Cambodia,  Thailand,  Vietnam

Southeast Asia Foods and Drink Safety – How to Avoid Poisoning & Eat Healthy

Last Updated January, 2020

Southeast Asia turned out to be so unpredictable. Before flying there we thought that all the countries on the continent, people, foods, customs, and rules would be alike. In reality, they all differ from each other.

One of our favorite things to do while traveling around Asia (or pretty much anywhere else) is having food related experiences. Eating like a local in this part of the world although is not the same as in any Western country.

If you are eating your way out, consider the following tips to stay always healthy when trying Southeast Asia foods and drinks:

How to Avoid Poisonings While Savoring Southeast Asia Foods and Drinks

CARRY YOUR OWN SILVERWARE OR CHOPSTICKS

Unless you are having a meal in a restaurant, carrying your own fork and spoon does not hurt. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but in my opinion, this one is important. In some cafes and even restaurants utensils (as well as glasses) look unappetizing. Sometimes, especially in open-air cafes and cafes, forks, spoons, and chopsticks sit on counters for hours, don’t get washed properly or get covered with dust.

Sure, you can always ask to replace a set or wipe it off with a napkin. But why not to get your own silverware that will help you enjoy your meal without having a second thought. It’s very cheap to get one on the market. Also, if you are having a drink of something, it’s always smart to ask for a straw.

Southeast Asia foods
In some cafes silverware and chopsticks are brought in hot water, this makes us feel more comfortable.

DON’T BUY ANY PEELED FRUITS, RAW VEGGIES, AND UNCOOKED FOODS IN SOME PARTS OF SOUTHEAST ASIA

Every time when I am using a hotel’s or mall’s public restroom in Thailand, Vietnam or Malaysia, for instance, I am witnessing a shocking picture.

A vast majority of Southeast Asian women do not wash their hands after going to the loo. A couple of times I tried staying longer near the area with sinks and mirrors, pretending I was putting makeup on, just to watch what other women would do. Some of them were leaving the restroom right after using the toilet, others were rinsing their hands quickly with a little bit of water. There were women who washed their hands thoroughly but the majority did not, even though there was plenty of soap.

Maybe this is part of the Southeast Asian culture or just simple ignorance, but obviously Asian people do not put much effort into practicing proper hand hygiene after using a bathroom. Of course, I can not base my judgment after watching a few hundreds of women in public restrooms. But chances that street food vendors don’t wash their hands every time when they have to are still pretty high.

So next time when you get tempted to buy that freshly peeled and cut mango think twice. What else was in the hands of the vendor before peeling your fruit?

Perhaps it would be better to get unpeeled fruit to eat it later. The exception here would be a pineapple though.

There is no need to touch pineapple to peel it. Usually, a vendor holds on to the top with his left hand while skillfully peeling and curving with the right hand.
The same rule applies to other Southeast Asia foods like fresh salads, raw fish, smoothies or anything else what a vendor didn’t cook. Make sure your food is cooked well.

Southeast Asia foods
Typical streets of Asia

WASH BOUGHT VEGGIES AND FRUITS THOROUGHLY BEFORE CONSUMING THEM

I was growing up in a culture where going to a market was a daily necessity. To this day I truly enjoy buying fresh fruits, veggies, cheeses, and loaves of bread from a farmer at the market. Asian markets are fun and lots of goodies can be found there. However, there are certain rules one has to follow before eating any products purchased at the market. Using buckets of distilled water to wash your fruit would not be enough because water does not remove any germs or bacteria. It only rinses some dust off.

From my mom and grandma I learned to take a few steps that help me make sure my veggies and fruits are clean enough:

– Put leafy veggies or those that are eaten with skin (like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, broccoli) in cold salted water for 10-15 minutes. You can also add some vinegar. It makes all small insects and warms come to the surface. Also, if any pesticides residues were applied, salted water will remove them. Rinse it off.

– Boil water and pour it over the veggies and fruits you are going to eat raw and unpeeled. You can also apply this step after soaking your veggies in salted water. In Asia or Eastern Europe, I always take extra precaution and use boiled water even for rinsing fruits that will be peeled.

– For products with thick skin (like potatoes, melons, onions, etc.) use a vegetable brush to wash away hard-to-remove microbes. Sometimes I also use curd soap. After each use, wash your brush thoroughly.

Food vendors in Asia are everywhere

DON’T BUY FOOD FROM VENDORS WHO DON’T HAVE ANY COOLER OR FRIDGE

I think this one is obvious, but somehow some people don’t think it’s a big deal. They still get deep fried frogs, chicken wings, sausages or seafood thinking that all bacteria have been gone through the process of deep frying. And then later they hit the toilet.

A bigger part of Southeast Asia usually has two types of weather: hot and hotter. Any cooked products don’t need much time to turn bad when temperatures are high. Stay away from any cart that sells meat products, sandwiches, seafood or other easily spoiled foods without keeping them in a cooler or fridge.

Southeast Asia foods
For how many hours it has been sitting on her head is a mystery. Hot, humid day in Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Southeast Asia foods
This guy has a cooler, you can spot it on the grass behind the grill

GET YOUR DRINKS WITHOUT ICE

Over sixty percent of the population of Asia does not have access to secure water. Drinking any unfiltered water is not a smart decision to make. Unless you are in Singapore, some parts of Malaysia or Hong Kong.

From a local, in Cambodia, we learned that there are two different types of ice in most Asian countries – clean and regular one. Regular ice is made of tap water and usually used for cooling cans and bottles and sometimes, when a fridge is not available, for cooling products. Clean ice is made of mineral water. And locals use it for drinks at bars and restaurants.

