Before setting off for my around-the-world trip, I seldom ever became sick. Within weeks of arriving in South East Asia though, I had a terrible bout of food poisoning, and later averaged 1 sick day, for every 4 days of healthy travel. This is the story of how I dealt with pain and isolation, dropped 20 lb/10 kg of weight, and how I survived malaria.
Recovering from food poisoning in Thailand.
You Will Get Sick In South East Asia
I never once had food poisoning, and with my “iron stomach” and ultra-immune system, I was allowed to cockily eat spoilt food on multiple occasions–then I came to South East Asia. Coming off the high of solo climbing rock cliffs, just off the coast of Southern Thailand, I was enjoying a shrimp curry with two Czech girls that I just met. I soon noticed something odd about this shrimp I was having, as I felt the limp and coldness of it in my mouth–oh well, in my belly it goes.
Try using this bungalow toilet when there is no electricity at night for lighting, nor toilet paper—not fun.
In the middle of the night, following my shrimp curry dinner, I jumped out of bed, and found myself puking and pooping everything out of my digestive system for 8 hours straight. I couldn’t even hold down the antibiotics that my travel doctor had prescribed for me in advance. For a full day, the toilet attached to my basic bamboo bungalow became my home. Once I knew I could probably go twenty minutes without my body spewing something, I limped my way to a breakfast hangout, where all the rock climbers gathered. One problem; I arrived to this somewhat remote area of Thailand by myself, just the day before–who would care to help me? Thank God for those Czech girls that I met earlier; I murmured to them something about being sick, and handed them a small note with my bungalow address, so they could check in and make sure I was still alive. For the next couple days, they brought me Coca-Cola and water. Those simple acts of kindness were so huge for my health and sanity. After a total of 4 days, I was near full recovery, and I completed some of the hardest rocks climbs I’ve done in years, during the following 2 weeks there.
I Had Yet to Learn My Lesson
Some of the amazing street food that can be found in Malaysia.
Within a month of getting food poisoning, I was off to Penang, Malaysia, which is the King of Food in South East Asia. So where can you find the best food here? At the street stands of course! A friend and myself, devoured as much street food that we could find over the course of 3 days. I was eating 4 meals a day, in not so sanity conditions. Later, when I felt my stomach kicking after snacking on an unidentifiable food, my friend gave me something to calm my stomach–it worked! Within minutes, I forgot about my stomach woes, and simply left with her to get our next street meal.
So delicious, yet so unsanitary.
So why would I do something so stupid, so soon? I’m a sucker for good food… and well, I assumed my previous bout of food poisoning only strengthened my immune system, transforming it into an unstoppable force, even in the presence of all that foreign bacteria. It’s almost needless to say, but yes, I found myself sick again. No food poisoning this time around, although, the next 4 days were mostly spent lying in bed due to my inevitable stomach issues.
Fast forward nearly two months, where I am now in Cambodia. Life is good. The past few days were spent fishing, diving, partying, and relaxing on the pristine island of Koh Rong, with its beautiful white sand beaches. I set off with 3 new friends to Siem Reap, which is closely located to the world famous temples of Angkor Wat. To get there though, a 12 hour overnight bus is taken, where I find myself crunched up on a slim seat next to a small Cambodian woman, with half my body sticking out into the aisle. With the air conditioning on full blast, I find myself freezing through the night, despite the fact that I have a down jacket on. I continued the journey with no sleep.
Lion perched at the top of a Cambodian temple.
I arrive in Siem Reap the next morning, in a haze, but excited. Hours later I become very lethargic, and slept away the day. Convincing myself that I was just suffering from a lack of sleep, I later went out with some friends that night. After a couple hours, I’m feeling even more miserable, and on the verge of passing out. The next day is far worse. My symptoms included extremely excruciating headaches, fever, chills, soreness of body, fatigue/tiredness, and diarrhea. 6 of the 7 common symptoms of malaria. The only one missing is vomiting, but that doesn’t always occur when you’re attacked by this parasite of the liver and blood. For very real reasons, there isn’t a doctor that I trust in this country. Fuck it, time to start self medicating…
Yup, another emo-black-and-white photo, this time with Doxycyclin.
For 3 days I start taking Doxycyclin, the drug used to both prevent and treat malaria, which also happens to be so potent, that it can burn a hole in your esophagus if taken while lying down. Suspiciously, I start to feel better—malaria doesn’t let you out of its grasp so easily. I’m very lucky to have a wonderful friend in Siem Reap, who encouraged me to see a trustworthy ex-patriot doctor that she found for me, within the area . I make an appointment with him, and walk into his office the next day. I’m feeling just fine at this point. His diagnosis? Stomach flu.
After a full 5 days, I finally emerge from my hotel room, and explore the awe-inspiring temples of Cambodia that I came here for. I do this alone, as those three friends I arrived with, are now long gone, and all in separate countries. While physically better, I later realized I was down right depressed for the next couple weeks. Weeks earlier, I was absolutely happy. Now, I was left with no emotion at all. Just writing about those days, brings back a terrible feeling.
Eating my fruits and veggies was suppose to keep me healthy (Cameron Highlands, Malaysia).
A month after from my “malaria” experience, I find myself returning home from Japan for my brother’s wedding in Los Angeles. I weigh 20 lb/10 kg less than I did, when I originally departed the US 7 months earlier. On top of this, due to the long flight, and lack of sleep for over 24 hours, my “stomach flu” has returned again, although nowhere near as debilitating as before. While originally unplanned, coming back home for a month, couldn’t of been timed any better. Witnessing my brother’s wedding, along with the honor of being his best man, really lifted my spirits. There is no better way to bring family together. My American diet also allowed me to regain nearly half the weight I lost, in just over a week’s time. Both a blessing, and a bit concerning.
How I looked in Cambodia, before losing another 10 lb/5 kg.
I’m not sharing this experience to scare you from traveling. I’m just hoping that a lesson or two can be learned from my mistakes, along with giving some expectations of what can be experienced. All of the adventurous souls that I’ve met, who took on some serious 3rd world travel, had all experienced their own physical hardships. Whether it be an illness that left them bedridden or in a hospital, a dislocated shoulder, or the unavoidable traveler’s diarrhea.
My third/developing world travel advice:
- Use hand sanitizer before every meal.
- Grab your antibiotics, anti-vomiting, anti-diarrhea, and other necessary medication from a trusted source (before you even start your trip).
- When sick, don’t be afraid to ask other travelers and/or locals for help (I’ve been on both sides of this). You may not be in a state to make the best decisions for yourself. Oh, and I’m taking a break from Asia for now. While touring Northern Europe this summer, I’ll be preparing my body for the true test—India in October 2013!