When you’re on the road, it can be easy to neglect your health. With plenty of cheap, delicious food, buckets of booze, and constant fun you will encounter all over Southeast Asia, your health can take a hit. That’s why it is important to manage your diet, be careful of certain scenarios with animals, and most importantly take care of your overall well-being.
No need to worry though, here we have seven essential tips for staying healthy while you’re on the road, no matter if you’re on a 2-week escapade from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, a month-long trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, or even a year sabbatical through the whole of Southeast Asia.
Make sure your jabs and medicines are up to date
You should always take the advice of your doctor and only regard other writings as opinions and lived experiences. That being said, our first and most important tip is to consult your doctor in regards to which injections and medications you must take before your trip begins. It will depend on the region you’re visiting and the length of your stay. Your doctor will also factor in your circumstances, such as allergies and prior injections, plus any other factors unique to you. Just because someone doesn’t need a particular jab before their trip, doesn’t mean the same applies to you, and vice versa.
In our experience, our home country of the UK provides free healthcare to all citizens, allowing most injections and tablets free to the point of use. However, some injections and medications advised by our doctor came at a cost. For example, the Japanese Encephalitis (JE) and Rabies injections weren’t free, as well as the copious amounts of Malaria tablets required for 30+ days of backpacking.
We found that these products and services were cheaper when we arrived in Southeast Asia. We received our JE in Bangkok, within 1 week of starting our Southeast Asian adventure. We stocked up on Malaria tablets at the start of our trip and bought more, as and when we needed them. As for the Rabies injection, we decided not to take it, relinquishing our ability to touch any fluffy feline or curious canine we may encounter. Which brings us nicely into our next tip for staying healthy in Southeast Asia: Animals.
Avoid the cuteness of animals
First of all, a rabies jab doesn’t give you immunity to go petting any dog off the street. If a dog infected with rabies happens to bite you, the injection you took allows you extra time to receive the treatment to cure the infection. Our second tip for a healthy travel experience in Southeast Asia is to avoid touching animals wherever possible.
You will most certainly hear objections to this tip from travelers who will say they spent years in Southeast Asia, touching, feeding and cuddling animals, and lived to tell the tale, but that doesn’t mean the unfortunate won’t happen.
One thing to consider when backpacking in the region is the sheer number of wild dogs that roam the streets. Thailand is a perfect example of this. These dogs may appear cute and as much as we love them ourselves, we hate to say that they’re not to be trusted. The same can be said for monkeys, commonly found in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia (Bali). Any effort to feed them or get close to their young may result in a defensive attack, like a bite or a scratch.
Ultimately, there’s no point tarnishing your holiday, ending up in a hospital and spending your savings on treatment, just to hand feed an animal a piece of fruit.
Street food safety
Our third tip for a healthy adventure is to be equally cautiously curious and curiously cautious when it comes to the local food you eat. Perhaps you’ve heard of Delhi belly. If not, it’s the phenomenon whereby travelers to India almost always encounter a spell of sickness from the food that’s on offer. Whether that’s due to being unaccustomed to the type of cuisine or poor hygiene, is up for debate.
Siem Riep sickness. Naypyitaw nausea. Palawan puking or Vientiane Vomiting. Whatever you want to call it, is alive and well. Avoiding a sick day whilst on your holiday should be on top of your to-do list.
Our first recommendation is to look out for signs of poor hygiene. Flies around the restaurant, garbage near the cooking area, or unclean surfaces should ring alarm bells in your head. You can seek out the best eateries and local dishes a location has to offer with websites such as TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet; which offer honest and in-depth reviews of restaurants, hotels, and attractions.
Having said that, the street food culture of Southeast Asia should be embraced with open arms. To start with, the food is prepared right in front of your eyes by locals who have been churning out the same single dish since before you were born. Don’t be put off by little plastic stools and rustic interiors. Other cultures value the food and customer service far greater than the crumbling walls and outdated furnishings.
