Travelfish tips on travel health & safety
First published 4th September, 2007
We know, reading tips on keeping healthy while you travel isn't the most exciting thing to do. But these tips will go a long way towards creating a safer and healthier holiday and are definitely worth a look for anyone preparing to travel in southeast Asia. Read on for advice on pre-departure preparation along with advice on what to do and how to behave in order to minimise the chance of problems during your holiday in Asia.
Before You Go
Depending on where you'll be visiting within the Travelfish Universe, you'll want to look into pre-trip vaccinations. For travel in southeast Asia, most experts recommend at least of Typhoid, Hepatitis A, Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio. You may also wish to consider shots for Japanese Encephalitis, Hepatitis B and Rabies. Be sure to consult with a travel doctor or travel clinic (as well as your own doctor for whatever specific needs you may have) to decide which vaccinations are the right fit for you and your itinerary.
You'll find useful info about vaccinations on the Travel Doctor website at http://www.traveldoctor.co.uk, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website at http://www.cdc.gov or the World Health Organisation (WHO) http://www.who.int/ith/.
Also before you go, you'll want to organise travel insurance to cover medical expenses should you get sick on your trip. Pay particular attention to the medical evacuation (medevac) clause in your policy, since this is what covers you should you need emergency medical transportation. If you get sick while on holiday, your travel insurance provider (and your embassy) can help you locate an appropriate medical facility and arrange medevac transportation if needed. Travelfish uses World Nomads for our travel insurance needs.
What to Bring
A little preparation goes a long way, and it is better to have these few things and wind up not needing them than to be caught without. Here are a few basic items everyone should carry:
A small first aid kit is a must and won't take up much space in your pack. Besides the standard plasters/band aids and antibiotic ointment, be sure to have a few days supply of a painkiller, loperamide (Imodium) for diarrhea, and bismuth subsalicylate or similar for an upset stomach. Be sure to keep these items on your person while on the bus, boat or plane too, since they won't do you any good stowed safely in your pack in the cargo hold when you need them.
Other essentials include a torch/flashlight, bug spray, sunscreen, a small bottle of hand sanitiser, and, if you think you might possibly need them, condoms. While you can buy any of these items locally at the many chemist shops, quality sometimes varies. With condoms, it is worth either bringing your own or buying a recognised brand as some locally-made "no name" brands are of inferior quality. Similarly, while the variety and quality of available feminine hygiene products is improving, women may wish to bring a supply of their favorite brand just in case a suitable substitute isn't readily available.
If you require specific or prescription medications, consider bringing enough to supply you for the entire trip. Generic replacements for many prescription medicines are available in Asia -- often at a fraction of the cost, but it comes down to a personal decision regarding taking generics over the "real deal". If you do opt for prescription meds from home, it's a good idea to carry them in the original packaging which shows exactly what the medication is and that it was prescribed to you by a doctor.
Using good sense
More than anything else, using good sense will help keep you safe and healthy on the road. The most essential thing, given the tropical climate, is to stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of purified bottled water. It is readily available everywhere. Many even opt to use purified bottled water while brushing their teeth.
Proper sanitation will also help reduce the risk of the most common traveler's illnesses, such as diarrhea. Use good judgment when selecting where to eat, particularly when buying food from street vendors, and wash your hands or use hand sanitiser often, including every time before you have a meal. It should be noted that medication for diarrhea (like loperamide mentioned above) won't actually "fix" your problem, rather it "slows everything down" -- so is only really for use before long trips or in cases where you've really lost control. If you're not doing any travelling, you're better off to bring your diet back to basics till your system settles down rather than pop a pill and keep cramming new food into your system.
Use sunscreen and wear sunglasses and a hat when necessary to protect yourself from the strong tropical sun. Eating a healthy, balanced diet, drinking alcohol in moderation (at least some of the time), and getting plenty of rest will help you feel better too, particularly on extended journeys.
Also, the #1 cause of injury to tourists in places like Thailand is motor scooter accidents. If you plan to hire a scooter, insist on a helmet for the passenger as well as the driver. Wear long pants and closed-toe shoes if possible while you ride to reduce potential injuries from a crash. For novice scooter drivers, you'll be better off trying out-of-the-way spots instead of the crowded and dangerous roads of Ko Samui and Chiang Mai.
Drinking till the final bell then riding home on your hired motorbike, helmetless, in sandals and shorts, is not inspired -- it's inane.
Other Safety Tips
While street crime is generally low in southeast Asia, there is petty crime that targets western tourists. Valuable items are often removed from packs stored in the cargo areas of buses, boats, etc., so keep your money, camera, and other valuables on your person while moving from place to place. Valuables are also often lifted right out of the baskets of your rented push bike or motor scooter while you ride, so it is best to put these items in your day pack and wear it on your back, or put them in a money belt secured safely underneath your shirt, rather than in the basket.
Good sense is also a must for avoiding street crime. This includes not being out alone at night if at all possible, not carrying excessive cash or valuables on your person, and using suitable caution when strangers suddenly befriend you on the street.
While violence is very rare, in situations of heated arguments, you should bear in mind the Asian concept of "face" and the importance of not being seen to "lose face". Humiliating locals can, in rare sitautions, bring about a disproportionataly violent response -- you're far better to walk away than drive your opinion home too sharply.
Carry a list of emergency contact numbers with you and fill out the emergency contact information section in your passport (if there is one). Make a photocopy of the personal information section of your passport and the visa page, and keep it separate from your passport. Leave a copy at home too. This makes getting a replacement much easier if your passport is lost or stolen. Consider registering with your country's embassy while you are in country, if they offer that service, so they'll know how to contact you in case of an emergency.
Scammers can be found in most tourist destinations around the globe, and Asia is no exception. The first and most important point is DON'T BUY GEMSTONES. There's all manner of scams revolving around convincing people to buy stones to smuggle home and see a grand profit. If it was so easy we'd be smuggling gems not running a travel website. See the Thai Gem Scam group website for more information. Other scams include card-playing scams (where you're invited to play cards and end up being cleaned out), being invited into "official TAT" agencies (where you pay through the nose for overpriced tours), being told a certain attraction is closed (so you can be shuffled off to a gem store, card game or travel agency) or being invited to drink with a bunch of complete strangers (where you'll be liberated from your money, sometimes by being drugged).
At the end of the day, use your common sense. If a complete stranger approached you in your home town and started chatting away about how they'd love to show you around town, how would you react?
It is important though to remember that only a miniscule minority of people are involved in scamming tourists, so use your judgement and don't let these warnings colour your reaction to all people you meet -- just use your common sense.
Despite what your mate in the local bar told you, drugs are not legal in Asia and if you're caught using illegal drugs you will very much regret it. Note the penalties for being in transit when caught are significantly higher than being sprung in your hammock (think trafficking Vs possession), so deciding to take the bag of pot you bought for 500B on Ko Chang back with you on the minibus to Bangkok is dumb -- really, extraordinarily stupid. Suggestions that you will be able to pay your way out of a sticky situation are often overstated and are certainly the exception -- not the rule. We know of numerous cases where travellers have been marched to an ATM by police after being caught with relatively small amounts of drugs and made to withdraw all the money they can -- in one case in excess of 200,000B after being caught at Ekamai bus station with a small bag of pot.
The most common health and safety question is what to do to protect against Malaria. For an excellent discussion on the pros and cons of taking anti-malarial drugs, as well as what to do to reduce the risk of Malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses, be sure to read the Travelfish feature article on Malaria in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
Have a safe, healthy and fun trip!
Story by Mark Foley
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