We all have heard of Bali Belly before – when food is not prepared fresh or in clean conditions you can become quite sick quite quickly in Southeast Asia. I can personally attest to that.
I spent a horrible day on a live-onboard boat in the Komodo National Park in Indonesia, hopelessly sick. I had partied the night before and felt terribly dehydrated and hungover but this was something that I could deal with as over the years I had become quite an expert.
But I had also caught some kind of tummy bug which left me with terrible diarrhoea, shivers and the overall feeling of not being well at all. With no flushing toilet on board you can imagine that this was really hard to manage. To top it off, I was on my period. You will probably agree that the Komodo National Park didn’t feel like paradise at all at that stage.
So when I returned to Indonesia in 2016 I wanted to make sure I would do everything humanly possible to avoid this kind of drama the second time around. Because after all, how can you focus on a destination if you feel like the living dead? To come more prepared this time I went to our local pharmacy for some advice and to buy all the things that a smart traveller to Southeast Asia should always have in their luggage.
Did it work, I hear you say. My answer is, I never felt better.
Let me share with you what I packed on my last trip to Indonesia to avoid common travellers’ health problems.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, so use this as a guide only and ask a pharmacist or doctor for professional advice.
Probiotics are basically intestine bacteria that help you digest food. If your immune system is out of whack and you are under attack by other more harmful bacteria then these little guys really struggle to digest your food properly – resulting in constipations, diarrhoea, bloating and many more uncomfortable symptoms.
My pharmacist advised me to start with a course of antibiotics well before my trip to help build up a strong wall of defence in my guts, so to speak. And then to continue to take probiotics while on the road.
The only thing to be mindful of is that many probiotic products require cooler temperatures or even refrigeration – something that is impossible to achieve when travelling in Southeast Asia. But there are some brands that will last in a hotter climate – your pharmacist will be able to advise.
When you party a lot, sweat a lot or have diarrhoea, you lose a lot of fluids and with it important electrolytes. If you have travelled in a tropical climate before you may have noticed that towards the end of the day you can feel a bit more lightheaded, tired and sluggish than usual. Often you also get splitting headaches. This is because you are running low on electrolytes which are incredibly important for your metabolism.
Electrolytes can be easily replaced with a variety of products. I found dissolving tablets the best option. I just popped one tablet into my glass of water in the morning at breakfast, or in a water bottle that I would carry around with me and I made sure I emptied that as swiftly as possible.
The taste is, well, disputable, but considering how beneficial this is for your overall well-being you can easily get over the mix of fake fruit and slightly salty flavour. Speaking from my own experience, I felt much stronger throughout the day after having tried a electrolyte supplement in Indonesia this year.
It is very unlikely that the mosquitoes will do you any harm when you are travelling in Bali and other places of Southeast Asia. But dengue fever is indeed present in many parts of the region, and so is malaria. And you don’t want to expose yourself too much to the risk of these diseases if you can somehow avoid it.
Trust me, a mozzie bite is suddenly far more than just a nuisance when it means the potential for a life threatening disease.
When you visit your local drug store or pharmacy have a good chat to the staff. Some products are just not strong enough to repel these little buggers effectively. In Raja Ampat I was so riddled with bites that I had to give up on the product that I brought with me from Australia in favour of something that I got at the front desk of the resort.
The hotel’s insect repellent was a cream, much like a sunscreen, so not a spray and not a roll-on, and surprisingly it worked a treat!
Another tip I can share with you is to wear clothes in the evenings that cover your body. I had a pair of light cotton pants with me that covered my whole leg, a great way to keep the critters at bay.
In particular if you hail from sun starved countries you will be prone to underestimating the Southeast Asian sun. You may even feel you need to catch up on a tan, purposely throwing yourself into the warmth of the UV rays. But be warned.
The sun in Southeast Asia is strong. It is indeed so strong it burned all of us to a crisp one sunny afternoon on a boat even though we had all applied sun blocker. Considering the mix of people in my group it really showed that no matter what skin colour, it is very easy to get a nasty sunburn.
