Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Staying Healthy In Thailand

A roadside eatery outside of Bangkok

On April 27th we took a look at things you might try to stay healthy while being hurtled through the air in an aluminum tube at 500 miles per hour, 30,000 feet above the surface of terra firma. Today is a follow-up to that: making an effort to stay healthy once you’ve reached your destination – Thailand, Tierra del Fuego or wherever. Please take all of this as just advisory and not something to sour you on the idea of enjoying yourself in Thailand. Take what you want of it and leave the rest!

You can’t avoid all exposure, naturally, but you can do things to keep your immune system stronger and help your body fight off the germs and viruses you'll be faced with: keep your hands clean, stay hydrated, take vitamin supplements if you wish and stay rested. By “rested” I mean having a somewhat normally-scheduled night’s sleep, not staying up most of the night and then catching naps on the beach during the day. I know, I know… that's easier said than done when we’re on holiday and don’t want to “miss out.”

Keeping your hands clean can be difficult while out for the day. Many hong nam (toilets) you’ll encounter away from your room will have no more than spigots for water, and soap is uncommon. Paper towels are as rare as hen’s teeth. I strongly recommend carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer along with you and using it throughout the day – especially before eating here, a land where food is frequently eaten with the fingers. The other day I saw towelettes in individual packets about 2” square for sale here in the US, and those would be ideal. Most any time I see soap and water anywhere I stop and give my hands a good cleansing. To their credit, many BTS stations have a pump bottle of waterless handwash on a table just inside the paid passenger gates.

I know this next suggestion is going to sound like overkill to a lot of you, but follow the logic and hear me out before you scroll past it: I do a minor amount of sanitation to my room when I check in.

As I already mentioned in the health post about flying I’m not a “germophobe” but I’ve taken to grabbing about 10 of those disinfectant pop-up wet paper towels, folding them into something the size of a playing card and putting the stack of folded wet-naps into a baggie that I put into my carry on. I carry a dozen or so in another baggie in my checked luggage. Most people have read how seldom bedspreads are cleaned, and I’d bet you most of the items you regularly handle in your hotel room are dirtier. I’m talking about the remote for the TV, the room phone handset (and mouthpiece), the radio/alarm if there is one, the buttons on the TV set itself and the door handles. Have you ever known housekeeping anywhere to clean any of those? I didn’t think so. It takes two minutes of time and gives me peace of mind.

I shared my dehydration story back on March 24th (“You’re A Couple Quarts Low There, Buddy”) and can still assure you it’s not the way to toss away a day or two of precious vacation time. With so many convenience stores in Thailand it’s foolish not to have a few liters of water in your room, at the very least. Most hotels provide a couple of small bottles per day for free. Drink them. While you’re out, take advantage of safe drinking water more often – probably more often than you would back home.

What’s “safe” drinking water? Good question. Bottled water, naturally, but I mean from the bottle, because you always have to weigh the wisdom of ice in a glass. That sounds silly to some of you, but here’s the logic behind it: ice in your hotel or in a restaurant is more than likely just fine (the hollow cylindrical ice cubes you’ll often see, for example) but common crushed ice can be made with questionable water and I avoid it at street-side carts and eateries, as a rule. I had a friend point out that while the ice itself may have been fine when it was put into the ice chest for the day, the produce and fresh herbs kept in it in the same container may not have been rinsed off well (if at all) and therefore made the ice “iffy”.

Dish washing by hand: the norm at many eateries

It’s also wise to be aware of the plates and bowls at most local Thai eateries, especially outdoor places and food carts. As you can see, dishwashing there – while done in good faith – isn’t quite what you’d expect back home. It’s no big deal for the locals; they’ve grown up with the local germs...we haven’t. What’s fine for the locals can become a race for the Imodium to a farang. You can’t be too paranoid or you’ll starve (or try to subsist on a diet of sealed items from 7-11) but use the brains you were born with.

Hot dogs at a Bangkok 7-11. Just as dodgy there as anywhere else!

Street snacks and food are a topic for another day, but here’s a couple of quick tips: look to see where the locals are eating (a form of “safety in numbers”), eat fresh fruit and vegetables if you can rinse them in safe water and/or peel them yourself and have anything cooked or BBQed cooked thoroughly.

You can’t avoid everything, but you can be aware and eliminate many exposures – and it’s
all a numbers game, isn’t it?


Anonymous said...

good advice Khun.. I live in dread of volcanic diarrhea. So I always travel with spray disinfectant for the TV remote, the toilet flush handle, the toilet seat, the door knobs, the phone, etc. And now we have to start pulling the bed apart and checking for bedbugs. Travel aint what it used to be.

Donald said...

I have been very careful with my eating and drinking habits while on holiday. 3 bouts of food poisoning in Pattaya ranging from a 4 star hotel to my favorite little family restaurant. (not bad out of 18 trips)
On my last trip I noticed that the bottles of complimentary water in my room had a dodgy cap, easily removed and put back. Even though it was a pull tab, the sides themselves were easily put on. Anyone hear of a hotel just refilling the water bottles and recapping them? A sure money saver.
Personally, now I but mine at 7-11.

Was Once said...

In many trips to Thailand, a couple of things I learned to avoid is the hand dipped water glass out of the dirty "cooler," and cooked food lying around in the hot sun for a buyer. Easy to avoid by asking for bottled water and eating only fresh hot made things while you watch.
But I have been so lucky, just mild discomfort for a day not like the full food poisoning I have had twice in the US! I guess my body is used to the bacterias there, so I have no fear of street food rarely eating in established restaurants. Love the fish curry streamed in a leaf.