The Worst Travel Ailments I’ve Ever Experienced

by Brenna Holeman

Backpack in Thailand

I May Have Hacked Up A Lung On That Bed, Koh Tao, Thailand

In no particular order, here are the worst/most painful/grossest travel ailments/injuries/sicknesses I’ve ever had.


1. Stomach Virus, Marrakech, Morocco: I was abuzz with energy as I walked through Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s most famous square. I had been there a few times before, and had eaten at many food stalls and restaurants in the square with no disastrous results. On this particular night, however, I blame the orange juice. Tempted by the glistening citrus globes, I stopped for a glass of what I thought must be the freshest, best-tasting glass of orange juice in Africa. I even snapped a few photos of me enjoying the beverage. Giving my glass back to the seller, I couldn’t help but notice that he simply wiped the glass with a dirty rag and then refilled it with orange juice to hand to another customer. “Uh oh,” I remember thinking. Uh oh was right. Within 24 hours, I was sicker than a dog, unable to keep any food down (or in, if I may be so graphic). Luckily I was headed back to Canada shortly thereafter, but my illness lasted for weeks afterward. I’ll never know if it really was that glass of orange juice; I do know that I got sick the next time I went to Morocco, so perhaps there’s just something in the water (i.e. there really is something in the water).

2. Attack of the Leech, Luang Prabang, Laos: I’ve written about this before, so I won’t say much here, only that it was pretty gross, and there was a lot of blood.

3. Bladder Infection, Copenhagen, Denmark: I’m sure you have gathered by now that I’m not holding anything back, so here goes. When I was in my teenage years/early twenties, I suffered from a few bladder infections. They are fairly harmless as long as you catch them quickly and are able to visit a doctor right away, but they can, as anyone who has had one can tell you, be extremely painful. I woke up one morning in Copenhagen feeling a bit under the weather, and by that night, I knew I had a full-blown UTI. Trying to be a trooper (here’s a travel tip: NEVER try to be a trooper if you are seriously in pain), I waited it out until morning, thinking that if I drank enough cranberry juice and water it would just go away. By 7am, I knew I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked my travel companion to take me to the nearest hospital by taxi, but, again, trying to be a trooper (seriously, never try to be a trooper), I agreed to the much cheaper yet much slower subway system instead. By the time I got the hospital, I remember nearly blacking out from the pain. A few hours later, after seeing the nicest doctor I have ever encountered, I was back at the flat where I was staying with some medicine. The medicine takes time to kick in, however, and I still had the overwhelming urge to use the toilet every five minutes. Lo and behold, the flat’s bathroom was being renovated, so I had to wait it out. I shudder when I think about those days in Copenhagen.

4. Infected Cut, Hoi An, Vietnam: I was living in Japan but on vacation in Vietnam for a few weeks. The days were beautiful and long, filled with sunshine and strong coffee and, whoopsie, some broken glass on the beach. But how bad can a cut on the bottom of your foot really get, right? I didn’t think much of it despite the fact that the cut wasn’t healing (another travel tip: always listen to your body, and pay attention to the signs that something is seriously wrong). Fast forward two weeks, when I’m back in Japan, and I’m sobbing on a subway trying to get to a doctor to see about my horribly deformed and painful foot (why I never splurge on a cab in these instances is beyond me). I remember putting my foot up on the table, the doctor taking one look at it, and him saying, “Wow, good thing you came to me now, otherwise in a few weeks your foot would look like an elephant’s and I would have to cut it off, ha ha ha!” Oh, that Japanese humour. He was joking, right?!

5. Sunburn, Oaxaca, Mexico: Well, this was just stupid. I had already spent a few weeks in Oaxaca visiting my sister, and thought myself immune to the sun. We woke up early to catch the sunrise over the beach in Mazunte, slathered on some sun cream, then spent the day walking up and down the beach, floating in the water, and lounging on a towel…without reapplying sun cream. By nightfall, my back was as red as the fires of hell, and just as hot. I remember lying face down on the hotel bed, sobbing in pain, and getting my sister to spray cold water on my back. The next day we had a long bus ride, and I could barely wear a shirt, let alone let my back touch the seat of the bus. That was a fun journey. Here’s yet another travel tip: always wear sun cream, and reapply it often.

