For years I thought visiting Southeast Asia was a no go, I’d convinced myself that as someone with a peanut allergy, it was simply too risky. My main concerns were language barriers, lack of ‘safe’ food and my fears about potential misunderstandings regarding the severity of my allergy. Well, I was wrong.
Ok, I haven’t yet braved Myanmar (a peanut giant of the world) but I survived Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia without a single issue.
The first thing to highlight is that generally, people are good. Funnily enough, restaurant owners and servers don’t really want you dropping dead on their table. It’s not great for future business. But, all joking aside, a bit of preparation goes a long way.
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Travelling with a Peanut Allergy: My Top Tips
Here I’ll tell you about some of my experiences travelling around Southeast Asia with a food allergy and include my best tips so that fellow sufferers can hopefully travel with peace of mind.
Learn the names of dishes
Firstly, I must say that as a pescatarian, I didn’t have to worry about a lot of the local cuisines, as the meaty meals were off the cards for me anyway. But whatever your allergy, my first big tip is, know your nemesis.
Learn the name of the dishes you should avoid at all costs, in both the native language(s) of that country and English (written and spoken). Basically, seek out what dishes your allergy is a staple ingredient of. This is a good place to start as you’ll know when looking at local menus what to avoid straight away. Of course, it’s not always black and white, I can spot when a Pad Thai has crushed peanuts on the side and when it doesn’t, but I can’t tell whether the noodles and veggies in a dish are cooked in peanut oil. It still helps to narrow down your options.
In the same respect, know your *safe* meals too by learning the names of the local dishes which *should* be safe for you. I stayed away from a lot of fried dishes but generally boiled options were safer for me. But of course, you should always check further.
Basically, trust your gut. On day one of my trip to Kuala Lumpur I narrowly avoided an issue (through my own naivety) when I was about to eat a hash brown (not the most Malaysian of foods, I know) at my internationally renowned hotel chain’s continental breakfast buffet. As I was about to take a bite, something dawned on me. It didn’t feel quite right as it was soggier than a typical hashbrown, so I checked with the chef what oil it was cooked in, and you guessed it, peanut oil. Yikes.
From this point onwards, the staff were incredibly accommodating and insisted on making me hash browns cooked in vegetable oil, so I made sure that my thanks and gratitude were known to the restaurant manager. But needless to say, I checked every single bit of food thereafter!
Invest in translation cards
Super simple, carry a small card that fits in your wallet, with your allergy details in the local language. There are lots of websites where you can generate cards for a range of allergies and they’ll often include different phrases, medical symbols and details for local emergency services etc.
It’s important that the cards convey the severity of your allergy. I’m sure the phrase “If I touch or eat any amount of peanut I could die right here” got my servers’ attention. It’s also really handy, especially if you’re travelling alone, to have phrases translated to explain to onlookers about what they should do if you’re having a reaction, e.g. administer an EpiPen, call an ambulance etc.
You can create your own cards, but I found it pretty reasonable to pay a few quid for a trusted translation. Oh, also, make sure you have spares for the occasions when you leave them on restaurant tables. I’d suggest laminating them too, a rain-soaked soggy bit of ink on paper is of no use to you.
Get apps and make recordings
Ok, you’ve got your printed cards stashed in your bum bag, next up is a translation app. This is so helpful when you’re having a conversation with staff in a restaurant or a shop. You can get some apps with prebuilt phrases, but I splashed the cash on a live translation app, where I could speak into my phone in English and it would read aloud in the local language, and vice versa (mind blown). I genuinely think this kind of technology is a game-changer for breaking down language barriers and they’re becoming increasingly more affordable.
Now, it’s not always perfect, especially when there are different local dialects to contend with, or if your app only translates the most common languages used across the world. This is where a recording is handy too.
For example, I was travelling in rural parts of Laos, where some of the locals couldn’t read Lao script, and with the lack of WiFi, I couldn’t use the live voice translation. Luckily (as I discovered again and again), the locals were super accommodating and we found a way to understand each other, so I had no issues. But when you’re in the major cities, and you do come across a local who has good enough comprehension of your local language to understand your need, politely ask them if they’ll do a recording for you. Then you’ve got all bases covered. Well almost all…
If you want to go one step further, which I would advise doing if your allergy is particularly severe and life-threatening, utilise the universal language of clipart images. Trust me, the image of a peanut behind a big red cross next to a picture of skull and crossbones generally gets the message across.
Scan the shops
Firstly, you’ll be surprised at how many safe foods you can find in the shops. Especially in chains like 7/11 – a lot of the packaged foods have ingredients listed in English (and their cheese and garlic bread toasties are to die for). But even at the local shop fronts, some of the items have English translations on their packets too. Also, I often found that a Magnum ice cream or bag of ‘Lays’ was never too far away.
The second reason to scan the shops, and one I hadn’t considered until I started my travels, is that in shops you have more time to browse than when you’re at a bustling street vendor or popular restaurant. So, if you’re a peanut allergy sufferer like me, when you’re in the supermarket go straight to the oil aisle (it’s a thing); take photos of the large oil cans and bottles and use your translation app, then make a note of which ones are safe and not safe for you. Then when you’re visiting vendors you can ask to see their oil – sure, it may be the first time they’ve heard this request, but it’s pretty efficient in helping you decide whether you can order food.
Play it safe and make sacrifices
Sometimes you may feel like you’re missing out on some of the incredible local street food that the region is so famous for, but it’s just not worth the risk. Whenever I ate a meal, I would first take the tiniest bite and wait. Once I was confident that my lips, mouth and throat weren’t swelling – I would then devour the delicacy.
Next up, a quite controversial topic, but one I now take a strong stance on – it is ok to eat from the golden arches (especially as an allergy sufferer, I won’t judge you). Ok, it’s not the cheapest or probably the tastiest of options, but it’s pretty safe. Also, you can still make some surprising discoveries. I can confidently say that Thailand’s KFC fish burger is far superior to the more well-known, filet-o-fish (sorry McDonalds). Take note KFC UK, you could learn a thing or two from your Southeast Asian friends.
Take spare medication
Just like with your translation cards, take spares of the medication you may need. I was travelling with three EpiPens, (of course, I had no intention of using any of them), but they were there if I ever needed them. Another reason that this is a good idea is that when you’re travelling outside of major cities, your medication may not be available in local pharmacies, so make sure you have plenty of supplies.
On the same topic, when travelling with unusual medication (lots of people questioned why I carried three needles around) it’s important to have the necessary paperwork. For example, for some airlines, I required a letter from my doctor as an authority to carry needles on board. In some parts of the world, I also had to declare why I was taking the quantities I was intending to carry, but this was resolved by some simple form filling.
Chances are that you’ll never need to show the proof to anyone. Even when I was questioned, a quick explanation from my translation app sufficed, but if you do choose to cut corners, you run the risk of being stung for it.
In summary, it’s simply down to two things – being prepared and cautious. You can’t eradicate the danger entirely (just like how you can’t remove all chance of being hit by a bus) but you can minimise risks and take small steps so that you can focus your time and energy on enjoying your travel experience.