Backpacking Southeast Asia is an amazing experience! There are so many wonderful places to see and things to do. However, Southeast Asia is a world of its own that poses a lot of various health issues for backpackers. After nearly a year of backpacking Southeast Asia, the following are some common health issues you may encounter with recommendations to prevent complications. While some on the list or a bit more serious than others, they are all quite relevant!
Motorbike accident injuries
This first one will come as no surprise to anybody who’s ever been backpacking in Southeast Asia. Motorbike accidents happen so frequently that the individual scars left from falling off a motorbike have been coined “the Thailand tattoo.” The Thailand tattoo can also refer to the burn mark inflicted from mindlessly pressing your leg against the motorbike exhaust pipe.
Tip: The exhaust is on the right side of the motorbike so don’t press your leg up on the right side when getting off. Also, when getting off from the left don’t push your left leg on the right side of someone’s else’s parked bike. A lot of people won’t admit it but that’s how they get their burns!
Motorbike accidents are very common in Thailand specifically, due to the motorbike accessibility to tourists, subpar road conditions, and the lack of motorbike driving experience of tourists. Not to mention unfamiliarity with driving on the left side of the road!
Many people will fall off of a motorbikes at some point and get minor skin wounds. It is common to see people all over Thailand with white dressings wrapped so thick that sometimes they look like casts. Many of these travelers have a happy-go-lucky attitude, realizing how much worse it could be and seeing their injuries as a bump in the road (literally).
The standard protocol is simple for these minor wounds. It involves going to a hospital and having the wounds cleaned and dressed. Hospitals will often ask that you come back for as long as a week after the initial procedure so that they can continue to clean and dress the wound. Some people do and some people choose to dress their wounds themselves with iodine and gauze, which is very doable (and cheap!).
Broken bones and sprains are not quite as lucky and easy to brush off as the “the Thailand tattoo” or the “the Vietnam tattoo” for that matter. Motorbike accidents are very common in Vietnam as well, although “Thailand tattoo” has a much nicer ring. These injuries require more medical attention, healing time, and sometimes an unfortunate sudden stop to your holiday and or backpacking trip. The risk of riding a motorbike is always there and everyone who gets on one must fully understand and accept it.
2.) Food poisoning/Traveler’s Diarrhea
Ahh, food poisoning. If you went backpacking in Southeast Asia and you didn’t get some kind of digestive disturbance, then you really haven’t lived. Just kidding, but really where did you go? Singapore?
Traveler’s diarrhea is widespread in Southeast Asia. There are varying degrees of food poisoning. Sometimes extreme symptoms last for shorter time periods and other times milder symptoms can last for several weeks.
For example, specifically in Laos where the Mekong River flows through the length of the country, many travelers get mild symptoms throughout the duration of their stay. Depending on location, the Mekong River plays a role in this since a lot of Laos food is cooked with unfiltered river water.
Regardless of symptom duration, you should seek medical attention if you are not feeling well. Especially if the extreme symptoms do not clear up on their own in a day or if your ability to eat is affected. If your stomach doesn’t clear on its own, doctors or pharmacists will recommend antibiotics, which will help get you sorted.
To reduce the likelihood of getting food poisoning some backpackers will avoid street food at all costs. In my opinion, this is kind of unnecessary and unfortunate. However, don’t ever eat raw street food meat. This may sound like common sense but some vendors will have raw meat sitting out that is cooked in front of you when you order. Don’t ever eat this meat, especially not the chicken because of how bacteria-prone chicken is.
3.) Dog Bites
The amount of street dogs in Southeast Asia varies from country to country and city to city. Thailand has a LOT! Some of the dogs will be in better condition than others. In some places, like Pai, the dogs will even go out with you at night and follow you to the bars. Even the most rabies-conscious backpackers will let their guard down to pet a dog at some point. Or, maybe to pet dozens of dogs.
However, there is a time and place for everything. Just like some of the dogs will be in better condition physically, some will have better temperaments! Because if you weren’t nervous about rabies before, a dog bite that breaks the skin from a homeless, aggressive dog will surely change that. At the very least, it will not be a nice experience. Play it safe and don’t touch dogs until you understand their temperaments. Remember that unfortunately, many of the dogs are not used to the love that people shower on them back home and will see you as a threat.
4.) Monkey bites and scratches
While backpacking in Southeast Asia, you will likely be excited about your first monkey sighting! Then after the tenth time that excitement will wane but the danger of the monkeys attacking you will still be there. A little dramatic, I know, but to be fair I am quite scared of monkeys.
