5 Tips for Surviving Sickness in Cambodia

May 30, 2014
5 Tips for Surviving Sickness in Cambodia

If you’re planning a journey to Cambodia or Southeast Asia in general, you’ve probably heard all of the tips: don’t eat street food and fresh fruit or veggies, never brush your teeth with tap water, always order your drinks without ice, and never get bitten by a mozzie.  If you ask me, that’s fine if you’re only going for a week or two and don’t want to lose any time dealing with sickness in Cambodia.

Or on the toilet. But as they say, if you’re here for any length of time, you will get sick, no matter how wide a berth you give street food—which, by the way, is just way too good to be avoided and a big part of my experience here.

So while I’m not tempted to drink tap water, those delicious lightly pickled veggies that stand around outside all day to be put on top of your bai sach chrouk (BBQ pork and rice) are just impossible to skip! And “sour fruit” (read: unripe) served with chili and salt probably isn’t the best treatment for a cotton-wooled western stomach, but how could one stay away from chili-salted pineapple fresh from a street vendor?

By now I’m pretty much used to it (religiously downing probiotic yogurt drinks), but in the beginning I spent quite a few sweaty nights alternating between bed and toilet, imagining all of the possible diseases I could have caught.

So I do get sick here quite a bit — although I’m telling myself that it’s just great boot camp training for my immune system. And if it’s not a heat rash or mysterious insect bites, it probably involves a sinisterly grumbling stomach that wipes out all thoughts in my head only to pop up with a shining image of a toilet.

By now I’m pretty much used to it (religiously downing probiotic yogurt drinks), but in the beginning I spent quite a few sweaty nights alternating between bed and toilet, imagining all of the possible diseases I could have caught. I made friends with the bum gun, too.

So here are the things I’ve learned that have helped me survive so far:

5 Tips for Surviving Sickness in Cambodia

1. Whatever you do, stay calm.

It’s easy to panic when you’re sweating out your trillion degree fever light years away from home and getting the chills from the dusty greetings of the underworld that the fan is blowing at you, while your head and limbs feel like they’re slowly dissolving into pain. I know, I know…

Luckily our bodies are stronger than we often think they are! A positive mindset can make all the difference. Try to stay positive; e.g. many expats see diarrhea as a good and cheap way to lose weight and detox. I see it as immune system training that will allow me eat even more delicious street food.

Guided meditations help me a lot and you can listen to them half asleep, even if you’re too exhausted to focus on anything. There are quite a few on YouTube. I also have a few ready on my mobile just in case I need it when I don’t have internet.

2. Drink lots of water.

I know, your mum told you that already, but she’s right! My partner went to the hospital because he got diarrhea, and towards the end of the day, he felt like he was dying. My internet research of diseases in Southeast Asia stated that he surely must have come down with dengue (“breakbone”) fever.

At the hospital, he ended up paying $300 to have three liters of fluid pumped into him intravenously over the next few hours, which made him feel better instantly. No dengue, just severe dehydration from the diarrhea. So down that bottle of water instead. Consider getting some electrolyte powder, too. There’s a brand here called “Royal D,” which most pharmacies and many of the corner stores sell.

Here’s one more thing I take from that experience: get travel insurance. It just feels extremely uncomfortable to haggle over treatments and figure out which ones you need and/or can afford while in pain.

3. Know that you’re probably going to be alright within three days.

I know this one might be controversial and by all means, I’m not discouraging anyone from seeing the doctor! But if you don’t have easy access to a doctor or don’t want to leave your house sick late at night, this might be a calming thing to know.

It looks like pretty much all diseases in Southeast Asia, from travel diarrhea to malaria start off with roughly the same symptoms, diarrhea, fever, vomiting, headache, etc. The western doctor at the hospital told us that many of those tropical diseases can’t even be diagnosed in a lab test before three days have passed. And most cases of travel diarrhea (and the chances are good that that is all you have) actually get better after a few days.

So when I get sick now, I usually just stay in bed and see if it gets better before I start to worry about what potentially fatal disease I could have caught over here.

