What happens when you get food poisoning in Asia?

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ July 18th, 2011. Updated on July 19th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » How to guides ... » Thailand.
Squat toilet in Thailand

Your best friend in Asia if you get the ...

What’s it like to have food poisoning in Asia?

There’s a difference between “food poisoning” and “travelers diarrhea”. Quite a large one in my book. Yet the two ailments are often merged for sympathy’s sake when traveling.

I myself have succumb to both. Travelers diarrhea is nothing new, and rarely gets me motivated to tell a soul. Food poisoning on the other had is a different game which can bring even the strongest to their knees.

And, yes, last week I disobeyed my own best advice and bit into something I knew would cause a problem.

The number one food to avoid in Asia to keep from getting sick.

“Meat pastries”

— Warning: if you don’t like to read about graphic stomach purging of a travelers nature, don’t read on

Avoiding breakfast is better than eating something bad …

It was 5.30am and Thailand, like many Asian countries, starts to come alive when the sun appears. If you’ve been reading along here recently, then you’ll know I may be one of the few souls on the planet that doesn’t think the world of Thai food.

Chicken pie in Thailand

The culprit ... handle with care

This is especially true at breakfast time. Waiting for a 6.am train, I looked around. I figured there’d be nothing available on the train that would be too substantial, so I aimed for a light breakfast along the streets.

Nothing. Some omelet type food stalls had just started up. I knew the possible results of an unknown egg covered in chili before a long train trip. Instead I went to a coffee shop. And took a look at what was on offer.

The pastries were coming fresh out of the oven! A good sign. I could have gone for a croissant , an almond slice or even a sausage roll. But no, for some reason I chose the chicken curry slice.

Even as a I write this, I shake my head in shame.

What part of the chicken goes into these things I don’t know. Heck, maybe no part at all. Curried pigeon slice never tasted so bland.

How do you know if you are food poisoned in Asia?

To illustrate a fools meal all the better, let me take you back to Pakistan. A successful trip through the Khyber Pass complete, it was time to celebrate with kebabs. All taken from a well-known shop. And, they were very good.

A few hours later I felt a head cold coming on. Sore throat, sleepy, thirsty. I went to my hotel to lie down for a while. A few hours later I stirred awake, stood up and sniffed at my clogged up nose.

Yep, a cold

Something gurgled in my stomach. It felt a little strange. I looked in the mirror and frowned. Removed my shirt and saw that somehow over the past couple of hours my stomach had swelled up to resemble that of an 8 month pregnancy.

Remains of purple vomit

My Pakistani basin, after a bit of a wash ...

With that, another gurgle. And then something splashed up my esophagus from the inside.

I lunged for the bathroom, and didn’t quite make it.

Purple projectile vomit spewed forth across the bathroom floor and hit the basin mirror with violent force

I lurched again, and again. All the time bright purple liquid gushed out.

My mind could only think about why I was gushing purple ooze?! Bile was yellow! What was purple?

Once the first round of heaving was done, I realized the purple must have come from the red cabbage and onion from the kebabs earlier.

When the Sh*# really wants to hit the fan, strip down

With that thought, my stomach sank and I felt an inverted volcano churn with violent repercussions. I tore off my pants to hover over a squat toilet in anxiety of the horror would be shooting out.

And, so it came to pass.

Good … good … still solid.

Well … maybe.

No … not anymore.

Damn I’m a shooting waterfall from the rear.

Then, as in all these wonderful cases. As the back-end finished, I hurled from the front.

Yes, I was firing from both ends.

And yes, the bathroom was beginning to look … well, interesting. Thankfully it was fully tiled.

Dangers of food poisoning

I went from both ends for the next hour. Every ten minutes. I never left the bathroom. I never knew there was so much liquid in me.

The first round over. I turned on the shower. It lasted only 2 minutes before I was squatting down again.

Feeling like I’d just been hit by a tidal wave I staggered to the bed and sat down. Shaking considerably from shock.  if not from whatever was erupting from within my stomach.

Train Toilet

Toilets on trains ... moving targets ...

Feeling some thirst I took a small sip of water.

Big mistake, my stomach instantly clenched in rage at the insult of trying to hydrate myself and the water spewed back up instantly. And, yes, it set the other end off too.

And so it all started again.

