I’m a big believer in taking chances and getting out of my comfort zone. But it always pays to be a little prepared. A single travel mistake can derail your trip — or your entire life! Read on to find out what happened when I left too much to chance on a trip to Cambodia and Laos.
What’s in this post?
2. The Decision That Saved My Life
3. Get Thee to a Hospital
4. My Greatest Travel Mistake
5. Travel Insurance Works
I woke up in a soggy nest of twisted hostel sheets. I couldn’t move without the greying bed linens clinging to my sticky skin. I felt like yesterday’s Chinese dumpling, wilting in a forgotten steamer basket.
Seconds later, my internal AC kicked in and suddenly I was freezing.
This wasn’t the crisp kind of cold that starts at the tip of your nose and the ends of your toes. This wasn’t the kind of cold that could be held at bay by a steaming cup of hot chocolate. This was tendrils of ice creeping from the depths, pulling at my organs, wrapping around my veins, squeezing my heart.
The shivering was like none I had ever witnessed, never seen portrayed on TV, certainly never experienced. It felt like an earthquake — a shaking so deep and powerful it could only originate from the planet’s core.
But unlike an earthquake, this shaking went on and on and on… each new wave was followed closely by a pounding nausea, so fierce that I couldn’t even breathe through it.
It was starting to dawn on me that something was seriously wrong.
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Where it all Began
For 6 weeks I had been travelling solo in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Starting in Ho Chi Minh City, I had taken local mini-buses and hired motorcycle drivers to make my unusual travel route work.
It was a research trip so I had been alternating between sponsored stays in luxury beach resorts and unsponsored stays in decrepit hostels, which was all I could afford on a travel blogger’s salary.
(Travel blogging is a fabulous job but it’s not exactly making me rich.)
On this trip, I had assigned myself the task of stretching my comfort zone and breaking out of it completely whenever possible.
I had learned to rock climb in Kampot, zip-lined for the first time in Mondulkiri, cycled to a remote island near Kratie, chased elephants through the forest outside Sen Monorom, and slept in a hammock in the jungle in Stung Treng.
I was even getting good at striking up conversations with strangers in cafes — something I would normally never do.
After crossing Cambodia’s northern border into Laos, I checked into a riverside hut on Don Khon, one of the famous 4,000 islands created by a widening of the Mekong. I spent a few days cycling the islands, swimming in brown silty bays, and lying on my hammock for hours on end.
One night, I had the strangest dream.
My body was filled with tiny wriggling black worms. They were racing through my body on the highways of my veins and I could see them wriggling just beneath my pale skin. When I looked in the mirror, I saw their inky black shadows behind my eyes, like something out of The X-Files.
Was it a warning? Or just a creepy nightmare caused by too much spicy Indian curry?
(This part of Laos is home to lots of immigrants from Tamil Nadu and they had been keeping me fed.)
The Decision That Saved My Life
I started to feel sick on the journey north, assuming I had caught a nasty flu from one of the many strangers I had chatted with in the previous few days.
Only… I’d never had a flu like this before.
My plan had been to continue north in Laos, visiting the venerable Vientiane and possibly stopping at the vilified Vang Vieng. I hoped to get as far north as Luang Prabang, revisiting one of our favourite cities of our two-year bike trip.
That morning though, in Pakse, a scrappy border town on the edge of Thailand, all of that felt impossible. All I wanted to do was curl up and dissolve into nothing.
Instead, I made a decision that probably saved my life.
I got out of bed, put on whatever clothes were convenient and booked a bus ticket to Ubon Ratchathani, in neighbouring Thailand.
My logic was this:
I’d probably be fine after a few days of rest but if I wasn’t, if I needed a hospital, I didn’t want to visit one in the poorest country in Southeast Asia. I wanted modern technology, well-trained doctors, and someone to speak English… and I had a much better chance of getting that in wealthy, relatively western Thailand.
A few hours later, I was on a mini-bus, this one headed across the Thai border. Only a few other people, one other tourist and a handful of locals, were going this direction — Ubon Ratchathani isn’t exactly on the backpacker trail.
I spent the bus ride in agony.
Busses are always cold in Southeast Asia. As long as the air con is working, the driver does his best to recreate Scandinavia in winter. This bus took things to a sub-arctic extreme.
Most people think of hell as a fiery place but I will always imagine hell as this bus. I experienced five hours of a cold so deep that I could almost feel my organs crystallizing into ice.
Get Thee to a Hospital
The next morning, after another miserable night in a small hostel, this time with my own private room, I asked the staff to order me a taxi to the hospital. If you need a doctor while you’re travelling, always ask the locals to send you to the best hospital.
I arrived in a gleaming foyer, where neatly dressed nurses were bustling across well shined marble floors. You don’t see hospitals like this where I come from!
For a start, there were dozens of staff around but I didn’t see anything other patients. It only took a few minutes until I was in front of a doctor.
