Getting Sick: Rural Cambodia vs. Bangkok

Scary Flip Flops

If these aren’t enough to make you sick. . .

Getting Sick on the Road

For most of us, getting sick while traveling is pretty high on the list of fears.  It’s no fun to be ill no matter where you are, but being away from home in an unfamiliar setting and in many cases without access to services in your native language can be downright scary. We’ve been fortunate enough to stay relatively healthy throughout our years of travel. That’s not to say there haven’t been incidents.

Cambodian Doctor

What about health insurance?

Before our last extended trip (we were gone about a year) we decided to secure some travelers’ health insurance. Neither of us had health insurance at home, nor are we the type to run to the doctor for little things, but we felt it was important to have some coverage in case of catastrophe. We went with a plan from World Nomads, which is pretty comprehensive and includes the ever-popular biggies like emergency evacuation and “repatriation of remains.”  As it turned out, we only made one claim between the two of us. One complication was not having a notarized letter stating we didn’t have any other insurance coverage. This was hard to attain while we were gone, and something we would have had with us if we’d known we would need it in order to make a claim.

Kratie Clinic

Clinic in Kratie, Cambodia.  Photo Credit: Laura Conchelos

Lost in Translation: Khmer or Vietnamese Please

We’d been in Kampong Cham for a day or two, and decided to rent bikes and ride out into the countryside. We had a nice time visiting Man Hill and Woman Hill, but on the way back I was feeling completely out of energy. You know that run-down feeling like you just need to lie down and take a nap? Back at the hotel I tried to do just that, but it was a lost cause.  The vomiting began in the late afternoon, interrupted only by bouts of diarrhea. Sometimes the two happened at once. It was an ugly scene indeed. Donny ran out and brought back re-hydrating fluids, but I couldn’t keep anything down. My fever was soaring, chills had set in, and I honestly felt like just giving up. Before it got too late, we decided I should visit the clinic.

The hotel called a tuk tuk driver they said they trusted and who spoke a bit of English. We drove in the rickety three-wheeler to the only English-speaking clinic in town, but the doctor wasn’t in. He spends his time between several villages, and this wasn’t the week for Kampong Cham. The only other choice was the Vietnamese clinic. It was one of the typical, storefront layouts, open to the street. It looked very much like to photo above, taken in nearby Kratie. Note the doctor on the left with his microscope. We were ushered in by a young Cambodian nurse. She took my temperature, and with a worried look, and started firing off questions to the tuk tuk driver who clearly felt some responsibility for a positive outcome. Laying on the cot with my sarong over me behind a curtained divider like the one above, I couldn’t answer or move.  I watched with mild amusement as Donny played charades, acting out the motions of throwing up and pooping uncontrollably for the driver to translate to the nurse.


At the hotel in bed with my IV.

What’s in that IV bag?

All I could do was stare up at the dusty ceiling fan while I lay on the examining table. The light breeze blowing dust into the room hurt my skin. The man laying on the table across from me had an enormously swollen leg, black from the shin down. His wife sat with him, holding his hand. They inserted an IV in my hand, and an unknown substance began dripping into my veins. Finally a man I presumed to be the doctor came in. He wore a white lab coat with some characters on it where a name might be. He was holding a syringe. He handed it to the nurse, who proceeded to roll me over and stick it in my backside. For someone like me, who doesn’t like to take an aspirin for a headache, this should have been traumatic, but I could have cared less. There was more conversation, and blood was drawn to test for malaria. (We’d come from endemic regions of Indonesia recently.)  Before I knew what was happening, I was being escorted into the tuk tuk and back to the hotel. From what I gathered, it would be more comfortable there.Before we left, there were some sort of pantomimed instructions on how NOT to let the IV bag get below a certain level. It would have to be changed during the night. We weren’t sure when that should happen, but the idea seemed to be that an empty bag would make an air bubble in the IV line, and that would be very, very bad. (Needless to say, Donny didn’t get much sleep that night.)

On the way back, we asked the driver what was in the IV bag. His answer, “Coconut water, I think.” As we bounced down the road back to the hotel, people stared at the distinctly non-locals with the borrowed, telescoping IV stand hanging out of the side of the tuk tuk. Donny had to hold the bag outside, his arm fully extended up so the drip wouldn’t be interrupted.

In the morning, I was feeling weak but more human. On the way back to the clinic, it seemed EVERYONE was asking the driver if I was feeling better or at least smiling and waving. I was a sick celebrity.  At the clinic, I was shown a negative malaria test result. Yeah! They dispensed some vitamins and aspirin from a big, black garbage back with a sticker on it that read “US AID,” and sent us on our way. Total bill for the two days of treatment? About $20. It wasn’t even enough to claim on the travel insurance.

bumrungrad-hospital entrance-bangkok-thailand

First-class treatment in Bangkok

It was Christmas Eve, and we’d just arrived from in Bangkok after a month in Vietnam.  We head straight for the Renaissance, having splurged and spent some Marriott Rewards points to book two nights. The Concierge Lounge was decked out for the holidays, and the party started early. Cute Thai elves and a Thai Santa made appearances singing Christmas carols, and the free booze flowed. It was a fun night, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. In the early morning hours, however, Donny was hit with a bout of spewing from both ends like no other. Before noon we knew there was no other choice than a trip to the hospital, this time in a proper, air-conditioned taxi. A call to World Nomads assured us that Bunrumgrad International was the best hospital around, and a facility they worked with regularly. People from far and wide traveled there for medical services. We were duly impressed. Upon arrival there were signs and instructions for everything. The level of organization was amazing. We were ushered into a modern, multi-story building and seated briefly in a comfortable waiting area. An administrator fluent in English had us fill out some paperwork before Donny was issued a patient ID, complete with photo taken by webcam and printed out on the spot. The nurses did the initial tests, while the very professional doctor asked some questions and ordered additional tests (after making sure Donny wasn’t just hung-over). The doc was able to crack jokes and explain everything in detail.

After an IV drip with some strong antibiotics, we were sent back to the hotel, but this time with prescriptions to fill and further paperwork to process for billing and insurance.  The end result was the same. By the next day Donny was feeling weak but well enough to head to the airport to meet T’s Dad who was flying in to visit and celebrate New Year’s!


Photo Credit:

Our symptoms were almost exactly the same. Our experiences were quite different, but we were both lucky to get some help from professionals who cared. We were able to bounce back within a couple of days, and continue our journey.  There’s no way to avoid getting sick from time to time, but there are lots of ways to try and stay healthy on the road too! For some tips on how from some well-traveled bloggers, check out this article on Sick on the Road.

About the author

Free-spirited traveler at peace on the slow road. Packs light and treads lightly. Tamara writes about the nomadic lifestyle and slow travel along with budget-friendly tips and destination guides.