I spent several months in Cambodia this year. What an experience. There is something out of this world about spending time in South East Asia. The heat, the unusual smells, green foliage, rainy seasons, natural wonders, plastic and food all a stark contrast to my ‘normal’ life in France or even Australia. Since a very young age, my parents have taken me travelling all around the world. Thank you parents!
I remember that one of our last family holidays when I was around 9 was to Bali, Indonesia, but what I also remember is that out of the 3 week trip, I spent at least 2 of those weeks sick in bed. The curtains drawn closed to the beating sun and a bucket by the side of my head.
When I was 18 my father took me on a trip to Thailand to complete my Divemaster certification on Koh Samui. We spent the three weeks diving, drinking and sure enough vomiting.
The trip to Philippines, while slightly less gruesome, also concluded in several days of fevers and upset stomachs.
I returned to Asia a few more times and the formula never deviated. A few weeks of exotic bliss followed by a few days confined to my bathroom.
“Eat Rice” is the only advice the locals gave me as I was losing probably half my weight into the toilets.
Cambodia and No Food Poisoning
However, this year, even after spending a total of 2 months in Cambodia, I did not once find myself locked in a toilet wishing for salvation. This was also the only time that I truly lived like a local. Whether it was in a tent and haphazardly build shelter, or in a bungalow on the beach. I washed myself in well water, brushed my teeth with well water, drank rain water through a filter and cooked majority of my own meals.
Still no upset belly.
I did not pay much attention to it, however I constantly met people who were telling me their own horror stories of food poisoning. I slowly started noticing at how the locals treated their own food. The tuna steaks would hang in a plastic bag on a hook for a couple of days before being cooked. The slabs of meat placed on top of the fridge for the duration of 40 degree celcius days. The flies made homes on the meat and buzzed around the kitchens.
Then it dawned on me, what was the biggest difference between all my previous trips to Asia and Cambodia? This time I was vegan.
I was only consuming foods that cannot get spoilt! While everyone blames the water the food is cooked in or the ice cubes in the drinks they serve, no one ever looks at the true culprit.
The animal products.
Every time you eat a meal with meat, dairy or eggs, you are automatically eating carcinogens, bacteria, hormones and antibiotics. Even in the US, a high percentage of meat from chickens, turkeys, cows, fish and pigs is contaminated with E.coli. While in Cambodia, the amount of antibiotics in the meat would be significantly lower than in the USA, their storing practises are also much more lax.
According to google, food poisoning occurs
“ Often, people get food poisoning from animal-based foods — like meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, and seafood. But unwashed fruits, vegetables, and other raw foods also can get contaminated and make someone sick.”
Basically, animal based foods cause the food poisoning, but if they have touched a vegetable, then maybe that vegetable can also make you sick due to touching the contaminated meat.
Yeah. So. While the water in Asia is probably filled with all sorts of bacteria and it is advisable to use a filter or drink bottled water (please don’t), eating the meat and dairy is the most likely cause of food poisoning in foreigners.
Just think about it : even if the cheese is in perfect condition, people in asia are nearly all lactose intolerant because their evolution did not bring them into contact with dairy. Since they do not eat this ‘western’ food, it is also possible they do not think to refrigerate it. Allowing for the bacteria to multiply and cause further damage inside the foreigners stomach.
What about all their meat hanging on hooks by the side of the road in rural areas? They’re all used to consuming it like that. They don’t have enormous supermarkets with antibiotic pumped meat vacuum packed in plastic.
How Come The Locals Don’t Get Sick?
Their usual diet is filled with rice, vegetables and the occasional fish, crab or chicken they catch. No wonder they kept telling me to eat rice. It is the starch responsible for feeding billions of the population for 80% of their diet.
When this realisation came to me, I was absolutely stunned. Could I have really solved Bali Belly just by eliminating meat from my diet? Yet another benefit to eating vegan. No need to waste any of your holiday hidden away in your bathroom because you immediately decrease the probability of eating contaminated food!
I’m not saying that I wanted to put this to the test by trying some food with animal product, but of course, this universe knows I am a scientist so it put me to the test.
On my last evening in Cambodia my friend Dan who is one of the founders of Otres Eco Community, showed me around Otres village. Since he has lived there for several months he knew the best local restaurant to take me to. Unfortunately for us, when we arrived the entire restaurant was shut to celebrate the birthday of one of the families daughters. She was there all dressed up in her princess costume, party hat on her head running around laughing.
The Time I Ate Meat
While we were ready to wish her a happy birthday and proceed to find another place to eat, their family roped in Dan into the celebrations! They sat us down and promptly gave us two beers. We cheersed and thanked them for their generosity. Before even taking our second sips a giant bowl of rice was placed in front of us by an extremely proud grandmother. Her family members were closely behind her with at least four different dishes of all sorts. We attempted to signal that we didn’t want the food. But who stands in the way of a happy grandmother?
I took a closer look at the food infront of me and stared in horror. Well.. there it is. Friend chicken. I don’t mean KFC type of friend chicken. The unknown shaped bits of chicken. I mean
“There’s the chicken head!”
“Oh and there’s the foot”
My omnivore friend looks at the plate in mild terror and I cannot help but chuckle. This is how vegans feel when they see any meat on a plate. It’s not food after a while. (More on that topic in another post)
It was slowly dawning on me that I would have to eat something to appease the expectant eyes of the entire 20 people family smiling at us. So I scoop up the rice and gingerly poke at the other dishes.
- A green curry.
- All the pieces of chicken.
- Some questionable red sauce with obvious beef sticking out.
I decided to have a little of the green curry sauce, just the sauce over my giant pile of rice. I tried my best to avoid any pieces of meat, however I probably ate some.
Luckily a second omnivore showed up for his dinner and we managed to rope him into helping with the enormous and non-dwindling pile of food. Between the three of us digging into the dishes we managed to make a dent in them
Soon after I headed home to my hostel and horror struck. The dreaded food poisoning had hit. I just made it out of my tuk tuk and stumbled into the toilets of my hostel. That was where I stayed for the next hour or so.
Unluckily for me, the next day help a 5 hour drive in a bus and a 14h flight. It was not pleasant. It did however confirm my hypothesis : the food poisoning comes from animal products.
Therefore if you go traveling, especially to areas far from your original gut bacteria, try eating plants and see if you can avoid ruining those few days of your holiday! If you do not know how to start, I have developed a 21 day vegan program for you to try.