled. I could barely make it the 15 steps to the toilet without blacking out and falling over (which happened every half hour for nearly 5 hours). Between my fever, sweat, and the tropical heat, I had no choice but to prop myself up in the shower after every evacuation my body fiercely delivered.
After nearly 30 hours we were both in decent enough shape to drag ourselves out of bed. We began experiencing the beginnings of hunger pangs and set out to conquer the challenge of finding our next meal. Still dehydrated and feeling rather empty for good reason, we found the nearest restaurant and hoped very hard that they offered more than heavy rice and spicy curries. After downing a whole bottle of water I was pleased to see “Cream of Vegetable” listed under the Soup and Salad category, which I was happy to discover wasn’t cream at all, but broth with fresh herbs. Just what the doctor ordered. No travel insurance needed this time around!
So, how to avoid sickness in Asia? Did you happen to notice the title was a question?
Unfortunately, your guess is as good as mine! Once it runs it course you can eat anything, drink anything, and enjoy everything. The street food is amazing and if you CouchSurf you’re bound to have delicious home style meals with your host. Foreign cuisines are a huge part of every culture and one of my favorite things to explore.
So when it was all said and done, I was ultimately happy I got sick. The alternative would have been to constantly avoid basically EVERYTHING the whole time I was traveling. And from fresh fruit smoothies in Thailand, to Dosa in India, street Pho in Vietnam, and spicy Satay in Indonesia, I like to think that I ate my way through SE Asia. And every bite was worth it!
Have you mastered avoiding sickness in Asia? Or gotten sick yourself? Share your stories, advice, and tips below in the comments section!