Do make sure you buy the best one out there, 30+ might not cut it, and reapply it throughout the day rigorously.
Sun blocker is like a film on your skin and it will rub off with your movements and your clothes, sweats, towels, and of course in the water. A sunburn is a nuisance, but it can lead to melanoma later down the track. And even though you might be young and you feel invincible, it can be a quick and silent killer even when you are under 30.
A hat is not just fashion accessory, it is also vital to keep your brain from cooking. Trust me, I have had mild sun stroke multiple times in my life and it’s not fun at all. It makes you feel nauseous and slightly sick, and you have a day or two in your holidays that you just don’t feel like yourself. It’s best to avoid that.
A hat can do wonders in keeping your head cool. If you pick the right design you can also benefit from added shade to your face, eyes and neck – something that you shouldn’t underestimate. But if you are planning on travelling around maybe go with a lightweight, flexible and washable variety rather than the fashionable straw sunhat – just an idea!
Sunglasses are not just fashion items they are also important to protect your eyes from damaging UV rays. Yes, you can actually get eye cancer when the rays of the sun destroy DNA in your eye.
From my understanding you don’t need to spend big bucks on a pair of sunglasses. The idea is to have tint in your glasses, the darker the better. Pink glasses will do you no good but black glasses, no matter how cheap, will help protect your eyesight in the long run.
Ideally, you would want to pick sunglasses that cover your eyes also to the sides, because how much use are glasses when the sun still sneaks into your eye from the sides? You get the idea.
When you are in shorts and t-shirt or swimwear all day it is very easy to get small cuts and abrasions to your skin. You don’t even have to be very adventurous like me, climbing the razor sharp coral islands of Raja Ampat, to break the protective barrier of your skin. A snorkel adventure close to submerged corals are the most common way how you can get hurt this way.
Now, a cut it not the big issue. Usually your immune system will be able to cope with this quite easily. But hygienic conditions can be less than ideal at times in Southeast Asia, and this is where the trouble might begin. Also think about how many bacteria might live in the water that you want to swim in – it may look like paradise but there are many micro-biotic dangers out there that just wait for the opportunity to evade your body through a minor cut.
Sounds dramatic but many travellers to tropical countries can tell you horrible stories about how wounds became infected and wouldn’t heal, with burning inflammation and downright sickness a result of the bacterial infection.
Needless to say, the humidity in these countries doesn’t help the healing process either. Antiseptic cream is therefore a must-have item on your packing list which you need to reapply religiously when you do notice a break in your skin, and seek medical advice immediately when the area becomes inflamed.
Coincidentally, antiseptic cream can also speed up the healing process of sunburn and helps with insect bites, so it’s a definitely a good thing to have in your luggage.
Disinfectant hand wash
The toilet situation in Southeast Asia can be a real pain, in particular when you are a female traveller. If you don’t want to eat with the same hands that you just used to scoop water from a bucket to flush the squatting toilet, to make sure you always carry a small bottle of disinfectant with you.
Painkiller and fever
I think this is a no-brainer. Make sure you take some meds of your choice with you that help with pain and fever.
You might be surprised to know that in Southeast Asian pharmacies you very often get handed over single tablets that the pharmacist cuts from the tray with a pair of scissors.
No real instructions, no way of reliably knowing the doses, no information on side-effects.
Take whatever you regularly use with you, so that you are familiar with the effects and can raise the alarm if your body suddenly reacts differently to a medication.
Tampons, condoms and anti-baby pill
Tampons are not widely used in Southeast Asia, so if you usually use tampons and don’t want to go without while travelling do make sure you keep a stash in your luggage.
I would suggest you even pack these though you are not due as travel can sometime create havoc with your hormones and you might get a nasty surprise that you wouldn’t otherwise be prepared for.
The same goes for condoms and anti-baby pills.
If you want to read more about health risks for travellers in Southeast Asia have a look at this very useful link: http://www.smarttravelasia.com/Health.htm