If you see well-rounded ice cubes (sometimes with holes in them) in your glass then the ice is clean. Otherwise, if you get crushed chunks of ice then it’s not clean and safe to drink.

I’ve recently ordered a glass of freshly squeezed juice with some ice in it, believing it was clean, but my stomach started to hurt very soon after I drank it. I can not assert that pain happened because of ice. Maybe the reason was a bad fruit, but from that moment we prefer skipping ice at all, just in case to be safe.

One more tip for you when ordering fruit smoothie or shake – ask a person who makes it not to add any milk, ice, water or sugar in your smoothie. Using fruit only will help to avoid any unwanted stomach discomfort and provide more vitamins in your cup.

Pineapple juice and coconuts are our favorite drinks in Asia

COME WITH YOUR OWN WATER BOTTLE WITH FILTER

Purchasing a bottle with the filter was the best decision we made and we sincerely recommend you to do the same. Drinking tap water in the States or Europe is safe, but in Asian countries it is a no-go.

Having your own bottle with filter means:

a) you’ll be able to filter water at no extra cost not only in Asia but anywhere around the world. Either you are hiking trails in the Alps (yes, you can get water from a spring or river), walking the streets of a Mexican city or visiting a countryside in Cambodia, your bottle will come in handy.

b) you’ll be saving money – a 1.5-liter bottle of water on average in Asia costs anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar, depending on where exactly you are. In the beginning, it may seem that you have to spend a lot, but in reality, you are paying a symbolic price which is more like an investment. You pay in the beginning and then during a few months (or more, depends on how often you use it), you are not worrying about spending a couple of dollars each week just on water.

c) you’ll be going green – think of how many plastic bottles are being thrown away each day, you’ll contribute to keeping the environment clean and green when using your bottle with a filter.

DO NOT ORDER FISH IN CITIES WITH NO COASTAL ACCESS

During one hot humid day, we’ve been strolling through the streets of Phnom Phen city in Cambodia. A desire to get a breeze brought us to the riverside in the city center where we observed a hideous picture.

One random guy walked down the hill towards the river holding a huge box of trash. Can you guess what he did with it? He dumped it right in the river!

We spotted 2 fishermen less than two hundred meters away prepping all the fish they caught during that day. The fish they got and all another left in the river was growing on people’s waste and someone was going to eat it.

Whatever we saw made us sick. We hope it’s convincing enough for you to skip it as a meal. Also, keep in mind the larger the river, the more likely it is to be polluted.

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The river serves as a home, rubbish dump and shelter at the same time, so sad. Phnom Phen, Cambodia
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Fish, fish, fish

SPICE IT UP A LITTLE BIT

It has been proven that spices and herbs host many health benefits, including those that help to combat inflammation and kill the bacteria. Every time when we eat Southeast Asia foods we try to go for the three-alarm hot meal.

The red chili pepper, turmeric, garlic and ginger increase antioxidant activity in the blood, help boost our immune system and ward off germs.

Try to have your every meal with at least a bit of spice. It will surely burn unwanted bacteria that may enter your stomach.

COOK YOUR OWN MEALS AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE

If you go on a few weeks vacation then cooking probably sounds like a very overwhelming thing to do. And what’s the point in visiting a new country if you are not savoring local foods!? In all of Southeast Asia food is delicious and you are supposed to eat out!

But if you come for an extended period of time, say to spend a winter or try to live in one place longer, then dining out on a regular basis is expensive. As well as tiring for your stomach. Local markets offer a great variety of produce, you won’t be disappointed!

With so many yummy foods around sometimes, it’s difficult to cook at home, but I enjoy it anyways

HAVE WIPES AND SOAP IN YOUR BAG ALWAYS

This one is not really about food but related to it. It took us a while to remember carrying these items in our backpacks. Lots of restrooms in Asia do not provide any soap and very often toilet paper. Having your own wipes and soap in our side pocket is helpful. Asia is dusty and at times very, very dirty. Clean your hands and stay healthy. And enjoy your meals, Asia has lots of yummy ones!

Southeast Asia foods
Tips on how to stay healthy while eating your way out anywhere in Southeast Asia. From Thailand, Cambodia and Laos all the way to Indonesia and Philippines #southeastasia #foodinasia
Southeast Asia foods safety

Anya is originally from Ukraine but in heart she is a citizen of the world. She is working online and that’s why has an opportunity to travel slowly and live in different countries around the world. On this blog, her main goal is to inspire others to travel to under-the-radar-places and discover the world through life and work abroad.

2 Comments

  • Slavka

    Hi Anya,
    Thanks for great SE Asia food safety tips.

    You mentioned that tap water in Eastern Europe is not safe to drink. Well, what part of Europe are you talking about? In Slovakia and the Czech Republic tap water IS super clean, safe, drinkable and actually tasty. CZE and SK are politically in Eastern Europe. Geographicaly, Slovakia is in the exact centre of Europe. These two counties have better and cleaner tap water than what we have here in Canada.
    Hungary and Poland also have safe tap water.
    Food in these four “Eastern” European countries is also clean, safe and of high quality.
    There is no way you can compare food, drinks and water safety of these 4 countries to SE Asia.
    I dare to say food and water quality of EU (that includes SK, CZ, HU, PL) is the highest in the world.
    Just to let you know, no water filter needed for this part of Europe.
    Happy travels 🙂

    • Anya

      Hi Slavka, you know you are absolutely right about the safety of drinking water in Eastern Europe. For the most part it is safe. I generalized the entire region while meaning only a few places in a few countries, which was a mistake. I am going to update it right away.
      Thank you for your input and remark!

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