If you’ve never battled explosive traveler’s diarrhea are you really a true traveler? Because let’s be honest, it has happened to the best of us—usually at the worst time possible. As much as we all try to avoid it, it just happens. The delicious smell wafting from the street food carts conceals the days of agony that lie ahead.
From Southeast Asia to Latin America, these traveler’s diarrhea tales will make you triple-check that you’ve packed the loperamide.
A FISHY SITUATION
We only just arrived in Railay, a peninsula in Southern Thailand, the day before when shit got real. We were halfway through our month-long trip in the country and were careful not to choose street food that was sitting out and only drank sealed beverages. I’m still unable to pinpoint exactly what caused the traveler’s diarrhea since we were eating at various places, but the ‘runs’ couldn’t have come at a worse time.
We spontaneously decided to have one of the long-tail boats act as our chauffeur for the day so we could visit the nearby islands and snorkeling spots. After about 40 minutes on the water I felt that telltale rumble in my tummy and uh oh. A few minutes later we arrived at one of the more touristy islands that had a bathroom. All my hopes vanished when I saw that the shack consisted of three squat toilets with no doors, huge gaps under the stalls, and a line of tourists. I was desperate, but couldn’t get myself to use those toilets. It even briefly crossed my mind to swim out into the middle of the ocean (lol), but…gross. I knew I had emergency anti-diarrhea medicine back at the hotel, but we were out on the ocean and had a full day of outdoor adventures planned.
Luckily deep down at the bottom of our waterproof bag was a pack of the anti-diarrhea pills that weren’t even supposed to be there but was accidentally thrown in before we left to the boat. Although I had an upset stomach for the rest of the day, I no longer need to ‘go’ and was able to stick it out while we swam and explored the different islands. I didn’t poop again for the rest of our trip (nearly two weeks), but it was better than relieving myself in front of the fish.
Kalena McElroy from Lost and Abroad
traveler’s diarrhea horror stories: Thailand
Right before we got on the boat.
TO SUMMIT OR NOT TO SUMMIT
My stomach didn’t feel right when I woke up the next morning to continue with our summit attempt of Gunung Rinjani in Indonesia. At our campsite, halfway up an active volcano, I had to make do with the makeshift toilet set up by our guides. By the time I was done, our group was running late. I tried to shrug off the stomach ache and slight diarrhea as we started our hike in the dark. But I started feeling worse and soon I couldn’t hold it back any longer. High up on the volcano, this far out from the campsite with steep slopes on either side was not an ideal spot to feel diarrhea coming. I tried my best to hold it in while battling strong winds on the open terrain.
Finally we came across huge boulders to the side of the trail, and I thought this was my opportunity. As I made my way to a more secluded spot hidden behind the boulders, another hiker shouted out ‘Hey, that’s the wrong way!’ I was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say. Fortunately my friend next to me ended the situation by voicing the truth, though it probably didn’t help much with the embarrassment. It was a once in a lifetime experience relieving myself on a volcano, but it wasn’t an enjoyable moment. I tried to continue to the summit, but it was increasingly difficult with the constant feeling of having to rush to the toilet. In the end I gave up and turned back.
Thinking back, it was probably the food prepared on the way up by the tour group that got me sick. It was probably acceptable hygiene standards for the tour operators, but coming from the city with weaker immunity, I was not able to cope with it. If I do a similar trip in the future which involves outdoor cooking on the go, I’d take more caution with the food and bring medication to avoid a similar incident ruining my travel plans.
WE’RE GOING TO REGRET THIS
The sun was scorching in Herat, Afghanistan. I was dripping sweat under my hijab and modest clothes as I wandered around its old city with a friend, and I was in desperate need of relief. Deliverance seemingly appeared before me: a young man in a prayer cap serving soft ice cream cones from a puttering machine. We made a beeline for him.
My dream melted when he handed us our cones: they’re not ice cream per se, but rather soft ice made with tap water and milk powder. Nevertheless, I am a fearless traveler (translation: hot idiot) and an ice cream addict. We ate the icy concoctions, then looked at each other after the final bites of cone. “We’re going to regret this.”
Truer words were never spoken.
There’s nothing quite like staggering around Afghanistan while utterly exhausted from having yellow waterfalls gushing from your rear end 20+ times a day. Fear from stories of reused needles at local clinics stopped me from seeking medical attention, so I struggled on until I was literally too weak to stand two weeks later.
