Tap water in Southeast Asia is generally unsafe to drink – although there are some exceptions – and the cost of drinking water adds up fast. If you’re unprepared, buying bottled water or relying on filtered water from public dispensers, restaurants and your accommodation, can be an interesting challenge, as well as expensive!
Here at South East Asia Backpacker, we’ve spent more than a decade travelling in the region and have learnt a thing or two about how and when to save money on water, as well as when you need to avoid tap water like the plague.
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Is Tap Water in Southeast Asia Safe?
Tap water in Southeast Asia should be avoided in almost every country. While most countries in the region have decent treatment plants that clean water to international safety standards, they often have ageing plumbing systems, both inside the buildings and underground. These pipes can be corroded, damaged or even full of holes, allowing plenty of pathogens, particles and heavy metals to leech into the water before it reaches your tap!
Below we list exactly how you can safely use tap water in each Southeast Asian country!
- Potable: Only in Bandar Seri Begawan and only if the water is running clear. Tap water in Brunei is not potable outside capital.
- Okay for tooth brushing: Yes, unless the colour of the water changes.
- Ice: Safe to consume.
- Potable: Officially tap water in Cambodia is potable in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh but always ask at your accommodation to check. Many older buildings have water storage tanks that can be a breeding ground for dangerous pathogens.
- Okay for tooth brushing: Yes, unless you’re in a very rural area.
- Ice: Safe to consume.
- Potable: No, stick to bottled or filtered water.
- Okay for tooth brushing: No. Use bottled, filtered or boiled water for brushing your teeth. Ice: Only if it’s factory-made. Look out for cylindrical-shaped ice with a hole running down the middle.
- Potable: No, avoid drinking tap water in Indonesia.
- Okay for tooth brushing: No, it’s not recommended to brush your teeth with tap water in Indonesia.
- Ice: Ice in Indonesia is generally safe to consume.
- Potable: No, use bottled or filtered water for drinking.
- Okay for tooth brushing: In Vientiane it’s okay to brush your teeth with tap water. Elsewhere in the country, you should stick to bottled or filtered water.
- Ice: Ice in Laos is generally considered safe to consume.
- Potable: Generally tap water in Malaysia isn’t safe to drink. However, many buildings have filtration systems built in, so be sure to ask at your accommodation.
- Okay for tooth brushing: Yes, unless you have a very sensitive stomach or are concerned about the hygiene of where you’re staying.
- Ice: Ice in Malaysia is generally safe to consume.
- Potable: No, avoid drinking untreated tap water in Myanmar.
- Okay for tooth brushing: No, you should stick to bottled, filtered or boiled water for brushing your teeth.
- Ice: Most ice in Myanmar is safe to consume.
- Potable: Officially, tap water in the Manila Metropolitan Area is safe to drink. However, aging pipes mean it’s safer to drink filtered or bottled water. Outside of Manila, tap water should be avoided completely.
- Okay for tooth brushing: Outside of Manila, tap water isn’t considered safe for cleaning your teeth unless it’s been filtered or boiled.
- Ice: Most of the time, ice in the Philippines is safe to consume. If you have doubts, ask whether the water was made in a factory or in-house. Factory ice is perfectly safe. In-house ice may not be.
- Potable: Yes, tap water in Singapore is some of the cleanest in the world!
- Okay for tooth brushing: Yes.
- Ice: Ice in Singapore is safe to consume.
- Potable: No, tap water in Thailand is not potable except in Bangkok where it meets international safety standards. However, locals still tend to avoid it.
- Okay for tooth brushing: Generally, yes but many travellers tend to stick to bottled or filtered water.
- Ice: Ice in Thailand is safe to consume.
- Potable: No, water in Vietnam is considered unsafe to drink unless it’s been boiled or filtered.
- Okay for tooth brushing: In big towns and cities, Vietnamese tap water is okay for brushing your teeth but avoid doing so in more rural areas.
- Ice: Ice in Vietnam is usually safe to consume.
