Top Tips for Staying Healthy While you Travel Southeast Asia
As a physiotherapist, I have certain basic rules that I think has helped us maintain good health throughout most of our trip in Southeast Asia. While you hear of people frequently getting sick on their travels, we have been nearly four months so far with only a few days sick along the way. I think it’s inevitable somewhere along the way you will get some form of gastrointestinal upset, whether it’s a bug or food poisoning. These are my tips for maintaining good health while travelling. Remember they are general tips, if you have specific health related questions always ensure you seek advice of a doctor or registered health professional.
1. Drink plenty of water
This is my top tip for maintaining good health while travelling. Hydration is vitally important and keeps all your vital organs functioning effectively. We always try to carry a 1.5L bottle wherever we go and are conscious that we are sweating a lot more here than at home. Be careful though, a lot of the tap water in Southeast Asia is unsafe to drink. We have opted to only drink bottled water during our time here.
2. Get good travel insurance
Basically, if you get hurt or sick you want to know your travel insurance will cover you. Shop around for this and pick a policy that suits you best. Read the fine print too, some insurance companies will cover medical evacuations to a hospital that is equivalent to the standard of the hospitals at home, and others will only pay for treatment at the nearest hospital. The other thing to consider, you can get policies with zero excess. They only cost slightly more but it means if you need to visit a doctor or get a prescription the entire cost will be covered (with some exceptions). Lastly, be sure of what activities you are covered for. For example, we aren’t covered to drive a motorbike in our policy.
3. Enjoy the food… but know where to draw the line
This is a big one, I had multiple people warn me off the street food, but I find the street food is often most exciting and it’s certainly easy on the budget. I have a few rules that I think has helped us along the way.
- We eat at places full of locals. This means two things, there is a high turnover of food and it’s unlikely people get sick from eating there.
- We also opt for hot food (temperature wise), the heat will help kill any bugs or bacteria.
- Eat the local specialities. The cooks know what they are doing and how to do it best. Ironically, I have heard a lot of travellers get sick eating western food.
- There is some evidence that proves some spices prevent the growth of bacteria in food, so, ordering spicy food can help.
- Seafood is one of the most common foods that give people food poisoning. Just be wary, the further you are from the ocean the further the seafood has to travel.
- Some places are well known for food poisoning, Koh Rong for instance. This was the only time we purposely ate vegetarian and we survived a few days there without any problems.
4. Be wary of the heat
The heat is a killer, zapping energy and making you sweat, which leaves you dehydrated and lacking electrolytes. We always try to avoid being out between 12pm and 2pm, opting to head out early in the morning, before retreating somewhere air-conditioned for a few hours and returning out in the afternoon.
5. Carry wet wipes and/or hand sanitiser
Hand washing facilities are usually poor at best and the public toilets are horrendous. I always try to carry hand sanitiser to maintain good hand hygiene. While it can seem a bit over the top, it is one of the most important things that prevents sickness.
6. Walk places
With a tight budget, we try and cut costs wherever possible. Most commonly, this is on transport and we choose to walk wherever possible. This has helped us keep relatively fit throughout our trip. Make sure you drink even more water if you opt for a big day walking.
7. Stretch often
Stretching is something we both should do more often. Regular stretching, especially of the hamstrings, gluteals and hip flexors, will really help a sore back and tired legs. The hip flexors get particularly tight after a long flight or bus trip where you’ve been stuck sitting for a while.
There are quite a few mosquito born illnesses in Southeast Asia (including Dengue Fever and Malaria) and some can be life threatening. Try and wear mosquito repellent with at least 30% DEET in the evenings particularly, or cover up. There are some prophylaxis options in regards to Malaria and it is worth discussing these with your doctor.
With such a long trip, we had all our vaccinations updated prior to travelling. This is a choice that needs to be made by each individual, but it is important to discuss this at length with a doctor, especially if you are travelling for an extended period of time. There are some doctors who specialise in travel health and it may be worth seeking their opinion, as they are the most knowledgable on the various issues people are faced with when travelling.
10. Carry a decent medical kit
While it is highly unlikely you won’t be able to access a pharmacy if you get sick, sometimes it is easier to carry small amounts of a few basic things. I have chosen to carry quite an extensive medical kit, mainly because I didn’t want the added stress of having to find a pharmacy and explain what I wanted if either of us got sick. Also, the active ingredients can change between countries, which means even if the brand is the same, the drug may be quite different to what you expect.
11. Make sure you are healthy before you leave
That niggly sore back, tooth ache or dodgy looking cut… Get it checked out before you go away. It’s a whole lot easier to get things sorted from home than when you arrive in a foreign country. Trust me, if your back is sore at home, a long flight, bus or train trip will not help. Sometimes, the niggly things are stress related and once you get away they settle easily. Unfortunately, I have heard many horror stories of trips being ruined when people grab their bag off the carousel at the airport (after a long, cramped flight) and the niggly pain becomes a full-blown injury.
As I said, these are my top tips for staying healthy while travelling. We have really enjoyed our time in Southeast Asia and maintaining good health has certainly made it easy. Make sure you look after yourself while your away, and if you do get sick or injured, seek the advice from the appropriate health professional. The last thing you want is a life long issue stemming from a poor decision made while travelling.