Monkeys can be found all over Southeast Asia! Whether you are in the islands, exploring the beautiful Angkor Wat temples of Cambodia, or hanging out in Kuala Lumpur, you can see them everywhere.
Again, I don’t like them and never felt a desire to get too close. I have heard many accounts of people getting chased by monkeys and have seen a woman get bitten in Koh Phi Phi first hand. Eye contact is a big no-no. Monkeys can take eye contact as a challenge of aggression, which I’m pretty sure if not how you will mean it.
Bottom line, don’t get too close, not even for the ‘Gram. If a dog bite doesn’t stir a rabies scare, a monkey bite or scratch will!
5.) Infected wounds
Wounds and cuts can be acquired in a wide assortment of ways, some of which will make for better stories than others. So whether the wounds are from your motorbike accident or clumsily falling in the street, (both of which I have done!), avoid the possibility of infection.
The humid climate of Southeast Asia makes for a super fun environment for bacteria of all kinds. I always grew up hearing how salt water was good for cuts and while that may be true in some climates, it is not a good idea in Southeast Asia. Do not get ocean water, sand, or anything else in your wounds.
It would be crazy to expect you to not swim/snorkel/or scuba diving in a perfect island paradise, because of a little cut. However, submerging wounds in water will definitely delay scabbing. Keep the iodine flowing and clean your wound multiple times a day and chances are you will be fine.
If a wound does get infected, the wound can become painful or the body part the wound is on can start swelling. This is not a good sign. Any infected wound can turn into a serious health problem and ruin your holiday so while you shouldn’t miss out on all the fun things because of it, you also shouldn’t neglect it.
6.) Dengue fever
Dengue fever, luckily, is not that common compared to the others on this list. I have met a few people who have had it. It doesn’t sound like a good time. Dengue fever comes in a few different strains, some of which are more serious than others.
Dengue symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, and body aches will be hard to ignore. In more extreme cases, blood will drip from your eyes like in a horror movie. Even after recovery, Dengue can wreak havoc on your body. I met a girl who had dengue fever and said her athletic performance was affected nearly eight months after she recovered.
Luckily, the vast majority of backpackers will not get Dengue. The people I have met who experienced dengue were all in Asia for significant amounts of time. To be safe make sure you always wear mosquito repellent. Dengue infestation is not limited to rural areas either, it can be present in Southeast Asia’s cities such as Bangkok and Singapore. So don’t forget the mosquito repellent in whether you’re in the country or city.
7.) Bug Bites Galore
I can not tell you how many different types of bug bites I have had in the past 10 months. The diversity in shapes, colors, and patterns is almost kind of impressive if it wasn’t so gross. Those bug bites will forever remain a disturbing mystery. However, the following bug bites are common and easy to identify (not to mention itchy!):
Chances are you will have bed bugs in your hostel, homestay, or hotel at least once in Southeast Asia. Everyone knows what bed bugs are. They are gross but harmless and the bites go away pretty quickly. Take time to look through the reviews for your hostel, hotel, or homestay.
Sand flies are common in some beaches such as those in Cambodia’s Koh Rong Islands. Sand fly bites are similar in appearance to bed bug bites but they appear in prolific clusters. You won’t notice when they’re biting you because of how tiny they are. Later, you will be surprised with an itchy, gross rash. There can be complications for some sensitive people so antibiotic ointment is a nice touch especially if you are a scratcher.
Okay, sea lice are technically not lice or bugs. They are actually jellyfish larvae. While swimming in the ocean you may feel strange, subtle burning or pinching sensations. It won’t be enough to be painful but just enough to cast doubt in your mind about being in the water. Later, you will see a rash, likely underneath your bathing suit, where they got trapped. Very sexy! Luckily, the rash clears up pretty easily on its own.
This is my full and extensive list of the most common health conditions while backpacking Southeast Asia. There’s only a few on this list that I have not experienced first hand! All I can say is that my appreciation for iodine and antibiotics sure has grown.
While some people may think getting injured or sick while backpacking is bad luck, it’s actually extremely common. The longer you travel, the more you realize this. Most travelers will not let a little health problem here and there ruin their trip. However, this also means taking proper care of yourself if something does happen.
We all know you don’t really need a lot when backpacking, but health is one thing that always comes in handy. Take comfort in the existence of travel insurance and the fact that Southeast Asia has well-stocked pharmacies. Also, check out Lonely Planet’s comprehensive health guide here.