Finding a clinic that wouldn’t give me HIV turned out to be a challenge, as high level clinics in Afghanistan are shrouded in secrecy and blast walls for security. I finally located a clinic whose clientele were mostly foreign aid workers, and have the equivalent of a medical spa day for my beaten backpacker soul. Fresh linens and soft cushions on the bed, disease-free needles for my antibiotic-filled IV drip, tea on demand, and The Martian in English on a big screen TV at the foot of the bed.
Not bad I must say; all it took was a literal shit storm to get there.
Alex Reynolds from Lost With Purpose
traveler’s diarrhea horror stories: Afghanistan
Alex recovering in a clinic in Afghanistan.
THE BAD BELLY BLUES
Having traveler’s diarrhea while on holiday is no joke. We were away in Ecuador. On our Honeymoon to be exact. A night at the Hilton Colon was our downfall as we decided to play it safe and order room service. The rare burger seemed to be ok but it almost finished me off by the next morning. So, tip number one: no rare burgers. I felt rotten going down to breakfast and we had a bus tour before going on a flight to join our cruise ship in the Galapagos.
I drank weak tea in the hope of settling my stomach. This did not help. By the time we got to the airport I was feeling dreadful and I ran off in search of a toilet. The airport toilet was the stuff of nightmares, blocked and with no paper. I did the best I could and joined the queue for the flight. My wife looked suitably worried as we boarded the plane, I felt so ill I no longer cared what I was doing. Shortly into the take-off I used a sick bag, much to the disgust of the surrounding passengers. But I suppose there is a limit to discretion in these cases.
I just survived on the flight and I didn’t know whether to drink or not. Tip number two: drink water or juice and take some Diocalm with it as well. We landed and stood a long time in the sun waiting for our Zodiac to take us to the ship. I felt bad but was holding my own. A young Irish girl saved me by giving me a Rennie/Settler stomach antacid. This made me feel a bit better but I still felt drained. Upon reaching the ship I again felt safe and just wanted to slump on the bed and sleep. However, we found that our first tour was in ten minutes. So, off we went to join the Zodiac and we spent the rest of the afternoon looking at marine iguanas. Tip number three: after you take something to treat the diarrhea and sickness, soldier on don’t just flop.
Tracey Kifford from Pack The PJs
NOT SO SMOOTH SAILING
When visiting Brazil, my partner and I had the chance to sail down the Amazon River from Belem to Manaus. It was a back-to-basics experience: sleeping in hammocks, dirty toilets, and no showers, for a whole six days! It’s definitely one of those experiences I’ll never forget, for both good and bad reasons. The bad being the horrible experience of diarrhea. The first night on the boat I made the mistake of trying the onboard food. We had only been in Brazil a couple of weeks, on a trip throughout South America, so my body hadn’t fully adjusted to local food hygiene standards and after trying a dish of beef, noodles, vegetables, and beans (which actually tasted good) it was only a matter of hours before the dreaded traveler’s diarrhea set it.
Now, I mentioned earlier about the dirty toilets. Well, if you’ve ever seen the punishment box in Cool Hand Luke, you’ll know what I mean. Picture a tiny 1×2 meter steel box with no lights, little water supply, and no windows. There was a broken shower head above the toilet, of course, no toilet paper. They stank and when they overflowed, everything just stayed on the floor. So, imagine having to go to the toilet every 30 minutes thanks to stomach issues—it was not a great experience. This went on for nearly two days and my stomach never really recovered for the whole trip. But, it was all an experience and we made some great friends onboard. But, if I were to do it again, I would bring my own food and choose a different boat.
Bradley Williams from Dream Big, Travel Far
traveler’s diarrhea horror stories: Amazon River Cruise
Bradley trying to enjoy an Amazon River cruise.
Although short, our flight to Tunisia was not too pleasant simply because the drink cart didn’t get down to us and we were parched. Again no chance to stop for a drink before our bus transfer (one of the problems with package holidays). So when we arrived at our resort near the Hammamet Kasbah, we guzzled down the complimentary juice that had been provided for breakfast without thinking about the fact that it could have been mixed with local tap water or made with dodgy fruit!
Well, like clockwork, 12 hours later the tummy rumblings began! While I was sitting on my bed reading a magazine, all of a sudden that horrid sickly feeling came on. I discreetly legged it to the loo to avoid alarming my sweet mother who was enjoying the view from the balcony. I made it to the bathroom…but not quite to the sink or loo! Thank God for tiled floors and the bum gun, that’s all I’m saying! After my clean up operation I was pleased to realize that my mom had hardly noticed. I cast it off as period pains when she questioned my stomach pain and eating habits. I thought, let’s just hope she escaped!
Much to my disappointment and horror, she got it in full force at 3 am. The speed of the projectile vomit meant she didn’t even have a chance to get up, but she did manage to cover the Tunisian rug with a magazine!