6. Bedbug Attack, Alberta, Canada: Seriously, Edmonton? Of all the places I’ve stayed, I’ve only had bedbugs twice. Once was in Singapore, and the other was in Edmonton. I just find that very strange. Anyway, my travel partner and I were trying to save a few bucks as we were winding down a trip across Canada that had been much more expensive than we had originally planned. We debated staying in a nice Holiday Inn-type place on the outskirts of Edmonton (cable tv! pool! king-sized beds!) but opted instead to save twenty dollars and stayed at a nearby motel (here’s another travel tip: always spend the extra twenty dollars). We walked into a room with stains on the walls, two very mangy twin beds, and a stench in the air that could have only been stale cigarettes, empty beer bottles, and broken dreams. We tried to make the best of it, however, watching stupid reality TV and taking hilarious photos. The next morning, as we were driving to Red Deer to meet my aunt, I felt a little itchy bump on my face. No big deal, right? Within hours, my entire body was covered in red bumps, those tell-tale lines of bites that bedbugs leave. I had to buy anti-itch cream by the gallon and slather it all over my body. I distinctly remember going to pay for an herbal tea in a shop and having the cashier recoil from my money-bearing hands as if I were a leper. Here’s ANOTHER travel tip: always check the bed for bedbugs.

7. Bronchitis/ Lung Infection, Thailand: I’ve saved the worst for last. I arrived in Hong Kong in early January, 2011, and immediately my throat began to feel a little bit gummy. Within a few days, I had a minor sore throat, but I sucked on a few lozenges and chalked it up to a new environment. By the time I got to Koh Lanta, Thailand, I was still feeling a bit ill, but again, didn’t think much of it. By the following week, however, I knew something wasn’t right; I was now running a fever, had a severely sore throat, was coughing a lot, and my ears and nose were totally plugged. Luckily, or unluckily, I was staying with my best friend just off of Khao San Road in Bangkok. For those who have been there or who know of the street, you know that it is a haven for young backpackers looking to party and spend money and see very little of Thai culture. It is loud and overwhelming and dirty and very much NOT the place you want to be overcome with a terrible illness. It does, however, have a lot of good pharmacies with a lot of cheap drugs. I stocked up on every available medicine out there and attempted to drug myself into oblivion until the illness passed. Lying in my darkened room, the fan spinning overhead, sweat running down my face, I definitely thought I was going crazy. I somehow managed to still do a bit of sightseeing, however, and felt well enough to fly to Burma. I went through waves of feeling incredibly sick in Rangoon, but thought I was better by the time I flew back to Thailand.

We headed to Koh Tao and I did my Open Water Scuba Certification, despite it very clearly saying in the course that you should not dive if you have any ear, nose, or throat ailments (and I had all three). YET ANOTHER travel tip: ALWAYS follow the rules when it comes to diving. Of course, within days, my sore throat and other various symptoms had come back tenfold, and by the time I got to Koh Phangan, I was so sick that I needed to use an inhaler, sleep sitting up, and take an average of seven different medicines a day just to function. I couldn’t hear, my nose ran 24/7, I had constant coughing fits that doubled me over, and a fever of 103. I ended up with bronchitis and a lung infection (probably exacerbated by the heavy partying I did, because despite all of those ailments I still drank buckets of cheap whiskey and made out with random travellers. Do I even need to write the very obvious travel tip there?).

In the end, I spent $400 on hospital and pharmacy bills, pulled all the muscles in my ribs from coughing so badly, ruptured an eardrum, and probably gave a lot of boys sore throats. I didn’t feel 100% better for another two months. Sitting up in my disgustingly dirty hotel room in Koh Phangan, attempting to sleep, crying from pain and frustration, having coughing fits, trying to avoid the cockroaches that were literally crawling over my body in bed, and sweating in the ridiculously hot temperatures: it’s the only time in all my years of travel that I thought, “I want to go home.”


Well, there you have it, just a few of the ailments I’ve had over the years. I’m sure I’ve had many more (there are quite a few upset stomachs I didn’t write about), but overall, I think I’ve been really, really lucky. I’ve never had stitches, broken a bone, or done any serious damage to my body while on the road. I didn’t even get sick in India, for goodness’ sake!

