I have to admit, I’ve been lucky up until now with getting sick while travelling, but since I have been in S E Asia I have had all sorts of stomach bugs and viruses.
During one whole year in South America my only problems were suffering from altitude sickness and getting myself a nasty little parasite after I drank untreated well water in Colombia.
I had a couple of snotty sneezy colds while I was travelling through the Baltics and I twisted my knee on a hike up a mountain in Spain.
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I don’t count the coma-induced hangovers due to over-indulging on pisco, rum or that sneaky-killer aguardiente. They are just part and parcel of never growing up but it’s been a different story recently and I keep getting sick while travelling in SE Asia.
But now, here in South East Asia I have been getting sick in every country that I have visited (to date).
If you take one thing away from this article it should be to NEVER travel without decent travel insurance. It doesn’t have to be expensive but it could save a whole host of problems and expense further down the line. I use the long stay package from Alpha Travel Insurance you can get your own up-to-date quote here.
Stomach bugs, viruses and bronchitis
Thailand – I got a stomach bug in Chiang Mai that kept me close to a bathroom for 3 days (probably caught from my landlord who had the same). Delhi Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge, call it what you will, I was up and down the stairs to the (shared) bathroom like a yoyo.
Laos – After eating just a couple of spoonfuls of suspicious smelling food in the northern mountains of Laos I got sick.
Immediately following this dodgy meal we spent three long travel days on crowded minivans which threw us from side to side on the hairpin bends in the mountains int he norht of Laos, driven by evil drivers who would stop on open lay-bys with not even a small shrub for cover for communal toilet breaks.
At this stage I was beyond caring and I would tramp over to the nearest patch of grass with my toilet roll and squat like the locals in full sight of everybody. I simply wanted to give up and sleep.
I eventually presented myself at the hospital in Laos where tests proved that I needed (more) antibiotics along with a traditional Chinese medicine.
Cambodia – I contracted a 24 hour stomach bug on the island of Koh Rong. Many others were sick before and after me but at least I was better before we got to our home-stay in the Cardamom Mountains with its very basic bathroom that was simply a hole in the floor flushed with water from a jug.
My friend Debs wasn’t quite so lucky because she was sick here and had to use this whole in the ground -but she did learn a new skill – and I quote: ‘I can now shit with precision through a hole in a polo!’
Vietnam – I loved the city of Hanoi but the weather was cold and damp and the city was VERY polluted. EVERYBODY in the city had a cough and in our 8-bed dorm all of the occupants were laid low with a variety of ailments.
I think I had the flu because for over a week I felt as if I had been trampled by a herd of water buffalo where every movement was agony and my lower back was on fire. When I did get upright for long enough to get outside there were several occasions where I went white as a sheet and everything went woozy and I came very close to fainting.
Here in Hanoi my cough then escalated to bronchitis and for the first time ever, I began to dream of having my own home and a nice little place where I could escape and pamper myself.
Thailand (again) – this one was probably my fault for eating street food late at night when the vendors were packing up for the evening and things had been hanging around for too long. It did make for an interesting travel day flying from Krabi to Bangkok vomiting my way north. Thank goodness NOK Air supply plenty of strong sick bags.
To accompany this series of articles on Laos, I have published a comprehensive 28 page travel itinerary of my month-long route around Laos. Simply enter your details in the box below to get your free guide.
Look after yourself.
‘Stay healthy,’ they all say. ‘Look after yourself,’ and ‘you don’t want to go getting sick while travelling,’ is what every traveller is told before setting out.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t take ice with your drinks (I do), you never drink the tap water (I do) and you don’t eat from street food vendors (I do). You peel all fruit, you don’t eat vegetables (a source of e-coli) and you avoid meat (refrigeration difficulties).
Certainly never drink the local home-brewed firewater at weddings in Vietnam, do not hire a scooter and certainly never get on the back of a motor bike taxi in Bangkok during rush hour without a helmet. Yes, right!!!!!
I break every one of these rules regularly and as I have already said, I lasted the entire year in South America with few ill effects.
I have some rules. I don’t balance on balcony railings, I would never bungee jump and I don’t knowingly eat road-kill (I suspect that was the problem in the mountains in Laos). I weigh up the risks and I take preventative actions accordingly.
Always carry toilet paper, wear a skirt on the buses (better to squat in public without baring your bum) and get yourself some little brown pills called berberine ( a herbal Chinese medicine that I swear are magic).
One welcome side effect of all of this was that I lost over a stone in weight and in an effort to rebuild myself I began to focus more on practising my limited capabilities of yoga and meditation.