Amy Trumpeter from Temple Seeker
traveler’s diarrhea horror stories: Tunisia
Amy making the most of her trip in Tunisia.
LONELY PLANET MISHAP
A good few years ago I was in Penang, Malaysia. I loved exploring the beautiful and quirky city and like any good lone backpacker, I was delighted when I made friends with a Belgian girl in my hostel. We had a great deal of fun exploring but we were very different types of travelers. She was the type that wouldn’t go anywhere without her Lonely Planet guidebook and I was a bit more of a lazy traveler, just happy to go with the flow. The day before, I was to take an overnight train to Bangkok, so she insisted we go to an eatery listed in Lonely Planet. One of the top suggestions was a little street food type Indian restaurant. That’s right—Indian food. The meal was alright but the repercussions were huge.
The next day I woke up in a bad way. I really needed to go to the toilet and it just kept on coming. One thing was sure, I had to make this stop before I took a 24-hour train ride to Bangkok a few hours later. I ran around the streets near my hostel looking for a pharmacy. The problem was that it was a Sunday so all the pharmacies were closed and I was panicking. I finally found a shop that was open and begged for any help they could offer. The solution they offered was Chinese medicine. I took more than the prescribed amount and went on my way.
Once on the train, a fellow traveler also offered me some western anti-diarrhoea medicine which I accepted and took. I was finally safe. Except for the opposite resulted because I had taken way too many tablets than necessary. The effect was a tummy ache that resulted in constipation and I couldn’t go to the toilet for a week. Well, I guess it was better than a crappy train ride. Be aware of Indian food in Penang guys!
Ann Marie from Eco-conscious Traveller
THE NO FLUSH PROBLEM
On the second leg of our overland trip taking trains from Kuala Lumpur to England, we had a stop in Penang for a week. We left there excited but on the ferry across to Butterworth Station, my husband started feeling seedy and by the time we got there the ‘runs’ had hit. We put it down to eating in a tourist restaurant while we were out exploring on a motorbike the previous night. I of course was all smug thinking at least it’s not me, which as it turns out were famous last words.
I was fine until we got to the border of Thailand. We got off the train and passed through passport control, me all the time wanting to find a toilet. Of course being in Asia, the toilet did not work as I was used to and would not flush so I walked out embarrassed saying to the next person “Don’t use that one it’s disgusting and won’t flush” while trying to look as innocent as I could.
Back on the train, Ron was feeling a lot better while I was going downhill rapidly. One minute I was chatting to everyone around us and the next I was vomiting everywhere. Thankfully a quick thinking young man handed me a plastic bag, but the poor girls around me turned green. During the night things settled a bit although at one stage I bolted to the loo with the bag that my sheets had been in only to discover it had a hole in it—there was a bit of cleaning up to do. As always we survived the experience and now a few years later it brings a smile to our faces. Interestingly, in three years on the road this was the only time both of us had the ‘runs’ so we are grateful for that.
Ron and Michele Legge from Less Things-More Experience
traveler’s diarrhea horror stories: Train
Michele missed the countryside views while she suffered on the train.
ATTACK OF THE SAUSAGES
My first time in Guatemala was one that I’ll never forget. It’s the trip where I spent more time on the toilet than engaged in the purpose of what I went there for: learning Spanish. Tasting new flavors and experiencing new foods—we all know that street food is one of the delights of traveling. However, late one night after eight hours of traveling solo from Mexico, I stopped to get a bite to eat and had not considered that the food might not have been cooked properly. It was dark, but the sausage looked well cooked and was charred on the outside; it even tasted great!
The next day everything seemed normal. I just finished my first day of Spanish lessons when all of a sudden around 5 pm, I needed the toilet. I rushed to the nearest one I could find and as soon as I sat down, I knew something wasn’t right. This is where the revenge of the sausage hit me.
It got worse. I found myself returning to the toilet every couple of hours and couldn’t eat anything without having a toilet within a five-meter radius. After laying in bed for almost a week, I’d missed out on half of my Spanish classes and had to skip many other activities I’d planned. After a week of toilet torture, I asked my host to get me some pills that for some reason, in the beginning, I didn’t really want to take. Three days later I was back to normal. I must have lost a few pounds, but hey I could eat without sitting on the toilet for half an hour. The lesson I learned from this trip was that when traveling, always remember to make sure there is adequate lighting for you to be able to thoroughly check if your food has been cooked properly.
Daniel James from Layer Culture
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN! SHARE YOUR TRAVELER’S DIARRHEA HORROR STORY IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.