Travel in SE Asia can be intimidating. Undoubtedly, one of the most common concerns is getting sick. Understanding how to stay healthy on the road isn’t as obvious as it is at home, and it’s a shame that so many people are put off visiting amazing countries for this reason. But with a little bit of know-how and a touch of common sense, it’s possible to drastically reduce your chances of picking up a nasty bug and return home as healthy as ever.
Before You Go
This advice is based only on my personal experiences and is not intended to replace professional opinion. Speak to your doctor before travelling abroad.
It all starts with getting your vaccinations and malaria medication. You need to arrange to get them 4-8 weeks before you go. You’ll be in a position to have fewer jabs each session if you arrange it as early as possible.
The table below gives a brief overview of the medication and vaccinations that are recommended for travel in Asia. The costs vary around the world and depend on which optional vaccinations you want. According to my nurse, we have to pay for the optional vaccinations in the UK as “they’re not contagious, so you’d just die and it wouldn’t affect anybody else”.
|Malaria (Tablets)||Recommended if you will be travelling in rural areas of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.|
|Hepatitis A||Recommended for all travellers.|
|Hepatitis B||Recommended for all travellers.|
|Typhoid||For travellers who will eat or drink outside of major restaurants and hotels.|
|Yellow Fever||Not required unless you are arriving from a yellow-fever infected area of Africa or the Americas.|
|Japanese Encephalitis||This cost me £178. Pretty pricey, but your head explodes if you contract it. True story (sort of). It is recommended for travellers who might be spending a lot of time in rural areas.|
|Rabies||The vaccination doesn't make you immune to rabies, but will give you an additional 24 hours to get to a hospital if you get bitten by a dog foaming at the mouth.|
|Measles, Mumps & Rubella (MMR)||If you haven't had this already, two doses recommended for all travellers born after 1956.|
|Tetanus-Diphtheria||A booster is recommended every 10 years.|
If you plan to travel in Asia for a couple months or more, it is likely that you will need malaria tablets, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, and perhaps boosters for MMR and tetanus. I chose to have Japanese encephalitis and rabies as well, bringing the grand total close to £400. It’s a lot of money, but I’ve kind of got used to not being dead.
In addition to the above vaccinations for the more hardcore illnesses, there’s a number of other medications that are strongly recommended.
|Mini Ready- Made First Aid Kit||These typically include a limited supply of health and hygiene equipment that you might need in an emergency. I chose to get one that includes needles that can be used instead of those available in Asian hospitals. If you haven't had your Hep B vaccination, this is an especially good idea.|
|Medication For Traveller's Diarrhoea||A cocktail of medication is recommended for tackling diarrhoea, including oral rehydration salts, an antibiotic, and an anti-diarrhoeal drug such as Imodium. Click here to read a detailed post on the subject.|
|Paracetamol/Ibuprofen||Effective for reducing pain and inflammation.|
|Anti-Septic Cream||For scrapes and cuts.|
|Hand Sanitizer||Use it when there's no soap around or after using an especially dirty bathroom.|
|Bug Spray and Tiger Balm||There's lots of insects in Asia, and as such it's wise to get a good quality bug spray including DEET. Tiger Balm is great for treating insect bites, and is widely available in Asia.|
|Sun Cream & After Sun||A no-brainer. You will get burnt. These aren't cheap in Asia and you might have difficulty finding the brand you like, so try to pick up a deal before you depart.|
Get all your ducks in order, and you’re good to go.
How To Stay Healthy Once You Arrive
If I could give you only one piece of advice, it would be this: stay hydrated. The combination of heat and humidity in SE Asia causes you to sweat almost all day, every day. The effect of dehydration is intensified by the lack of a cooling off period at night – especially if you are in budget accommodation without air-con.
Proper hydration is essential to the health of the body’s organs, including the brain. Dehydration can quickly lead to impaired brain functioning and thickening of the blood, which forces the heart to work harder.
Typically, I drink between 3-5 litres of bottled water a day. If you are drinking alcohol you will need to compensate for it’s dehydrating effects by drinking more water. As a rule of thumb, your urine should be clear all day long.
I honestly believe hydration is the single most important factor in staying healthy on the road.
Wash Your Hands & Stop Touching Your Face
Get into the habit of washing your hands regularly. Before a meal, after a meal, during a meal. Whenever it is convenient you should do it. If you’ve been holding onto rails on public transport or shaking hands with locals you should wash your hands. Whenever a sink isn’t available use the hand sanitizer you picked up (you did listen to my advice, right?) before eating a meal.
I’m a real stickler for touching my face. I don’t know what it is, but I just love running my hand over my stubble. However, I have made a real effort to cut down on this bad habit since coming out to SE Asia, and you should too.
Avoid Unpurified Water
Avoiding unpurified water might seem all too obvious, and yet it’s the thing that catches most people out. It’s also the main cause of traveller’s diarrhoea, so unless you like crying out for mercy from a toilet seat at 4 AM, it’s worth taking seriously.
It should go without saying that you that you should never drink water from the tap, and should always opt for bottled or otherwise purified water. This same rule applies to brushing you teeth, and remembering not to leave your mouth hanging open like a gorm when you’re taking a shower.
Most people go wrong when it comes to the less-obvious ways of ingesting unpurified water. The main culprits are:
- Ice – Stalls and restaurants may add ice to your drinks that is unpurified. At major hotels and restaurants aimed at tourists you will usually be safe, but you should be cautious anywhere else. Either ask if the ice is purified or ask them to leave it out altogether.
- Fruit and Vegetables – Vegetables are fine as long as they are cooked, and fruit is fine as long as you can peel it. Otherwise there’s a good chance it will have been washed in dirty water.
- Fruit Shakes – Fruit shakes are a combination of the above, and on a hot day can be all too tempting. As a general rule of thumb look for somewhere that is popular with other Westerners, or simply ask the vendor.
Eat at Popular Stalls & Restaurants
Look for the more popular street food stalls and restaurants. If it’s completely empty, you’re either there at an odd time or it’s not popular. Popular eateries are usually that way for a reason. Namely, it’s good food and people don’t get sick eating there. Popularity also means there is a higher turnover of food. That lizard on a stick is less likely to have been sitting there all day playing host to bacteria, so you’ll get something fresher.
You can also look for restaurants on sites like TripAdvisor to see what other people are saying about it.
Go Easy On The Meat
I love meat, I really do. But I don’t love meat that makes me empty my body from both ends. I only eat meat from places that I am confident about. If it’s not really popular or a nice restaurant it’s a no-go.
Meat in SE Asia is very different to meat in the UK and US. It’s more like scraps than big juicy fillets, and it’s invariably tough. Something about it being served in scraps makes me uneasy, and if you couple that with the fact that it might have festering for a few days you can forget about it.
Fortunately, there’s loads of great vegetarian food in SE Asia, so if you’re not 100% confident about the meat you’ve got plenty of other options.
After Your Trip
Returning home after months of travel can be a bummer, but it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up with family and friends and show off your sweet tan.
Keep in mind that you need to continue taking malaria medication for at least one month after leaving a malaria zone. It would suck to have survived six months in SE Asia, only to die when you got home.