Tips for traveling to Cambodia with diabetes

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“The sun is a very magic fellow
He shines down on me each day”
—Donovan

Cambodia is a struggling nation that continues to try to lift itself up to full, modern, world-class status. While traveling to Cambodia with diabetes may seem challenging, with a little preparation and knowledge you’ll have a fun and totally problem-free trip to this fascinating, friendly Kingdom in Southeast Asia.

jeremy-angkor-wat-approach-walkway-cambodia

Virtually all visitors to Cambodia stop by Angkor Wat – as they should. It’s arguably Southeast Asia’s greatest tourist site, and no matter the travel-brochure hyperbole you may hear, it doesn’t disappoint. But there are many other places around Cambodia that are lovely and inviting places, for diabetics just like everyone else.

kids-on-river-canoe-tonle-sap-cambodia

Look at these tips for hitting the tourist trail, or blazing your own, through Cambodia with diabetes. Read about food, insulin, pharmacies, blood sugar checks, and even about keeping your supplies cool in the eternally hot Khmer sunshine.

Food and insulin in Cambodia

As a traveler your meals in Cambodia will likely be based on rice and noodles. Like many Asian nations, it’s common to have white rice as a base with the main dish added on top or beside it – chicken and vegetables, or a thick hearty soup, or something else.

khmer-restaurant-alley-siem-reap-cambodia

The rice can cause problems for blood sugar, particularly if you’re not used to it or if you’re eating unhealthy things in addition to it. But after some time in Cambodia eating rice-based dishes, you should eventually learn how you need to calculate your insulin dose for it.

The trick is just to guess, and then check often. Also note that the main dish added to the rice might have more carbohydrates in it than you think. So dose generously, but check soon after eating to see how you’re doing.

rice-chicken-soup-blue-pumpkin-siem-reap-cambodia

Small roadside eateries are common, especially in more touristy parts of Cambodia, but also in rural places as well. You won’t go hungry in Cambodia, but your selection may be limited in many places. You need to make sure you know how to take insulin for such staple Khmer foods as rice and noodles.

Bread vendor in Phnom Penh.

Bread vendor in Phnom Penh.

But in many places in Cambodia, other types of food are available. In Siem Reap, especially, the town nearest Angkor Wat, there is a large touristy selection of pizza restaurants and other non-Cambodian international foods. As with much tourist food in the world, these can be very high in carbs. Not impossible to eat for a diabetic, but requiring some attention and some smart choices with insulin.

horse-statue-pedestrians-roundabout-battambang-cambodia

How to speak Khmer – for T1Ds

The Khmer language is difficult to grasp and to pronounce for many foreigners. If you need to communicate about diabetes to anyone, it’s best to find someone who speaks English. Fortunately, most places that deal in medical matters – hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies – will have or can find someone who speaks basic English.

English menu with banana pancakes – no problem communicating here!

English menu with banana pancakes – no problem communicating here!

If you want to try, though, the Khmer word for diabetes is chomngu tuknomophaem , which is written ជំងឺទឹកនោមផ្អែម. To pronounce it, try something roughly like “chum-goo duke-nomo-peh-um”. With your foreigner’s intonation and lack of grammatical context, this is likely to not be understood, but I’ll be impressed if you try it!

If you show an insulin pen or a blood sugar monitor to a medical professional in Cambodia, they will understand. They may also well understand the phrase “DIABETES MELLITUS” or “T1D” or “DM”, so it’s recommended that you wear a piece of medical jewelry with one of those English phrases on it. You can also copy the Khmer script version above and print it out before you go to show someone if you need it.

view-dusty-road-from-tuktuk-rural-cambodia

As with most communication in Cambodia, gestures, smiles, and patience will get you a long way, even when it comes to diabetes. However, the most important point to remember about traveling to Cambodia with diabetes is this: nothing bad will happen to you!

Exercise in Cambodia for diabetics

You may be walking or biking around in Cambodia, especially at a place like Angkor Wat. Even if you stick to air-conditioned bus tours, there will likely be some strolling through the ruins and scrambling up and down stairs or piles of old stones.

jeremy-bicycle-battambang-cambodia

This can affect your blood sugar later when you’re eating, of course, making you require a little less insulin. But it also means you need to always have plenty of low blood sugar snack with you.

This means stocking up when you can. Little shops that sell bottles of juice and/or packages of cookies are very common, but there may be nothing around when you need it. When you see a place, buy what you might need and then a little more. Don’t get stranded somewhere without it!

Keeping insulin cool in Cambodia

Cambodia is hot. When you go outside, the sun will be beating down on you unrelentingly. You, and your insulin.

Insulin kept cool enough in a backpack, down inside not in the direct sunlight.

Insulin kept cool enough in a backpack, down inside not in the direct sunlight.

