Travelling can be the best teacher you’d get in life. You’re bound to learn a few good lessons on every journey, whether it’s a short-term business trip or a month-long backpacking sojourn. Sometimes, those lessons can be rather painful, as I have learnt from my travels.
Beat the heat – India
I was volunteering in India this past summer when a severe heat wave hit, with the highest temperature recorded since 1995. Thousands of people died from the heat and in some cities, even the roads were melting. One day, the temperature in Kolkata was about 44°C and unwisely, a friend and I chose that day to stroll around the city. We had been in Kolkata for a week by then, and had gotten used to the hot and humid climate – which, on any given day, feels like being inside a steamer.
Choose clothes made from breathable fabrics, wick away sweat fast, are loose-fitting and comfortable. Draping a thin shawl over your T-shirt is a good way to cover up to respect local customs without suffocating from the heat
We decided to walk to our destination in order to save some money on transportation. We then spent hours outdoors exploring the city, snacking on street food, and taking pictures. That evening, we paid the price: Both of us suffered from severe headaches and nausea, and were still in so much misery the next day that we could not make it to our volunteering stint. Clearly we’d over estimated our tolerance to the heat!
- Pack along sachets of oral rehydration salts (available at most pharmacies and drug stores). Mix it into your bottled mineral water and glug it throughout the day to stay hydrated.
- Plan your day ahead and check on the weather forecast for the temperature throughout the day. Avoid long, direct exposure to high heat; every now and then, find a shaded place to rest before continuing on your outdoor exploration.
- In India, women are expected to dress conservatively in most cities, with shoulders and knees covered. That can be a huge challenge in scorching weather. Choose clothes made from breathable fabrics, wick away sweat fast, are loose-fitting and comfortable. Draping a thin shawl over your T-shirt is a good way to cover up to respect local customs without suffocating from the heat, and act as a protection against the sun’s harmful rays.
- Sunburn affects your skin’s ability to cool itself, resulting in increased body temperature. As prevention, apply sunscreen on your face and body before going outdoors.
Don’t rumble and tumble – Myanmar
Being cursed with a sensitive stomach since I was young, I am unfortunately no stranger to diarrhoea and even more unluckily for me, it does happen often when I’m travelling. One of those episodes happened when I was in Nyaungshwe, a town in Myanmar’s Shan State. My travel mates and I had an amazing boat cruise on Inle Lake followed by lunch on a floating restaurant.
That evening, I started vomiting and had severe diarrhoea, as did two of my friends. I will never forget the intense abdominal cramps that came with it, and how weak I became due to dehydration. I was in such a sorry state that we had to extend our stay in Nyaungshwe for two additional days – during which all I could do was lie in bed and make frequent trips to the toilet.
As food borne illness is one of the most common maladies that affect travellers in Southeast Asia, always bring along medications for diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach discomfort on all your trips
A few days later, I met a friend in Yangon, who hails from the Shan State and told her about my experience in Nyaungshwe. According to her, I’d most probably gotten it from the lunch at the floating restaurant, where it’s common to use the untreated (and probably contaminated) lake water to prepare food.
- Make sure to drink only purified water when in Myanmar. The safer option is to go for bottled water – check that the seal on the bottle is intact, to avoid drinking contaminated or re-bottled water. Avoid ice if possible, especially when you aren’t sure of the source of the water.
- As food borne illness is one of the most common maladies that affect travellers in Southeast Asia, always bring along medications for diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach discomfort on all your trips. Ideally, bring brands that you have taken before and know for sure your body does not have any adverse reaction to. Trying out a new medication while travelling is never a good idea!
- It is not recommended to purchase medication over the counter in Myanmar as counterfeit and substandard drugs are fairly common.
- Healthcare infrastructure in Myanmar is quite disappointing, and local hospitals should only be considered if your condition cannot be self-treated by the medications you carry. Keep your embassy and insurance company contact information with you at all times.
Eat, drink, and be wary – China
It was the eve of Chinese New Year, in 2012, and I was on my first backpacking trip to China. I was on my way to Yuanyang County in the Yunnan Province, which is famous for it’s mesmerising terraced paddy fields, and arrived just before the reunion dinner at the guesthouse I had booked to stay in. It’s owned by a local Chinese family, and they had put out an elaborate spread of homecooked festive dishes along with the infamous baijiu (Chinese rice liquor), which had an alcoholic content of around 60%.
The host family was extremely hospitable and constantly made sure I was well fed. I think I must have polished off at least half a bottle of baijiu that evening. I certainly didn’t have trouble sleeping, but woke up in the middle of the night and threw up my entire dinner. The next day, I had a burning sensation in the stomach that lasted all day. It was truly the worse hangover I had ever had in my life.
Due to its high tax and increasing demand, alcohol is frequently counterfeited in China. If you come across a ridiculously cheap booze at a bar in China and think that you’ve gotten yourself a bargain, think again!
As we were in the mountains, there was no pharmacy or medical facilities in the vicinity. I had to depend on herbal pills provided by the family. I had booked to stay for only one night, but seeing that I was in no condition to travel, they extended my stay so that I could rest for one more day – and had to cancel another guest’s booking in order to make room for me.
- It’s easy to get carried away partying and drinking while travelling as you’re caught up in that carefree holiday mood. Know your limits, and if it’s a liquor you have never tried before, you need to lower those limits.
- Due to its high tax and increasing demand, alcohol is frequently counterfeited in China. While some of the fake alcohol is merely a rebottled inferior version, a large number of it is made of industrial chemicals, such as antiseptic rubbing alcohol, which can lead to high levels of intoxication and even fatality when consumed. It’s best to stay away from unknown brands and stop consuming if the taste is off, especially when it leads to an unusual burning sensation. If you come across a ridiculously cheap booze at a bar in China and think that you’ve gotten yourself a bargain, think again!
- The emergency number to dial in China is 120. Locals usually go to public hospitals to seek treatment when needed, Western clinics are only available in major cities. English is not widely spoken so if you don’t speak Chinese, ask your hotel to help provide an interpreter.
Before you leave on your trip, find out what medical help is available at your intended destination – especially in relation to vaccine, medical services, and travel insurance, especially if you’ll be on the road for an extended period of time or will be involved in a lot of outdoor activities. It’s also a good idea to do a health check up prior to your trip and avoid activities that may aggravate existing conditions. Last but not least, pack along a medical kit as well as your regular medication, or the ones you think you may need. There’s nothing like falling sick while travelling that makes you appreciate the saying ‘health is wealth’.
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