There are certain pharmaceutical and medical needs that travellers may have that are slightly awkward to satisfy — say, asking around Vientiane whether you can get the morning-after pill or miming to a pharmacist that you have intestinal worms. If you’re in Laos, here are a few helpful tips that will hopefully help you avoid any social discomfort and the expensive fees to see a doctor who will understand what symptoms you’re describing.
Be warned that there are several species of intestinal worms in Laos, acquired mostly through eating undercooked meat, especially pork. Initial symptoms can include a dry cough for a week or two, and after a few weeks, continual hunger coupled with weight-loss is a more reliable indication of worms; the clearest indicator are worms in your excrement — if you lucky, one may just wriggle right out of your backside. The good news is, there’s no need to panic. Worm medication, ya ka-DEUHK or ya pai-YAHT, is available at every pharmacy and it costs less than 10,000 kip. Often, there are no symptoms, but gone untreated, certain worms can grow up to several feet in your intestines and will require surgical removal. For anyone who’s been traveling in rural Southeast Asia for more than a month, it’s often recommended to take worm medication as a precaution, after you return from your trip.
While sanitary napkins are available everywhere, Lao women don’t use tampons and they are not available in most shops or pharmacies. They usually only sell the OB brand without an applicator and only up to regular absorption, although they occasionally have super. In Vientiane, you can buy them at the M-Point marts, Home Ideal, Simeuang Market (opposite the wat) and Pimphone market. They are also available in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Pakse, in select shops catering to tourists. In rural or less touristy areas, good luck finding them.
If you’re engaging in sex, whether with other travellers, or sex workers, always use a condom to protect against HIV. Some Asian brands of condoms are smaller than Western brands, so for optimal circulation, stick to Durex. They’re available at pharmacies, M-Point marts, supermarkets and some minimarts. Check the expiration date before buying them.
Some birth control pills are available at local pharmacies, but check which country they’ve been manufactured in. Medicine from China and Vietnam isn’t always laboratory grade and can be unreliable. The French clinic in Vientiane administers a variety of pills, but will not prescribe them without the 300,000 kip consultation fee.
Morning-after pills are available at some pharmacies, though again, check which country they’re from. The safest bet is to bring one from your home country, just in case. Pregnancy tests are available at every pharmacy for around 10,000 kip. In case of an unwanted pregnancy, be aware that abortions are illegal in Laos. Advice is available from Cabbages and Condoms in Bangkok.
If you fear that you’ve contracted an STI, a number of places offer testing in Vientiane, including the French clinic, which sends samples for testing in labs in Thailand. The quality and range of services are on par with Western standards, but they will take longer and cost more. Mahosot Hospital on the river offers HIV testing and a few other tests, quickly and at very cheap prices. While this hospital isn’t recommended for complicated procedures or expert medical advice, the blood tests are fine and the nurses will usually make a show of unwrapping the needles to reassure that they’re hygienic.
The Lao have a delightful sense of humor and will joke about most anything. Few things in life are taken seriously and people will most likely find a reason to poke fun at you. Poop, farts and sex are an endless source of amusement, so don’t be alarmed if people joke about your most intimate health problems. Laughter is an excellent cure for embarrassment.
By Ivana Lexa-French
Last updated on 16th January, 2013.