For all-day excursions, it’s important to keep insulin cool enough that it doesn’t go bad. This can mean putting it in your day pack with an ice pack, like a Frio bag. For shorter excursions, it can be okay to skip the ice pack as long as you keep your diabetes supplies a few layers away from the direct sunlight. Wrapped up in a couple shirts, stuffed down in a bag slung across your shoulder should be fine.

Almost all hotels and guesthouses will have a refrigerator you can use – in your room for more upscale places, or somewhere in the back office for smaller hostel-type places. This may not be strictly necessary, if your supply is in your room down in your bag, but can’t hurt. Don’t forget to take it with you when you check out.

Cabin fever sets in in southern Cambodia.

Cabin fever sets in in southern Cambodia.

Diabetes supplies in Cambodia

Speaking of insulin in Cambodia, to avoid hunting for replacement supplies while there, just take what you need with you. Calculate about how much of each thing you’ll need – types of insulin, blood sugar testing supplies, etc – and buy double that before you leave. Split everything up into at least two parts; I’d suggest putting part of your stash in each bag you’re taking with you to Cambodia.

triceratops-gorilla-statues-battambang-cambodia

But if you do need to buy supplies while you’re in Cambodia, it can be surprisingly easy. Especially in larger towns, there are well-stocked pharmacies, and if they don’t have what you want they can usually order it in a few days.

As for selection, this is an always-evolving and changing thing. I once asked a pharmacy in Phnom Penh for Novolog insulin, but they only had ActRapid. I had little choice but to buy it, and it worked fine for me. They also had other types of insulin in their cooler, plus blood sugar meters and test strips for Accuchek, OneTouch, and others in stock and on the shelves.

ramayana-sculptures-battambang-cambodia-cutting-hair

Showing what you have as a way of communicating can make the transaction smoother, and you may need some time to find the right pharmacy and, possibly, let them order something for you which can take several days. Watch your supplies closely and if you are starting to get low on them, go forth and start seeing what you can find. Give yourself enough time.

A room in Khmer Rouge's S-21 Prison museum.

A room in Khmer Rouge’s S-21 Prison museum.

Staying safe in Cambodia with diabetes

Cambodia has a very relaxed way of life, as befits its hot weather, its endless green trees and dusty ground, and its lack of heavy infrastructure. A trip there is likely to include lots of time outside, perhaps getting exercise, and eating carb-heavy meals.

Diabetics who carefully monitor their blood sugar and always know where their supplies are – insulin and low blood sugar snacks especially – will have no problem. If there is some emergency, medical care can be a little rough but it exists. People want to help, and if you have proper insurance you can be covered for evacuation from rural places and things like that.

monkey-at-angkor-wat-cambodia

Once in a small Cambodian town on a Saturday morning I had to make a sudden (non-diabetes-related) visit to the local provincial hospital. The few people there spoke no English, but they called a doctor who did. He came in, on his day off, looked at the patient and wrote a prescription. As if that weren’t enough service, he gave me and my sick travel partner a ride on his motorbike around the corner to a little dirt shack of a pharmacy, and then a ride back to our guesthouse. He refused a gratitude payment for his service, and the medicine worked immediately.

Things always work out!

Dragon fruit seller.

Dragon fruit seller.

Your trip to Cambodia with diabetes

If you have been to Cambodia, with (or without) diabetes, I’d like to hear about your experiences with food, insulin, blood sugar, or anything else there.

If you’re thinking of visiting Cambodia but are worried or concerned about something there related to diabetes, let me know that too.

battambang-roundabout-statue-street-vendors-cambodia

The important thing is to have a good attitude: make sure you have enough insulin and low blood sugar snacks, and that you have the right frame of mind and the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to you. It boils down to this:

You can go anywhere with diabetes!

Read more about my travels in Cambodia

Come along on the adventure! Follow detailed travelogues about the wondrous sights, fascinating people, and varied diabetes experiences I encountered as a traveling T1D in Cambodia:

Day 218: Why Nobody Stays Overnight In Poipet

Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.

Next page: Tips for traveling to Vietnam with diabetes

“Tips for getting the most out of a trip to the beautiful country of Vietnam with diabetes. Info on blood sugars, insulin, food, and staying safe with T1D.”

About the author

Jeremy has traveled to over 40 countries, taken several road trips across the United States (and Canada), and lived on and off in Japan for several years. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1982 but doesn't let a little thing like that stop him from exploring the world.

Jeremy writes about his travels with diabetes on 70-130.com as a way of logging his excursions and of inspiring others who might be feeling hesitant to take their own big bite out of life.

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One comment on “Tips for traveling to Cambodia with diabetes

  1. TALK ME ABOUT DIABETES IN SVAY RIEANG, HAVE ASSOCIATION OF DIABETES IN THIS CITY, IS EASY TO FIND INSULIN IN THIS CITY OR NO. ABOUT HOSPITAL THEY HAVE CARE ABOUT DIABETES.

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