Of course, as always happens, I was feeling much better this morning. Just a little tired but not shivery or flu-ey. Even my nausea had mostly subsided.
The doctor took all my vitals and asked me a few questions in English — I could tell she had learned it in school but had likely not spoken it much since then.
After prodding me for a few minutes, she told me I was fine and sent me away. I wanted to believe her, so I grabbed a taxi back to the hotel, even though I knew she was wrong.
By that afternoon, all my symptoms were back with a vengeance.
That’s when I went online.
People always tell you not to research your symptoms online. It will only make you crazy, they say. You’ll decide you’re dying when you actually just have a cold.
I’m pretty sure that afternoon spent with WebMD, The Mayo Clinic, and all those other cheesy medical websites saved my life.
The next morning I was back at the hospital. This time, I insisted that I be tested for malaria.
Today’s doctor all but rolled his eyes as he scoffed “Is there anything else I should test you for?”
An hour later, he was back, with an entirely different look on his face. It wasn’t pure panic but it was close.
“I’m admitting you immediately,” he said. “You have two strains of malaria.”
Once I was installed in my hospital room, wires connected, IVs dripping and machinery whirring around me, the doctor came back.
He explained that I had the two most serious types of malaria. I’m grateful that he didn’t tell me anything else right then.
When I tell people about this now, they seem to think that malaria is very common and isn’t all that serious.
But in this hospital, which neighbours one of the most virulent malaria regions in Asia, they hadn’t see a case of malaria for two years. They had to search around the neighbouring hospitals to even find the right drugs.
It was only later, after I was already cured, that I learned that the malaria I had had could cause blockages to the capillaries carrying blood to the brain, resulting in coma, brain damage, or death.
That first night in the hospital, nobody was really sure if the malaria meds would be effective or not. There was a real chance that I would never leave that hospital bed — not until they carried me out.
My husband was in Europe, my parents in Canada, and everyone else I cared about was scattered around the globe.
Those three days in hospital and the following week of recovery in Bangkok were the hardest of my travel life — maybe of my entire life.
I’m lucky to be here, telling my story.
If you want to read about my what it was like to stay in a Thai hospital, read the article I wrote for news.com.au. There’s a whole other story there!
But here, I want to get on to the point…
My Greatest Travel Mistake
So, what was my greatest travel mistake? Hubris? Overconfidence? Under-preparation? Maybe all three.
I have travelled a lot in my life. I’ve explored more than 50 countries and have been on the road full-time for 6 years. You’d think that would make me an expert, no-mistakes kind of traveller, but actually, it’s the opposite.
The more you travel, the less preparation you do. Research falls by the wayside and before you know it, you’re on the plane going to a country you know nothing about.
Though I had been to both Cambodia and Laos before, I failed to research the areas I was going to very well. I haven’t been to a vaccination clinic for years and didn’t even think about what shots I might need.
(Most of my vaccinations are up-to-date and I tend to just rely on those.)
Since I had done so much travelling by bike, I just assumed I didn’t really need to take anti-malarial pills. After all, I had never gotten malaria before, right?
As it turns out, if you look at malaria maps, the region I was travelling in is one of the most malaria-prone regions in the world. Of course, I didn’t find that out until it was too late!
I should have consulted a doctor or a travel vaccine specialist before travelling, even to a place I had been before.
Not doing so almost cost me my life.
Travel Insurance Works
You can never predict what’s going to happen to you while you travel.
Yes, near-death experiences are rare and travel is generally safe. But if something does happen, the last thing you want is to be worried about paying your medical expenses on top of everything else.
Even on our most hubristic and unprepared travel days, we would never leave home without travel insurance. Please make sure you don’t either!
We just discovered a new travel medical insurance we really like, from SafetyWing. Unlike traditional travel insurance, they let you pay month-to-month, so you don’t need to know your exact travel end date. It renews automatically each month until you cancel it.
SafetyWing also give you limited coverage in your home country, so you can visit your family every once-in-a-while! Plus, they’re underwritten by a big insurance company, so the coverage is reliable and claims are handled by experts.
Getting malaria almost cost me my life. What it didn’t cost me — thanks to my travel insurance — was a lot of money.
Though Thai hospitals are inexpensive compared to Western ones, it still wasn’t cheap! I had two doctors and at least 5 nurses looking after me.
The malaria medication they gave me was hard to find and not inexpensive. The head of the hospital came to see me every day and personally took care of me when I checked out. She even drove me to my hotel that night. That tells you just how much money they were making from my stay!
Since the hospital was so remote, I had to pay my entire bill when I checked out. After subtracting my deductible, my insurance company repaid the rest, plus they paid for my follow-up visits to the hospital in Bangkok.
It was a relief to know that I could seek out the best medical care, in the best hospital in Bangkok, and not have to worry about paying for it all!
If you’re getting ready to travel, don’t make the same mistakes I did! Get to a travel vaccine clinic right away and make sure to get travel insurance!
♥ Happy transformational travels, Jane & Stephen
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