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Wednesday, 01 July 2020

How To Avoid Food Poisoning in Southeast Asia? I Wish I Knew

Written by Paul Michelson
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I’m batting a thousand. Three times in Southeast Asia, three bouts of food poisoning. Four years ago in Hue, Vietnam, the chunks of mango in my breakfast juice apparently weren’t clean enough for my delicate Western stomach; two years ago in Luang Prabang, Laos, I eyeballed the bean sprouts on my plate of noodles and—I still don’t know why—I ate ‘em; a few months ago, in Sukhothai, Thailand, I drank two glasses of orange drink that was obviously canned but contained ice that must have been made from tap water.

The latest bout, the one in Sukhothai, had the usual silver lining: that happy moment when you know for sure the nausea is gone, the vomiting is done. Okay, I said to myself, that was miserable, but it’s over. I relaxed. But then reality sank in: sure, it might be over, but it’s not like you’re immune.

That annoying realization shaped our eating habits for the rest of the trip. After Sukhothai, my wife Mardena and I still had two weeks of travel ahead--plenty of time for me to get into trouble again. Mardena’s always been a paragon of culinary oversight when we travel, but after Sukhothai she kicked it into another gear. I couldn’t blame her; our Sukhothai hotel had been a mile from the nearest café, which meant that while I was gagging away in the bathroom, she got to sit in our room eating cartons of vending machine ramen for lunch and dinner.

From Sukhothai on, our days went pretty much like this: we’d be walking along a sidewalk in, say, Bangkok, and I’d see a sign advertising fruit smoothies. I figured I’d get pineapple or banana to ensure the fruit would be peeled. “Look,” I’d say, “let’s get one.” “What about the ice?” Mardena would say, her tone faintly ominous. So we’d skip it. Or we’d walk past an open-air cafe with giant pots partially full of unrecognizable but exotic-looking food lined up along a cart on the sidewalk. The cafe wouldn’t be exactly upscale, a little grungy to be honest, but sometimes there’d be Western backpackers at the street side tables, and I’d think, “They must know what they’re doing.” I’d say, “How about there?” “Oh, Paul,” Mardena would say, exasperated, “those pots could’ve been sitting there all day.” She was right; it might have been mid-winter in Thailand but it was plenty hot. So we’d pass by.

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Eventually, we’d settle on a little indoor café, somewhere we could be sure the food was freshly cooked. We’d stick to sautéed vegetables, curries, or noodles, nudging away the fresh cilantro or chopped green onions sprinkled on top—garnishes that would have added some zip. The fresh salads looked great, but we didn’t order any. The food was good, but those indoor cafes felt less authentic somehow than those scruffy open-air places.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01 July 2020
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