4. Let your body do its work.

Here’s the good news: if you have fever or diarrhea, it means your body is doing its work to get rid of whatever is afflicting you. If you take pills to stop diarrhea, the bacteria or whatever caused it will just stay in your system for longer. So don’t suppress it unless you absolutely have to, e.g. for a bus journey that you can’t postpone. I even drink some grape or prune juice to induce it if my stomach feels like it’s in trouble.

The same is true for (low-grade) fever: it’s a natural defense against viruses and bacteria. So even though it can feel alarming, I usually just stay in bed, drinking plenty of water and getting lots of sleep.

5. Take responsibility for your own health.

In the West, we’re very used to going to the doctor when we get sick and completely trusting their word. Things here work a bit differently. Due to corruption, pretty much anyone can open a medical practice and even if they have some sort of degree, it’s possible that they just paid “tea money” to get it. Trusting a local doctor is generally not a good idea!

There are however locals who have trained in the west and western doctors here, but their prices are pretty much the same as back home. And apparently no one has any equipment to treat anything serious, so you’d be flown out to Bangkok or Singapore in that case. Also, there are no prescriptions for medicines here—you can get everything over the counter, from a $12 pack of birth control pills to $2 Diazepham (Valium) at a convenience store.

I think in a country like Cambodia, you just have to take some responsibility for your health. You do, as well, in the West but it may not be as obvious there and it just feels better to have a some understanding of what could be going on when you’re sick.

On the other hand, apparently a lot of the drugs sold here are counterfeit or substandard. I haven’t had any troubles yet and having my own opinion about the pharma-industry, I’m taking that information with a grain of salt. But whichever way you view it, it can get very confusing over here.

I’m doing a lot of reading to figure out if I would be better off taking Ibuprofen or Paracetamol, which type of birth control pill I should get since the one I usually use isn’t available, and which diseases and symptoms and treatments and home remedies are present.

I think in a country like Cambodia, you just have to take some responsibility for your health. You do, as well, in the West but it may not be as obvious there and it just feels better to have a some understanding of what could be going on when you’re sick. If you’re reading too much and feel a panicky feeling coming up, just go back to step #1.


5 Tips for Surviving Sickness in Cambodia

Related Reading

Have you traveled to Cambodia? Have you experienced sickness in Cambodia? Email us at [email protected] for information about sharing your experience and advice with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you. 5 Tips for Surviving Sickness in Cambodia.

About Tina Reymann

Tina caught the travel bug when she moved from Germany to Australia some years ago and is now a digital nomad aspiring to travel the world. She can be found either building websites wherever there is WiFi and good coffee or running around with a bulky camera around the neck chasing photo opportunities on her knees.  Read more about her travels on her blog, Gypsy Spirit.

4 thoughts on “5 Tips for Surviving Sickness in Cambodia

  1. August 4, 2017

    Great advice! I went to Cambodia awhile ago and got super sick… maybe amoebic dysentery. Not sure. Anyway, I wish I would have taken better care of my health while there. Hope you don’t mind but I included your blog on my own about travel horror stories 🙂

    Tam @ http://freshcoffeestains.com/travel-horror-stories/

  2. officialtravelnews
    April 3, 2016

    Your liquid poop won’t kill you, don’t make a drama !

  3. Patricia
    July 30, 2015

    Thank you for this article!! It’s exactly what I needed to here. We’re two backpackers and my friend is now sick for the second time, and it can make you worry and frustrate you. I’ve been reading tips on not getting sick for an hour, and I can’t get anything useful. Even fried rice comes with raw veggies sometimes, and food street just looks so good. Sometimes it’s so hard to follow all the safety tips, you wouldn’t be able to eat anything. So..staying calm, thinking about the positives and not getting anxious about what potential horrible diseases you might have is the best advice I’ve come accross

  4. Flo
    June 23, 2015

    Hey Tina! I just want to leave u a huge thank you!!! I’ve been in bed all day with a serious case of “thinking im gonna die” sickness, like the one u just described and you really made me feel better. Im just gonna relax and wait 3 days… And then start to panic! ???? thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *