Bangkok - Health Tips
Bangkok is a very safe and healthy place in which to travel. Unlike in many other Asian cities, health and safety is not a constant issue which is always having a bearing on your trip, allowing you to relax and enjoy all the many attractions that Bangkok has to offer.
Of course there are a few things to keep in mind, but most things are on a sliding scale – for example, Bangkok is probably far safer than most Western capital cities, yet it is still sensible to keep your wits about you and not be too blasé about this new, easy-going, tourist-friendly environment you find yourself in. Unfortunately there are a few isolated incidents which do happen from time to time – but taking heed of the advice given on our safety page will significantly reduce the risk of any of these happening to you.
Similarly, there are a few health risks out there and whereas, for example, you can’t drink water straight from the tap like you may be able to at home, and Thailand has made huge and very successful efforts at reducing the spread of HIV, it’s far from HIV-free and condoms should still be used at all times.
Thailand is a developing country and has a tropical climate, but the good tourist infrastructure and excellent health care to be found in Bangkok, particularly at the world-renowned Bumrungrad hospital, ensure that you can travel safely and with little worry.
Health in Bangkok
Thailand has a very good standard in both government and private hospitals, though you are less likely to get misdiagnosed in the latter. The government and some private hospitals are not expensive (a typical visit and prescription will cost less than $25) and the staff are very professional, helpful and generally speak some English. All doctors and pharmacists qualifying in Thailand can speak an acceptable amount of English to deal with your diagnosis. In fact, the Thais are very good at caring for patients and pharmacies are widely located, often open after hours.
Avian influenza: At the time of writing, there have been a few cases of ‘bird flu’ cropping up from time to time, although a serious outbreak has yet to occur, and the disease has so far not managed to mutate into a form which can pass between humans. To be safe, avoid direct contact with birds wherever possible, e.g. pigeons in the city, birds in captivity in zoos and domesticated pet birds, although you should be safe eating chicken and eggs.
Pollution: Bangkok is highly polluted and just the sight of a rickety old bus belching out a cloud of leaded petrol fumes is enough to make many people’s eyes water.
Take mass transport such as the excellent BTS or MRT services wherever possible to escape the fumes, or travel in an air conditioned taxi if your destination is not reachable by these methods. If you are outside and the thick air is starting to get to be too much, take some time out in one of Bangkok’s parks, or at least go somewhere indoors where you can breathe clean air for a while.
Drinking water: in Bangkok, the tap water is not drinkable although if small quantities are ingested, for example when showering or cleaning your teeth, there is no real need for alarm. For refreshment, bottled water is widely available and cheap and all water and ice given to you in restaurants, no matter how basic the restaurant itself is, will be safe.
Dehydration: during the hot season, from March to June, Bangkok can become extremely hot, with temperatures reaching 40°C and beyond. Coupled with the cityscape’s enclosed streets, pollution and thick air, dehydration can be a problem if precautions are not taken. Drink plenty of water, and try to escape from the heat as often as you can – if you start to feel overly fatigued, have difficulty breathing and have a dry mouth then medical attention should be sought.
Unsanitary conditions: Bangkok is far cleaner than many other cities in the developing world, yet it is still far from perfect and it is wise to be a bit more vigilant when visiting the city. The stench which occasionally wafts up from the sewers below the pavements will become a familiar reminder that this isn’t quite Singapore you’re in.
Be wary of hotels and food outlets which seem less than hygienic, or have obvious cockroaches or rats in residence, or stray dogs sniffing around. Keep cuts and scratches clean, and perhaps be a bit more attentive to your personal cleanliness.
Tattoo and piercing studios: tattoos are very popular among Thais and visitors alike – many of Bangkok’s tattoo studios have queues out the door and long waiting times, and some of them are very skilled at what they do.
Before you rush in and get your unique holiday memento, though, make sure that the place seems clean and professional. Make sure all instruments are cleaned in front of you and that for tattoos, a fresh needle is used each time. Ask the proprietor plenty of questions and make sure you’re 100 per cent sure of the cleanliness of the studio before getting your ink.
And, needless to say, the cheap tattoo studios based in the back of a camper van that are found near Khao San Road are best avoided!
Street food: eating from Bangkok’s many street food stalls can be a cheap and fun way to eat some very good-value food, although you should still be wary when you do so. If a stall or its vendor looks grubby or unclean, simply move onto a different stall – there’s bound to be another one not far away! Having plenty of Thai locals sitting down and eating, as well as getting take away food, is also a good sign; and consider how close you’ll be situated to the road while eating too – to be sitting 12 inches from choking Bangkok traffic for half an hour can take the edge off your bowl of noodle soup. However, if you are new to Asia and have a sensitive stomach then these street stalls aren’t recommended and you could end up with a nasty bout of diarrhoea. They aren’t subject to regular health checks and some of the foodstuffs, such as coconut-milk based sweets, go off pretty quickly in the tropical heat.
Cuts and scratches: always make sure that any cuts and scratches are cleaned thoroughly, and sterilise them with iodine or other antiseptic. ‘Betadine’, which is available in all chemists and many convenience stores, is very effective. In Bangkok’s heat and humidity, and often less than sanitary conditions, wounds are easily infected unless precautions are taken.
Diarrhoea: part of the process of adjusting to Bangkok’s climate and its food often has the side effect of a bout of the runs – particularly if you frequent the roadside food stalls or eat something particularly spicy.
Usually the effects will only be mild and should pass in a day or two, but if symptoms persist then you may want to consider anti-diarrhoeal medication (available everywhere) or, if very severe or combined with vomiting, a trip to the hospital. If you plan to stay longer, a few ‘runny tummy’ experiences might help harden your resistance to spicy food and mild bugs. It’s important to take rehydration salts or electrolyte beverages after a bout of diarrhoea to avoid dehydration, which leaves you weak and listless. ‘O-lyte’ is a popular brand found in most pharmacies or 7-Elevens and can be mixed with water. Almost all pharmacists speak English.
HIV: Thailand seems to be winning the war on the spread of HIV / AIDS; it is comforting to see that condoms are on sale everywhere, and they will be on display right by the front door of every 7-Eleven, rather than coyly stashed behind a chemist’s counter.
However, on a global scale the level of infection is still quite high, estimated at between 3 – 5 per cent of the population. And one of the key reasons for stemming the spread of the disease has been the isolation of one demographic group in which the disease is most prevalent – workers in the sex industry. Therefore, anyone who dabbles in the seedier side of Bangkok’s nightlife needs to be especially careful, but condoms should be used at all times no matter who your sexual partner is.
Other STDs: of course, there are other sexually transmitted diseases besides HIV, and the same basic rules about condom usage apply.
Hepatitis: literally means inflammation of the liver, and there are various strains, the most serious being Hepatitis B. Hep B is spread through sexual contact or blood transfusions, so ensure that your vaccination is up to date before travelling and take the usual sexual precautions. The less deadly Hep A is common but symptoms can be mild.
Dengue fever: this disease, which it has similar symptoms to malaria, is spread by mosquitoes mainly occupying urban areas, and hence there is a small risk of contracting this disease while in Bangkok. However, the risk is not really significant enough to be of major concern unless there is an epidemic. However, once caught, the consequences can be fatal and it’s less treatable than malaria. A subsequent bout is often deadly.
Rabies: Bangkok’s many ‘soi dogs’ are an eyesore and a nuisance, although they’re rarely aggressive towards people – or friendly for that matter, which will probably be as much of a relief when you see the state of some of them! However, a rabid dog is a different matter and dogs do get infected from time to time in Bangkok. If you’re bitten, or an open wound is licked by a dog or any other animal in Thailand (there are plenty of stray cats around too) then you should report to hospital immediately. A pre-exposure vaccination is available for this fatal disease, but if you are bitten by a suspect animal, you still need to get a series of post-exposure shots, and so the same caution should be exercised at all times, even by those who are vaccinated.