How To

Street Food Street Smarts: How To Avoid (And Survive) Food Poisoning Abroad

  • March 15, 2017

Once upon a time, a couple from New York moved to Southeast Asia and ate all kinds of crazy street food. There were noodles and bugs and everything in between. But then one fateful night in Yangon, Myanmar, they indulged in street meat that had gone bad. Thanks to the copious amounts of beer that they were consuming with newly-made friends, they didn’t notice that the food was spoiled.

Until the middle of the night, when they both got really, really sick. And as they let it all out, they swore they would never, ever make this terrible mistake ever again.

Of course, the really boring moral of the anecdote above could be to never eat street food again. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, learn from my awful experience and heed this advice instead.

1. Look for long lines.

Yes, waiting in lines sucks. But it doesn’t suck nearly as much as furiously popping Imodium on a bumpy overnight bus ride through Southeast Asia. Long lines equal good food, and a higher turnover rate. The higher the turnover rate, the fresher the food will be. Avoid the guy turning satay skewers all by his lonesome down the way, because you don’t know how long the meat has been hanging out.

2. Use your eyes and nose before you use your mouth.

Smell the food, see the food, be the food. Do all of this before you actually taste the food. Even if you’re trying to look cool and adventurous in front of your new friends, don’t eat anything that seems questionable. This will mean different things for everyone, but trusting your gut (and your nose) is essential.

3. Stick to bottled drinks.

Trying foreign foods is a traveler’s rite of passage, and one that she can wear as a badge of honor. But when it comes to drinking abroad, don’t be a hero. There’s no sense in getting adventurous with questionable tap water. Stick to bottled water, beer, and soda rather than venturing into the arena of potentially bacteria or lead-ridden drinks. Skip the ice as well, since it will likely have been made with tap water.

4. Carry more Imodium and electrolyte powder than you think you’ll need.

While I always carry a mini med kit with me when I travel, Imodium and electrolyte tablets have shot to the top of my must-have list in recent years. Gross but true: if you get food poisoning while traveling and need to actually be on the move, you’re going to need a lot of Imodium. Do yourself a favor and travel with more than you think you’ll need.

I never used to take electrolyte powder with me either, but now I always do. The packet in  photo was actually given to us in our hour of need by the owner of the inn where we were staying in Yangon. As we waited for the sweet release of death, she mixed up some Myanmar Gatorade so that we didn’t dehydrate to death (much appreciated). I kept an extra packet of it mostly because I think the description is funny, but also because I no longer travel without it! And it’s never a bad idea to have on hand if you, too, are “heavy sweating people.”

I have actually been pretty lucky in only getting food poisoning once in my life while traveling, but it’s not an experience I wish to repeat. No guarantees, but the aforementioned tips are a good start!


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