Lesson learned, I lay down quietly and just listened to the demented demons from within my stomach.

Every 30 minutes for the rest of the night I was up and into the bathroom. I couldn’t drink. And so began the real danger.


Dehydration and food poisoning

The more I passed water, the thirstier I became. But the more I tried to drink and replace the released water, the more I would throw up.

By 5am I was finally able to sip some water without turning into a human effluent fountain. But my half liter bottle of water was nearly empty. And, I was extremely thirsty.

So much so, my head was pounding ferociously. And, I felt a light sense of panic. As I staggered wearily to the bathroom yet again, I could feel my muscles cramp up. Not a good sign.

It was emergency rule in Pakistan at this time, and everything was shut up tight. It was also winter, and I knew nothing would be open for a number of hours.

Finally I tried emptying a small packet of Oral Re-hydration Salts into my one inch of remaining water. I had no idea if this would make things worse, or not. But, then again, perhaps I was not thinking so straight at that time.

Whether the ORS settled things, or whether my stomach had run its course, I don’t know. But with those few sips, I no longer threw up. Instead I rested.  A few hours later, a frowning Pakistani receptionist looked me up and down as I asked for five bottles of water and a clean towel.

Food poisoning on a train in Thailand

So you see as I sat there trying to grin at the train conductor in Thailand’s humid summer heat my mind was elsewhere. My stomach was swelling up, and the conductor wanted me to sing happy birthday to one of the Thai travelers. Such dilemmas.

Moreover, I still had many hours to go on the train. I never packed any tissue paper. And, I was in a 3rd class carriage with a rather dower looking toilet.

I sat there sweating profusely for another hour. My stomach lurched, and I wondered if the vomiting was about to start.

Things were not to be that bad. At a brief stop, I ran for a corner stall. Tissues, and handwipes bought a restaurant toilet was next. Tearing open a stall door I glanced at the dreaded squat toilet beneath me. It was mercilessly clean. A millisecond of sympathy crossed my mind for the poor cleaner.

Shoes off, pants off, I stripped, straddled the ceramic hole and squatted.

Hole in toilet stall door in Thailand

Squatting down, I looked straight a head to see everyone outside

Naturally enough at this time I noted a huge hole in door before me at eye level. And, of course some patrons had chosen this time to also enter the bathroom.

It mattered not. A gush of anger opened up beneath me and a hose pipe like torrent ripped forth.

All the while all I could do was stare out the hole in the stall door in front of me as various legs walked by. Then, rather bashfully, I took out the tissue paper and hung some sheets down in front of my exposed … well, parts.

And yes, I did feel ridiculous. But with the magnitude of relief I was suddenly feeling, it was all good.

I’ll spare the stand up, squat down, stand up, here we go again repeating that went on for a while. Sufficed to say, I made it back to the train, with a large bottle of water in tow.

More than travelers diarrhea

At my destination my stomach was once again filling up. I checked into a guesthouse feeling slightly relieved. Another spell in the toilet and I quivered to bed. A night of a mild fever ensued along with night sweats.

My head then started to pound with the headache of dehydration. Again, my ORS came into play. And again they helped.

The next day was followed by stomach cramps, and more heavy-duty sweating. I did little but lie in bed, drinking. And, the occasional run to the toilet.

The result? I missed out on a lot of what I wanted to see. It couldn’t be helped. Well … maybe, if I’d avoided that damn curried pigeon pastry.

Why we don’t listen to ourselves?

Maybe it’s the rush of tempting fate? Or maybe it’s a challenge? I know all too well, that I should avoid meat pastries in Asia.

Pastries are often left sitting in humid heat all day. A bacteria’s playground. Perhaps those fresh from the oven chicken curry pies were actually last weeks pigeon remains just freshly reheated at the mildest of temperatures.

From tiny samosas that cause an evening of liquid discomfort. To kebabs and curries that cause tidal waves of lower abdominal stress.

I think it’s fair to say, tempting fate or not, I’m going to go hungry rather than eat pastries before a trip from now on.

Naturally enough, I would advise anyone to seek qualified medical assistance should you feel unwell.  

Coming Soon: 

Bangkok for the very last time

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39 Great responses to What happens when you get food poisoning in Asia?

