02 August 2010

Bangkok Belly

Watching a business traveler go down literally with food poisoning, I belatedly realised I never gave the region's biggest health danger proper note in this blog. As a friend said it best, "Food poisoning is a fact of life here. It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when." Many locals mistaken the cause as being the extreme spice put in the local dishes. I didn't have the heart to correct them in saying it's poor food management, not extreme spice that is the guilty culprit.

The real danger is sanitation. From how fresh the food is to the handling throughout its life until it ended up in you hands. Americans saran wrap everything. Sealed plastic is the assurance we have come to take as a tamper-evident or a freshness seal.

Back to Thailand. More recently, food providers- cart vendors, restaurants, supermarkets- now have to go through Department of Health regulations in handling of food. It's a start. Food handlers, however, are not yet under the same strict regulations. Scary thought, isn't it? Even when and where is chicken is killed is unknown. Walk through a wet market, you can find live chicken, dead unfeathered chicken carcass, and grilled chicken-on-a-stick sitting right on the same stall.

My first day to work upon arrival in Bangkok, the driver and I were following a delivery truck. An open flatbed pick up with large blocks of ice stacked. Ice delivery. The ice weren't covered. The delivery men wore gloves to handle the cubes as  they picked out the quantity and dropped it off at the stores. Just imagine your raw chicken sitting on that melting  block during the hot 100 degree day until you stopped by for dinner.

Oh yeah. How long as the food been sitting out, waiting for the people to consume? Those food carts. Only the drink vendors have coolers. Ice cream vendors are few and far between. The climate certainly increases their demand. But the resources for keeping the dessert, well, frozen, is non-existent as carts aren't wired up for electricity. So how about the fish, eh? Before they put it on the grill. They certainly don't keep it on the charcoal grill the whole time otherwise it would be just a large piece of black soot.

Me, personally, I worry more about raw lettuce. Even in five star restaurants. Water is not necessarily potable and the lettuce leaf is just so hard to clean and dry. Two years and counting, I still haven't eaten a lettuce salad in Thailand. Most people I know who have encountered food poisoning ate lettuce.

The reality is with so many gaps in the food preparation chain and process, you never know when or what will hit you. And sometimes it is instantaneous. Sometimes it take a few days to catch up. For the most part, good sense and a healthy dose of caution minimises (but not excludes) one's chance of getting Bangkok Belly. If all else fails, huge bottles of water, cipro, and a couple days in bed with close access to the toilet. What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, albeit painfully.

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