Home/Sick: Ill and Alone in Southeast Asia

Being sick when you’re tucked safely into your own bed has a kind of comfort, if the illness isn’t too acute. I didn’t mind my yearly severe cold too much back then.

It would come around in December or January, some bleak week when Boston is bare and barren and lifeless and everyone you meet in the street is about one Dunkin away from a catatonic state. When the familiar stuffiness would arrive, I’d call into work if I could and set about creating the adult equivalent of a blanket fort. Every pillow I owned propped me upright or sideways, every blanket I possessed made into a nest I would burrow my aching body into.

Before it got too severe, I’d stock up on red Gatorade and ginger ale, ice cream for comfort, and maybe make some chicken stock if I were feeling ambitious. Prepared for wallowing, I’d swoon in bed for days and order in chicken pho from the Thai place across the street and serve myself tea on my bed tray. Long baths and lots of nail painting and re-watching Marie Antoinette completed the cure.

I was stylish at being sick.

That all changed on the road.

Getting sick while traveling alone

My first four months in Europe were unremarkable – one mild cold. Once I randomly threw up on a Sunday afternoon, but I am a delicate flower and that happens to me after a long hot bath sometimes. The next day I split a cheese plate and a bottle of wine with my grandma.

Southeast Asia has been less kind to me. Of course I read all the travel warnings about what not to eat: street food only from busy places, only tube-shaped ice because that means it’s machine made of purified water, no meat in Laos and no dairy in Cambodia.

Much good that caution did me. In less than 2.5 months here, I’ve had Bangkok Belly, violent food poisoning, and some sort of parasite that has been dogging me for a full month. And those are just the stomach ailments. I’ve had a sinus infection too, thanks to the allergies the tropical pollen has saddled me with.

Sickness is the new health

The lack of food makes me cranky and tired, to be sure. After so many skipped or too-small meals, I find myself shooting murderous glances at fellow restaurant patrons actually enjoying a reasonable portion of food while I delicately nibble my vegan porridge for the fourth day straight. But the pain from the parasite or the food poisoning isn’t the worst part.

The real horror of being sick while traveling: hostel and train bathrooms

The worst part? Running to a hostel bathroom to squat on the filthy floor as you vomit, and then discover the sink has been pulled out of the wall so there’s no way to wash your face after. Rummaging weakly after two days of no food through a dusty Lao storefront to come away with a nearly-expired Sprite (I didn’t even know Sprite could expire) and the stalest Ritz crackers ever consumed. Depriving yourself entirely of food to get through a 17 hour train-bus-ferry journey after a night with no dinner, because you’re having mysterious stomach cramps and don’t want to get sick on the way.

There are no home comforts here, no one to hold my hand or pat my back or bring me ginger ale. There’s not even ginger ale anywhere (trust me, I’ve searched). The hospitals are different, as are the pharmacies, and being sick in a shared bathroom is its own kind of horror.

Thankful for the kindness of strangers

Fortunately people are unfailingly kind, so I haven’t been totally on my own. This is good, because when I am sick I loved nothing more than to be coddled and pitied a bit. The words “you poor thing!” are like Tiger Balm to the mosquito bites on my soul.

The girls I woke up in that Laos hostel room with my vomiting checked up on me all day, and offered drinks and meds and kind words. My friend Kim offered to help me move to my new guesthouse when I was weak with hunger-induced fatigue and sat with me as I ate sticky rice seemingly grain by grain. The guesthouse owners in Ubud where I’m staying have been amazing, taking me to the clinic themselves and checking on me every day. My dad checked in with one of his tropical disease colleagues when the doctors here had no help to give, and now I have the meds I need.

That kindness has been a good exercise in letting other people help me. I am very independent – it’s part of what makes me such a good solo traveler. I take care of myself, I solve my problems on my own. But I can’t do it all on my own. I certainly couldn’t walk myself to that Bali clinic.

And it feels good to let other people look out for me a bit, even if they’re just offering soothing words. It reminds me I’m not really alone in this world. Although with a parasite, you’re never really alone anyways (it’s like an internal pet, but one that nips his teeth into you every day).

Getting bit by the solo travel bug (and some other bugs too)

And now that I have the antibiotics strong enough to knock out this probable parasite (tests came up inconclusive), I hope my stomach will hold out long enough to get me to Australia in three weeks. I look back at much of this trip and regret how much I haven’t done because I’ve been tired or in pain or cranky from hunger.

But then, I’ve done so much even through my illnesses. I’ve dunked in a Bali water temple for a purification ceremony through agonizing stomach cramps. I swam in the most beautiful waterfall in Laos I’ve ever seen after nearly a week of no food. And most important to my sense of personal dignity, I have not thrown up on any form of transit (I immediately regret saying this in case it comes back to haunt me on my flights back from Bali).

My recent bout of fatigue has been a little blissful too, in that way staying home with a cold is. I have a comfy bed, banana pancakes brought to me every morning, and big glass doors and a terrace overlooking the forest in Ubud.

I spend so much time weak but enthralled at the life out there. The elderly Balinese woman who comes every morning with a woven tray on her head to put out the offerings and incense, trailed by two little curled-tail dogs. The monkey families who stroll boldly around my terrace, grabbing my coffee cup and eating the offerings and then flinging off loudly through the banana trees. The lizards of all kinds – a tiny gecko flitting over my breakfast plate, a four-foot giant with a tiny head heaving through the bushes below me, a little guy with a puffed-out throat scaling the trees. And the birds beyond number, especially the ones no bigger than my thumb who love the terrace vines.

A solo female traveler in a cave temple in Laos with a happy stray cat sleeping on her lap.
My new bff.

So no, I still haven’t found ginger ale (*sobs*) and my mom can’t give me hugs here. I can still eat only tiny bland meals. And having a parasite is deeply, deeply unpleasant in so many ways I am too refined to discuss on the internet. But that parasite (who I have just decided is named Andy) has reminded me of kindness and patience and given me so much time to just gaze adoringly at monkeys, which I cannot get enough of.

Thanks, Andy. But you can also fuck off. And could someone please bring me a barrel full of pasta?

2 thoughts on “Home/Sick: Ill and Alone in Southeast Asia”

  1. This was such an interesting read! I managed to get super ill on my recent trip to Malaysia (some sort of respiratory virus) which was my first time being unwell abroad and alone and was pretty scary.. impressed with how much you’ve managed to stick out!!

    • Ah being sick abroad is always a little scary! I’m glad you’re feeling better now. I’m heading to Australia in two weeks to hopefully be a little healthier in a place with drinkable tap water and no parasites!


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