When I was in Chiang Mai I made a huge effort to get up early some mornings and I joined Nathan from Fit Living Lifestyle and some other travel bloggers who were in town for circuits in the park. You can actually invite Nathan into your home as he has a whole series of online fitness plans for you to choose from so it doesn’t matter where in the world you are if you want his help to get healthy. Check out Nathan’s website here if you never seem to be able to find the time to get to the gym or to a class and see what he can offer you.
My experiences have led me to ponder on the topic of what to do if you do get ill on the road.
Dealing with getting sick while travelling.
Luckily I was never so sick that I needed hospitalization (the doctors in Laos were amazing but the ward was nothing more than a room with mattresses pushed together) and here in S E Asia I have mostly been travelling with friends who have supported me.
If I were solo I would have coped but I would have been 500 times more miserable than I was.
I was alone in Chiang Mai but there was a support network of bloggers and digital nomads in the town who offered to help. It was comforting to know that they were there should I need them.
A hostel would always (I hope) keep hold of your bag and personal belongings if anything really serious happened and you needed to be hospitalized, but as someone who occasionally keels over and faints, the worry is what happens if you are out on your own or travelling with all of your bags!
My full respect goes out to my friend Martin who travels with epilepsy and who does keel over occasionally.
The travel community is amazing and usually pulls together. Take the incidence in Chiang Mai when a traveller had a serious scooter accident and the call went out for blood supplies.
Lots of my friends queued up at the hospital to donate their blood. Here in Thailand, if you need a blood transfusion your relatives or friends have to reimburse the hospital with an equal amount of blood in donations so offers like this are always welcome.
When I was sick in Laos where very few people spoke English a Vietnamese doctor happened to be on the same minivan as me and my friend.
A little way through one of our nightmare journeys he realised that I was sick and he took it upon himself to keep an eye on me for the next few days in Vang Vieng. He offered to accompany me to the hospital in case I had any problems and he checked all of the drugs that I was prescribed, confirming them to be safe and I was very happy to be able to buy him a thank you drink when I got to Hanoi a few months later.
Living in a dorm and coping with sickness when travelling can be a double edged sword.
When you have hacking bronchitis you are very aware of disturbing your fellow travellers and if you have a vomiting or tummy bug you will find that you are constantly keeping a check on whether the toilet is occupied or not. Those are the days when it is more sensible to opt for a bottom bunk for a quick exit.
But when you are sick, there is something very comforting about having people, even strangers, around you and all but the hardest individual will invariably check up on you, running to the pharmacist or bringing you food and drink supplies.
Ask your dorm buddies to fetch you a bottle of cola and loosen the lid so that it loses its fizz. Flat coke works wonders for most types of sickness. Add the contents of a rehydration sachet to your water bottle and drink as much as you can keep down. If you have the squits ( I can’t spell diarreah) avoid taking anything which stop you going to the toilet unless you have a travel day – you want that shit (excuse the pun) out of your body asap.
And never ever never travel without Travel Insurance. (Travel Insurance is available from Alpha Travel Insurance as well as from other insurance companies)
If you are dealing with sickness while travelling and your finances allow, consider an upgrade to a private room. I was so lucky in Hanoi that I had interviewed Rezma before I got sick and she offered me a free stay in one of her amazing rooms in her bohemian hostel ‘See you at Lily’s’.
The timing was perfect. I staggered out of my 8 bedded dorm in my previous hostel in search of my comfort food of choice – of course a pizza – which I washed down with a reviving cup of zingy ginger tea. I then checked into my private room at ‘See you at Lily’s’ where I snuggled up under a thick duvet in a 6 foot wide bed with air con and a huge flat screen TV and I indulged myself with films late into the night.
Before Rezma and her business partners took over their hostel, the building was a hotel, so while it is now a hostel complete with dorm rooms, free breakfast and really great art work all over the place, they retained some of the private rooms as, well, private rooms.
I could write so much more about getting sick while travelling – especially in SE Asia, but I will leave you here for now. Don’t forget to check out Nathan’s website and if you are planning to visit Hanoi you should certainly visit Rezma and her team at ‘See you at Lily’s‘.
Of course, if you are very nervous about travelling solo then you can always opt for a small group activity holiday. With these you will have a tour guide who can iron out any problems as they occur and liaise with you and the medical professions. I was so glad that I was travelling with Explore when I went in India. I got dysentry and heat stroke which could have turned very serious had our guide not acted quickly when he did. Take a look at Explore’s destinations – I bet that they will go whereever you want to go
Feel free to share this article with anybody that you know who is travelling or may be thinking of travelling – it could save them some bad moments – but remember, I travelled for one whole year in South America and I had very few problems. Maybe I am just getting complacent.
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