Going to India? Prepare to get seriously ill! You might have heard some gruesome travel stories about people becoming bedridden for days in India because of contaminated tap water, badly-prepared food or the general lack of health standards. So did I. More friends wished me a happy “Delhi belly” than a happy journey. This inspired me to write this guide on how to avoid getting seriously ill on your trip to India. Although I think it’s almost impossible to survive India without at least a few stomach cramps or questionable stools, I managed to stay out of real trouble on my 4 week India adventure. I didn’t even have to give up trying as much of the delicious Indian cuisine as I could!
More friends wished me a happy “Delhi belly” than a happy journey.
So how can you prevent things from going nasty? There are a lot of urban myths out there, so I am going to base this article on my personal experiences. I spent 4 weeks in India starting in Delhi and traveling through Haridwar, Rishikesh, Amritsar, McLeod Ganj, Pushkar, Udaipur, and Agra. I ate almost exclusively at hole-in-the-wall style restaurants, street food vendors and local eateries, but never got any serious stomach problems. I followed the points mentioned below, especially at the beginning of my trip, to which I contribute not getting ill. Once my stomach got used to the new range of spices and the non-filtered (tap) water used for cooking, cleaning and personal hygiene, I was able to get a little bit sloppier. For instance, I would brush my teeth using tap water, not bottled water.
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1. Accept the fact that your poo will never stay completely solid, but not becoming bedridden is the goal
Don’t expect to have amazing poops throughout your stay in India. Especially if you will stay for a longer period (a few weeks or months) and plan to be an adventurous eater and local traveler (using public buses and trains). However, there is a difference in having some loose bowels and in your body getting completely drained of energy when you have a bad case of diarrhea, preventing you from getting out of bed to explore for days.
2. Use hand sanitizer before eating
I bought a bottle of hand sanitizer back in my home country, but you could easily get one at a pharmacy in India (although it might be way more hassle in a big city). I would recommend getting a travel-sized hand sanitizer with a spray top. Before any meal, I would spray it on both of my hands and rub them together; there is no need to dry them as the liquid evaporates within seconds. I would consider this an essential item to pack and use.
3. Always keep a toilet roll in your bag
You never know what kind of toilet (if any) you will be able to find in India. As the standard there isn’t toilet paper but a water hose or water-filled cup, it is handy to always carry a roll with you. You can buy single toilet rolls from one of the many small convenient stores (the ones with the rows of crisps hanging from the ceiling) for a fixed price of 50 Rs (about € 0.70).
4. When wandering to find food, only eat at food stalls or restaurants where you can see a lot of locals having a meal
Sometimes, even a Lonely Planet cannot help you find a suitable place to eat. When you’re near a bus or train station for instance and you’re desperately looking for food. This is where my nr. 1 rule on finding a place to eat comes in handy. I wouldn’t judge if a restaurant looks clean to me, as often you can’t judge the cleanliness and storage habits of the kitchen staff. A better way to judge is if a place has (many) people eating there. If there are children eating, that’s an even better giveaway that it’s a trusted place. When a place has to deal with many customers food tends to move fast, leaving less risk for ingredients being stored too long (or outside the fridge). However, do keep the next point in mind as well.
5. Eat vegetarian, local food, as meat and “Western” food might not be fresh
A great rule of thumb in any country is to do as the locals do. Many places have an extended (tourist) menu with Western dishes on it but guess what: the locals don’t eat it! Especially when it has any type of meat in it; Most Indian people don’t eat meat at all, which means that meat is stored for long periods of time until someone (read: a foreigner) orders it. To stay safe, eat vegetarian food in India. It is absolutely delicious anyway! 🙂
Usually a safe option in any restaurant is the “Thali”, which literally means plate. You will get a few bowls of different curries with some roti or naan bread; something Indian people eat a lot.
Usually a safe option in any restaurant is the “Thali”, which literally means plate. You will get a few bowls of different curries with some roti or naan bread; something Indian people eat a lot. In general, dishes that are cooked or (deep-) fried have less risk of coming out badly the other way.
Side note: I had some chicken on a few occasions, but only when it was recommended by a local that has eaten at the place many times; it was definitely worth it (my mouth still starts watering when I think about the butter chicken and tandoori chicken in Amritsar).
6. Don’t drink or use tap water, not even for brushing teeth
Using the tap water as little as possible is a good idea in India. Of course, you can’t really shower using bottled water, but not drinking the tap water and brushing your teeth using bottled water is a good idea. Some hostels let you refill filtered water for free, and I have seen some special machines dispensing filtered water for 5 rupee per liter at a few of the bigger train stations. I got a little bit sloppy towards the end of my trip and brushed my teeth with tap water without consequences. I guess my stomach was getting a bit more used to India.
7. Take plenty of selfies with locals, rumor has it that this keeps you healthy
If you believe in good karma, allowing the locals to take selfies with you can dramatically improve your health during your stay in India.
8. Bring diarrhea stopping pills in case you do get ill
I wouldn’t recommend taking any pills to prevent stomach issues, but a pack of diarrhea stopping pills would certainly help if things would go wrong regardless of your preventative actions. You can find these in any pharmacy in your home town or in India.
9. Have a few breaks from Indian food and eat some porridge or pancakes for breakfast
Yes, I know I have adviced against eating Western food earlier. However, when your stomach is bad for a few consecutive days, it’s time for some action. I found that a few “Western” fiber-rich dishes that are relatively safe to order can help fix this. Porridge or pancake for breafast are good options. If you have the opposite problem and are congested, (black) coffee or tea will certainly help.
10. Drink plenty of ginger lemon tea
I found ginger lemon tea (usually with honey added) on almost every menu in India. As the ingredients are fresh, this wonderful tea can help getting rid of stomach cramps naturally.