  1. rich (arizona) says:

    Getting sick like that is always my biggest fear while traveling. My travel is generally in central Europe so the risks are lower but it can happen anywhere and once you get sick you are so helpless and it seems to take so much out of the body I just sleep for 12+ hours after things settle down. Last year I got sick in the US from either a questionable turkey sandwich or Tiramusa made with a bad egg. It was a long day.

    I’ve never noticed the stomach swelling, maybe I was preoccupied to think of that.

    Hopefully that will be the last time you get sick.

    • Only had mild travelers belly in Europe. Nothing bad at all as you say. West Africa was hellish at times. But, to be fair in Asia it’s not been too bad. And most of the time, as in this case, my fault.

      The stomach swelling thing I think is just me :)

  2. John Wilson says:

    I can relate to it all.
    As they say, been there and done that.
    Not the most fun, and usually leaves within a day or two.
    Pepto Bismal Usually worked for me when I was traveling in Africa. Always made suer I had a bottle of that!.
    Be safe, my friend.
    John D. Wilson

    • I was going to mention Africa here, but as I’m sure you know, I’m not sure many people could handle that graphic description! It’s a different ball game there at times.

      What I can’t stand are people who belly ache about mild stomach problems. I think most people who fall like flies just have been living in too hygienic kitchens etc. When I see chefs in London etc wearing face masks, hair nets etc. Then compare to the spitting, hacking, smoking, nose picking man on the streets over here. I can see why many get sick before they even eat! We’ve become too sterile for our own good. Que “War of the Worlds” music!

      Safe trip John!

  3. omg. i am so sorry. i’ve had food poisoning twice, and both times i was (luckily) in the comfort of my own home. i will NEVER AGAIN eat salmon.

    sorry, friend. hope you feel better now! and i am sure you’ll never again eat curried chicken?

    • Thanks Jessie. No, I won’t eat curried chicken pie again. Or an egg salad sandwich (another story). Both morning eats that ruined a long journey. Hope you are well these days!

  4. I had the strangest experience in that I ate all sorts of food in India and never got even the slightest bit sick from it. However, in going to a fancy (and expensive) Indian restaurant in Seoul, I got violent food poisoning. Sometimes it’s just luck of the draw.

    • Interesting that. I never got sick in India either. Nor The Philippines, until I are in a big branded fast food chain …. then it hit! So yes, luck of the draw as you say!

  5. flip says:

    get well soon dave!!!

  6. jess says:

    Oooh…hope you’re well now Dave and continuing on your journey…
    I guess they have pretty strong digestive systems in Thai to be able to eat without worrying about food poisoning there…

    • Thanks Jess, yes indeed. I think it’s different in many countries when you have been raised there. You build up a tolerance. Hence many others fall to various stomach things etc.

  7. Michael says:

    Uugh. Dredged up some gruesome memories of my own brush with the runs on my first month away from home, also in Asia. Too graphic. Good thing I wasn’t reading this while having my breakfast. LOL

  8. Get well soon, Dave. Great writing. I like that raw edge story-telling. Reminds me of a glorious dysentery session in Pakistan in 1990; the hotel that was “looking after me”, also robbed me … But since then I’ve rarely been sick. Maybe I’ll get something nasty in “the Stans” soon …?

    the candy trail … nomad across the planet, since 1988

    • Thanks MRP. The Stans ….. hmmm. I Think you’ll be on a lot of fermented things. Maybe some gruel. And a lot of distilled 90% proof things … the 90% should kill anything bad in the food :)

  9. iamthewitch says:

    Oh no! Doesn’t help that I’m reading this right after a filling lunch. Feeling a gurgle in my throat now :P LOL! Anyway, guess what? During my trip to Bangkok recently, I had a bout of diarrhea on the LAST day itself! Right at the airport! The worst thing was, I was already in line for custom check when my stomach decided to gurgle and asked me to go to the toilet PRONTO! But I couldn’t leave the line and hung on there, thinking that I would be free after the passport check. But NO, there was still ANOTHER line I had to endure for the baggage check. I was literally STUCK in between. It took me all my strength to hold it in until my turn came, before I ran to the nearest toilet! *PHEW* Totally spoiled my plan of shopping at the airport :(

    • Ouch, at the airport?! That’s horrible too. Those double security points are really annoying either way. Shoes on, shoes off, shoes on … here we go again. All the time you’re getting thirsty for the water you are not allowed carry!