Bottled Water in Southeast Asia
Bottled water is common throughout Southeast Asia. Most hotels or higher-end hostels will give you a couple of small bottles of water each day. After this, it’s up to you to find your own.
Supermarkets and convenience stores like 7/11 are usually the cheapest places but you’ll find street vendors, cafés and restaurants all selling bottled water too – especially in touristy areas. Be prepared to pay much more for bottled water at a popular tourist attraction than you would elsewhere!
Water Dispensers in Southeast Asia
Many countries in Southeast Asia have public water dispensers. For a small fee, you can buy filtered water right on the street. You’ll need a travel bottle to fill up but if you don’t have one, just reuse any water bottle.
Often water from these dispensers costs a fraction of what you’d pay for bottled water. In Thailand, you can get a litre of water for just 1THB ($0.02USD)!
Keep an eye out for water dispensers wherever you go in the region but be aware they’re more common in some countries than others. In Thailand, they’re everywhere but in the Philippines, they’re much harder to find.
Filtering Water in Southeast Asia
In some Southeast Asian countries, it’s relatively commonplace for water filters to be fitted in people’s homes and businesses. These can be hit or miss. If they’re not serviced correctly, they may not remove as much as they should. However, if they’re looked after, a water filter allows you to drink tap water without worry. Always ask at your accommodation to see if they have a filter fitted.
You could also travel with a filter of your own. Filtered water bottles are readily available for travellers. Purifiers are better than filters because they remove viruses as well as bacteria, protozoa and particles. We recommend the Grayl UltraPress. It’s a durable purifier that will stand up to anything you throw at it while travelling!
Brushing Your Teeth in Southeast Asia
Without sounding too much like your mum here, remember to brush your teeth while travelling! In many countries, it’s safe to brush your teeth with tap water but be careful not to swallow any. If you have a sensitive stomach, are already feeling ill or just want to be safe, avoid using tap water to brush your teeth unless it’s been filtered or boiled.
Boiling Water to Drink in Southeast Asia
If you get stuck without access to clean water, you can boil tap water to drink in Southeast Asia. This isn’t a great long-term solution as it only kills pathogens and doesn’t remove chemicals or heavy metals from your water.
If you do resort to boiling water for drinking, follow these steps.
- If possible, boil water in a saucepan rather than using a kettle.
- Keep the water at a rolling boil for one minute. If you’re at an altitude over 1,000 metres, keep your water at a rolling boil for three minutes – water boils at a lower temperature at altitude, so you need to heat it for longer to kill off any pathogens. If you’re using a kettle, boil it several times.
- Allow your water to cool in a sterile container before drinking.
- If you’re in an area with very bad water, you can add three drops of bleach per litre to your boiled water to ensure it is safe to drink. If you have no access to bleach, you can also use a pinch of salt per litre. However, this is only important if you’re in an area with very bad tap water. Most travellers won’t need to worry about this step.
Top Tips for Getting Clean Drinking Water in Southeast Asia
- Ask locals if the tap water is drinkable or what the cheapest way to get safe drinking water is. Staff at your hostel should be able to tell you.
- Free water is often given out in restaurants. This is usually filtered or from a clean water dispenser. If you don’t trust the hygiene standards of a restaurant, stick to bottled water to be safe.
- Ice is generally safe to consume in Southeast Asia. It tends to be made in factories from purified or distilled water. Look out for cylindrical ice with a hole in the middle. This is a sign it’s been made in a factory.
- Get travel insurance in case you do get ill from drinking water in Southeast Asia. A good policy will cover you for any medical treatment you may require.
SafetyWing is the travel insurance of choice for scores of backpackers!
- Subscription style insurance
- Cheap and flexible
- Available after your trip has started
Drinking Water in Southeast Asia – A Round-Up
While the cost of safe drinking water in Southeast Asia is lower than most of us are used to at home, it can still add up over a longer trip. If you religiously stick to bottled water while travelling, expect to spend $50-$100USD per month. Opting to use water dispensers (where available), or getting your own filtered water bottle will save you money, especially if you’re travelling for more than a month or two!