Do you have any tales of illness/injuries on the road?

*Update: I wrote Part Two and Part Three!*

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Shawna Elizabeth April 2, 2012 - 4:29 am

I love this post! Is that morbid? Don’t answer that.

This Battered Suitcase April 2, 2012 - 5:03 am

I loved writing that post, and am already thinking of more disgusting tales to tell. If you’re morbid, I’m right there with you.

expatkerri April 2, 2012 - 6:14 am

such a good idea for a post!! i think my worst (best?) ailment so far was when the elephant pinned me to the ground and my ear had to be stitched back on 🙂

Audrey | That Backpacker April 2, 2012 - 2:48 pm

My worst ailment was in Goa, India but it was all my wrongdoing… It started off as a little scratch in my throat that could’ve been nursed back to health, but I chose to smoke hookah, drink liquor, and have a grand old time – until I hit rock bottom. Quite reminiscent of your story in Thailand….ughhhhh!

Christine loves to Travel April 2, 2012 - 2:51 pm

I had the worst food poisoning in Krabi, Thailand! It was not fun! I was up all day and night from bathroom trips and vomiting!

I still cringe when I think about that.

I hate being sick while traveling. Worst feeling in the world.

renee April 2, 2012 - 7:21 pm

Oh my goodness that last story is intense. While in bangladesh i had a couple bouts of ‘Dhaka Belly’, one while we didn’t have any running water, that was less than fun. I also had a kidney stone, again while there was no running water. Not pleasant at all. But I can say I survived!

Jessie April 2, 2012 - 11:09 pm

I literally laughed out loud at the Apocalypse Now link!

My worst travel incident was breaking my wrist in an auto-rickshaw accident in India. The hours I spent at the hospital were some of my most interesting of my entire time in India.

This Battered Suitcase April 2, 2012 - 11:57 pm

Kerri – Oh yeah, just a minor injury. Just your ear ripped off by an elephant.

Audrey – Why didn’t I just spend a few days in bed instead of partying and going out all the time? I wonder if I’ll ever learn…

Christine – I had the hangover from hell in the Philippines once; I spent two days throwing up in a little outhouse. Being sick is the absolute worst, you’re right!

Renee – Ugh…no running water while sick, how horrible! But you’re right, we survived…

Jessie – I honestly was one with Martin Sheen at that point. Your accident sounds horrible, I can’t even imagine being in that situation!!

Sarah Dobson April 3, 2012 - 4:34 am

AH awesome, awesome post. I didn’t get sick at all for six weeks that I spent in Tanzania, but I certainly did during my flight home from Amsterdam to TO. I was sweating and going to the bathroom every 20 minutes or so. I had a window seat. It was my first international flight and my first time flying alone. I had no clue I could’ve asked for some help! Anyways, after a miserable 7 hours, the plane lands and I’m too weak to stand up, let alone gather my bags and get on my flight to Halifax. I wave down a flight attendant who gets me wheeled off the plane. I’m then quarantined and questioned and examined, cleared of bringing in something freaky from Africa and sent away in an ambulance. It took 30 minutes to get to the hospital from the airport and I was still getting sick from uh, both ends. Cute paramedic must have loved me. I got a bed in emergency right away and was shot up with gravol and made to drink loads of liquid. A family friend rescued me about 6 hours later when I could move again and I got a flight the next day. Whew that was long1

This Battered Suitcase April 3, 2012 - 4:44 am

Gah!! That is horrible!! I was cringing with sympathy when I read that, being sick on the plane is the absolute worst!

Hati April 3, 2012 - 5:36 pm

Best post I have read on this website! 🙂

Marcus75 April 3, 2012 - 11:43 pm

This comment has been removed by the author.

Marcus75 April 4, 2012 - 12:06 am

Cool blog! I came across your site via Expatkerri. Besides my usual upset stomach from eating foods from overseas, I had a nasty ear infection while I was in a small town in China. I went to the local hospital and the doctor had to get her medical books out to try to help me. I had the ear infection throughout my entire China trip which was terrible!