Our next travel tip goes without saying but we’re going to saying anyway…water is such a vital tool for backpackers. For those not accustomed to the heat of Asia, the sun will sap all your energy as you’re exploring the beautiful vistas and bustling cities, so always stay hydrated and carry a bottle of water. Water is very affordable in the region, so fill your boots (not literally with water though).
Avoid drinking water from the tap in your hotel and restaurants. It’s clean enough to wash your face and body, but not to be consumed in large quantities. When it comes to brushing your teeth, don’t take the risk. Use bottled water to rinse and clean your toothbrush. Whilst we’re on the topic of toothbrushes, invest in a brush cover. You’d be surprised what likes to sleep on the bristles overnight. If your budget will allow it, invest in a steriPEN and a water bottle filter. It will kill bacteria and allow you to drink tap water with a clear conscience.
Avoid drinking alcohol too often
You may find on your travels across Southeast Asia that the alcohol is often cheaper than the water, and just as readily available. For example, in Hanoi, a glass of beer can be found for as little as 5,000 vnd ($0.22). That being the case, our next tip is to limit your alcohol intake.
By all means, embrace the drinking cultures of the area, but don’t get too carried away. Vietnam for example, has one of the most welcoming and friendly atmospheres, especially down the local watering holes. Bia Hoi (the local freshly barreled beer) is pub-style establishments scattered across all towns and cities. Pop in for a few beverages in the evening and perhaps you might experience the famous drinking chant being screamed out by the locals.
Just remember to make this a treat and not a nightly occurrence. Too much alcohol can take a toll on your health, give you a beer belly, and not to mention, may cause you to miss out on other fun activities such as exploring temples, shopping at the many markets, and taking trips to the beach or mountains.
Keeping fit at the gym
Backpacking is a great way to stay active and burn off some blubber; Long days exploring on foot, followed by long bus journeys to the next location, followed by long days exploring on foot…you get the picture.
However, a little extra exercise at the gym can make you feel so much better. There are plenty of gyms across Southeast Asia that allow drop-in services. Whilst the more modern ones, that boasts the latest equipment and air conditioning, require monthly contracts, local gyms allow drop-in sessions. For example, a drop-in session at a gym in Hanoi costs around 50,000 vnd ($2.16).
Alternatively, head on down to the park, where you can find free exercise equipment such as weights, bicycles and cardio machines. Sometimes you may even find there is a yoga or dance class taking place too. Failing that, you can always rent a bicycle for the day. After all, a cycle is way better for your health than sitting on a bus or in a taxi.
Keep your mental health in check
Last but by no means least, is your mental health. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Our final health tip for surviving Southeast Asia involves being positive, happy and social.
If you’re traveling for a lengthy period away from your loved ones, you may begin to feel homesick, which can be enough to make anyone feel low. Make sure to stay in contact with your friends and family back at home. With technology such as Facebook messenger and Skype, you can be reconnected with your loved ones at the click of a finger.
If you’re a solo backpacker, the daunting aspect of loneliness may be on your mind more so than the adventure in front of you. If that’s the case, you can seek out fellow like-minded travelers online. Social media is a great tool to connect with people whilst on the road. Facebook groups such as backpacking Southeast Asia and apps such as Couchsurfing make meeting people super simple. Moreover, we recommend staying in hostels to meet other solo travelers. Despite us being a couple, we often stay in hostels for the same reason. It’s great to connect with people from around the world you otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to if you remain in your little couple bubble.
On the other hand, backpacking can be very hectic. With so much to see within a set amount of time, it can lead most people into a rigorous and fast-paced itinerary. It’s important not to burn yourself out mentally. Don’t feel pressured into taking part in everything. Have a day or two to focus on your health and wellbeing; read a book, go for a walk by yourself, treat yourself to a spa day, do whatever makes you feel happy!
All in all, our most important tip is to have fun on your Southeast Asia adventure. Take in the sights, chow down the food, and engage in activities that tickle your fancy. Just make sure to take precautions to keep your health in check, both physically and mentally. Use your common sense when it comes to food and water and remember to leave those cute animals alone.