      For what it’s worth, I never found BKK airport any good for shopping. At least not electronics. Maybe colognes and snacks. But even then they seems costly! So I don’t think you missed out on much!

  10. betty says:

    oh damn this is gruesome (and ru serious it was PURPLE??!) my ex boyfriends new wife’s name is purple.. lol

    id be scared of this in asia as ther e is sometimes really dirty toilets :( luckily when i went- i was fine and didnt get food poisoning.. very lucky!

  11. Really its very horrible to get food poisoned on travelling.Hope your next trip will be great.

  12. Aud says:

    LOL! I am so sorry to hear about your unpleasant experience Dave. I too have been there. But your descriptive story is the funniest S*^t story I have read/heard in a long time. Not the nicest story but love your comedic slant!

  13. Sorry to hear about your negative experience in Thailand. Sometimes it’s good to travel with a Thai person, as they usually know what to eat and what not to eat.
    If you don’t want Thai food, going to 7Eleven is usually the best option, and they have it in every city and town. They have a lot of sandwiches, croissants etc. Not delicious but safe and can make you feel full.
    Especially in stopover place or place where have a lot of tourist (bus station, train station, tourist attraction) sometimes the seller not care about hygiene, because they know the customer just passing through and not come back.

  14. Leslie says:

    Wow- I never thought a bathroom story could be so riveting! How did you have the state of mind to snap photos of those toilets while you were experiencing this extreme stomach distress?! You are a blogger through and through. PS- I can’t believe a pastry did you in. I loved Thai pastries and never had a problem– but I am a vegetarian :)

    • You know, I had to spend quite some time in that position :) I looked up, saw the hole in the wall, and just reached over to my bag and pulled out my camera :) What else to do?!! ha ha. Yer, those pastries are not my thing at all. It’s the meat no doubt. I’ll go veggie next time ;)

  15. JH says:

    Ouch! You have a difficult stretch here, hope you have recovered by now and continuing your travel and writing! Do take care and have more rest!

    I haven’t reached a point of food poisoning where both ends of our body are firing away mercilessly and continuously. Although, I did have travelers diarrhea before, it’s like 2 different things!

    Drop me a note when you are visiting SG again! :)


  16. Sierra says:

    For some reason travel sickness-related posts are always my favorites. People can be so eloquent about their bodily eruptions.

    Nice blog :)

  17. bertN says:

    You have very scary experiences with food poisoning. I had an episode of food poisoning several hours after I ate raw oysters in a seedy-looking resto. I was throwing up from both ends and I was getting weaker by the minute out of dehydration and fear. I had to ask to be taken to the hospital pronto. You are one tough cookie to go through your ordeal without yelling for help. What were you thinking? Useless to seek medical assistance because there was none available or you just think you are a superwoman endowed with immortality? I feel like hiding my face in shame LOL.

    • Raw Oysters …. now that’s asking for it! :) I was in Pakistan, during emergency rule. Being taken to a hospital was not going to happen without a very big fuss, and a lot of trouble at that time. Had to make do with what I had to hand.

  18. Jasmine says:

    Ugh, that’s so shitty (excuse the pun). Reminds me of the time I got deathly sick in Mexico after eating spinach – alone, not speaking much Spanish at the time, staying in a dorm with only a shared bathroom. Not cute.

    • You are the first person I met whose been sick from eating spinach … Not sure how that is possible … so I can only imagine the results must not have been nice! I hear you with the dorm shared bathroom …. really not good.

  19. OMG getting sick and being a solo traveller would be so scary – and depressing. At least when I travel with my partner he can always take care of me when I am sick. But I have never been THAT sick before – thank god!

    Jade Johnston | http://www.ouroyster.com

  20. Simon says:

    I’m currently on day 2.5 of my own food poisoning experience in northern Laos, coming across this post cheered me up, great description and it reminded me that I’m not alone and made me glad I have a guesthouse with a private bathroom to run back to (didn’t make it on the 1st night tho).

    Felt well enough to have a pizza today (plain, well bland in Asia, semi trustworthy food), it’s stayed down (yay), just a shame that my stomach still doesn’t want anything to solidify yet (boo).

  21. aearthr says:

    thank you for the reminder! i am a meat-lover so i would certainly stay away from meat pastries. Better be safe than sorry!