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Amy June 6, 2012 - 12:34 am

Your post (misery) made me giggle out loud. Thanks for sharing. I’m grateful that, so far, my trips have been void of illness.

amoureuse July 22, 2012 - 7:02 pm

Can I assume that after all these experiences you’re a big proponent of buying travel insurance?!

This Battered Suitcase July 23, 2012 - 2:28 am

Thank you for your comments and sympathy, everyone!! Yes, I have travel insurance 😉

kellyabroad September 22, 2012 - 4:27 am

I’ve had a “sick day” today and felt horribly guilty for it, but I think you’re correct- always listen to your body! These stories make me feel slightly better about my sick day, is that bad?

This Battered Suitcase September 26, 2012 - 3:44 am

Kellyabroad – Ha ha, not at all! Misery loves company!! 🙂

Logan August 20, 2013 - 1:45 pm

Damn it, I’m in Marrakech right now and I was enjoying a glass of fresh OJ at the Djemma el Fna. As I watched the vendor take my glass, refill it and hand it to another customer (no dirty rag even) i thought to myself, “Why does this all seem familiar?” “Shit, did Brenna write about this in one of her sickness blogs?”

Now that I’ve gone back and re-read the article, I can confirm this and hope I don’t catch the same bug you had. I already had that one in Bagan, Myanmar about 6 months ago…definitely not a fun one 

robert October 18, 2013 - 1:18 am

The treatments i have found in the last 5yrs of traveling that I relie on now and only wish i knew about in the previous 18yrs of travel to far flung corners of the world are (in my personal experience) as follows:
MMS a mineral solution that is good for bad stomach/malaria/ and for cleaning drinking water/teeth and much much more see
colloidal (ionic silver) very good for eye infections and cuts /pimples tasteless so you can add it to food drink to cleanse if your really not sure it’s hygienically prepared. can make yourself as it is expensive to buy in health shops. No harm to friendly gut bacteria.
for helicobacter and campliobacter (causing food poisoning, diarrhea, ulcers) type stomach and intestine inflammations no other is better as there are no antibiotics that are affective in these cases than manuka honey lozenges only the ones by are strong enough – natural but very strong taste!
Also vit C in a low acid form and big doses is very good for keeping healthy.
arnica is my other must have with me as a spray very good antiviral for those long flights to keep the flu away. and extra good pain killer if you do get bruisies skiing of twist ankle walking.
Thats my compact drug free med kit!

keep traveling – it spreads understanding and love.

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Liz February 14, 2014 - 8:52 am

eeek, your poor body! I can understand wanting to be a trooper and just suck it up and hope for the, but like you said that never works out well in the end. Roberts Med kit sounds like a good idea, think i should be carrying along a med kit myself next time i travel.

My worst injury on the road was an infected cut on the side of my foot, while i was in sri lanka, and although i had applied an antiseptic cream to it, I didn’t give it time to heal, and went ahead and swam in the ocean, took surfing lessons, walked out temples barefoot, needless to say that wound took ages to heal, and my foot was always swollen and hurting at the end of each day, and only managed fully to heal after I got back home but it did leave a pretty bad scar!

Brenna Holeman February 15, 2014 - 3:47 pm

I always carry a first aid kit now! Definitely learned the hard way…

I hate cutting my foot, it always takes ages to heal… especially on beaches!

Louise March 2, 2014 - 4:09 pm

Hi Brenna!

I’ve been following you for a long time and using a lot of your travel advice and inspiration, so thanks for that. Looking through your website today, I suddenly got curious to see if you’d ever visited my home country, Denmark. And excited, I click the Denmark category to read about your adventures there. But then realize the only thing you wrote about was a bladder infection. That’s sad! I’m sorry to see that’s your only impression of Denmark.

Louise (Copenhagen, Denmark).

Brenna Holeman March 2, 2014 - 4:12 pm

I’m so sorry Louise, I have a lot more to say about Copenhagen! That is certainly not my only impression of Denmark – it’s just that I was there well before I started this blog. I actually lived there for a few months in 2006, and have been three times in total. I’d love to go back so that I can share even more stories of my time in Denmark on the blog!

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