Tips for traveling to Malaysia with diabetes

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Visiting Malaysia with diabetes can be a simple and problem-free adventure. All you need to do is take some precautions, understand how to get supplies when you need them, and have a positive attitude about traveling.

Malaysia is a peaceful, well-off country with good infrastructure and a lot of history packed into its cities that lie amid vast areas of nature. There are a couple of special points about traveling to Malaysia that diabetics should keep in mind.

steps-up-bukit-st-paul-malacca-malaysia

Keeping insulin cool

Much of Malaysia is hot, and anytime you’re outside you’ll probably have the sun beating down on you. If you’re carrying your insulin with you (and of course you are!) then you shouldn’t let it get too hot.

In your day pack, it’s often – if surprisingly – good enough just to keep your insulin wrapped up in something (a towel or shirt, for example). As long as you keep that out of direct sunlight, your insulin buried in the center of it can stay unexpectedly cool without any refrigeration or ice pack.

Hot day in Kuala Lumpur.

Hot day in Kuala Lumpur.

And speaking of insulin supplies, it is recommended that when visiting Malaysia with diabetes, you figure out beforehand about how many supplies you’ll need for the whole trip. Count up the basal and bolus insulins, blood sugar test strips, and anything else you use… and then double it all and acquire that before leaving your house. (For example, if you’ll need two and a half Humalog pens, round up to three and then double it – take six pens to Malaysia.)

Pack half of your supplies in a big bag, like a suitcase left in your hotel room, and take the other half with you when you leave for the day. Always have plenty with you; it’s extremely unlikely that anything will happen to your supply back in the room, of course, but having stuff on your person is always safest.

kids-school-bus-malacca-malaysia

If you are more serious about keeping insulin cool try Frio packs. You just dunk them in water in the morning and they chemically cool themselves. Frio makes different-sized packs specifically for diabetics so choose whichever ones make the most sense for your purposes.

Note that in many places in Malaysia – at higher elevations in the mountains or in the central Cameron Highlands area – the air can be rather cool and even chilly at night. Which is great news for diabetics.

jeremy-eating-steamboat-tanah-rata-malaysia

Food in Malaysia

Eating food and balancing it with insulin in Malaysia can be tricky: the heat affects some diabetics’ blood sugars, and tasty rice (and beer) meals are common. There is also a lot of physical activity possible; even if you aren’t hiking or going on long treks you might find yourself strolling around a city checking out the sites all day. All of these factors together can make it hard to calculate proper insulin doses.

The main thing to remember about food in Malaysia with diabetes is to eat what you want – just make your best guess and check your blood sugar often, especially after a new type of meal. Don’t let diabetes dictate everything; practice living life as you want to live it and making diabetes conform to that, rather than the other way around.

Feeding elephants.

Feeding elephants. (video still)

Note that international restaurants, including fast food places and Starbucks-like coffee shops, are frequent in Malaysia. Food at these places can be a little more familiar, diabetically, if not as culturally interesting. Many visitors to Malaysia will eat some mix of local and international foods.

And every meal is just more experience to improve your blood sugar control!

Low blood sugar snacks

One extremely important point is to always have plenty of low blood sugar snacks in Malaysia. Any town of any size at all will have a place to buy packs of cookies or chocolates, and/or bottles of juice.

jeremy-starbucks-malacca-malaysia

The trick is to always buy more low blood sugar foods than you will need. Carry enough for a low episode plus some, and then also keep a supply back in your hotel room. It’s easy to find yourself out of range of easy access to a shop or snack kiosk in Malaysia; when you have the chance, buy something to keep on you.

And never leave the room even for a minute without it!

Transportation in Malaysia

Networks of scheduled and reliable buses connect most parts of Malaysia. These buses are comfortable and modern, but don’t generally have any services an board. That means that if you are taking a particularly long journey, one that extends over lunchtime for example, you might want to buy food before the journey.

tricycle-tourist-taxi-malacca-malaysia

Near bus stops there will often be convenience stores selling various simple snacks. Sandwiches and chips are the old standby, but there are other things as well. You might get a couple of slices of pizza from a bakery. Note that prepackaged foods will generally have easy-to-understand carbohydrate information on them, but that sitting for a long time on a bus can make blood sugar float skyward. take your insulin and check afterwards, adjusting if necessary for next time.

One note about buses – sometimes you need to tell the driver when your stop is coming, but as an outsider it isn’t always clear when or where that is. Once I was on a bus that flew right by the town I was going to. When I finally realized it and was let off, it was quite a hike back to the town.

sign-to-robinson-falls-tanah-rata-malaysia

More reason to have plenty of low blood sugar snack – just in case you find yourself getting unexpected exercise with no stores around! (In the end, we got a ride from a kind local named, believe it or not, Muhammad Ali; see links below.)

Taking insulin in Malaysia

On buses or in restaurants, you can take insulin right there without going to the bathroom if possible. (If you use pens, and your stomach, for example it’s easy.) You should be discreet about it though since some people wouldn’t want to see that. (The same goes for checking blood sugar too.) But if you are discreet people probably won’t really notice.

monkeys-in-trees-bukit-melawati-kuala-selangor

If you’re uncomfortable you can always make a bathroom run; pretty much any place that sells food should have one nearby.

Getting diabetes supplies in Malaysia

If you’re on a short trip (3-4 weeks) you can just bring everything you need with you. It’s by far easiest to do it this way as it saves hunting for insulin or test strips while in Malaysia.

But if you’re there longer, or for some reason need to stock up, you can go to a pharmacy. Big cities will be the best bet, of course, though pharmacies in smaller towns can probably order what you need.

women-flaming-fruit-panguni-uthiram-tanah-rata

You’ll have to ask about what they have and what they can get – it may be your exact brand and it may not. But even if they don’t have exactly what you need they can get something just as good, usually. And in larger towns it will be easier to find someone who speaks English at the pharmacy.

Just take packaging or an example of what you’re looking for and they’ll understand. Medical care is high-quality in Malaysia, especially for the conscientious and prepared diabetic.

How to speak Malaysian – for T1Ds

If you have to communicate your diabetes to someone – a pharmacist or doctor, perhaps – it will be easy.

sunset-fathers-guesthouse-tanah-rata

Actually, here let me stress that this is very unlikely. Diabetics who fear traveling tend to fear this very point: something horrible happens and nobody understands what you need.

It is extremely unlikely that something “bad” will happen to you in Malaysia; certainly no more than at home. Relax; you’ll be fine.

worker-picking-tea-leaves-tanah-rata-plantation

But if you do want to talk about diabetes in the language Bahasa Melayu, try these phrases, noting that the language has the reputation of being one of the easiest in the world. (For example, it’s pronounced pretty much just like it looks to English speakers.)

Note, however, that in a medical situation the English word “diabetes” will more than likely suffice. If not, try pronouncing it a little more Malay – “dee a BEH tess”. Also, just showing some insulin or BG meter will also get the point across.

Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Really.

indian-car-driver-panguni-uthiram-tanah-rata

I do, however, recommend that you wear a piece of jewelry that identifies you as a diabetic, or carry an easy-to-find card in your pocket that does so. It’s very unlikely this will come in handy but it’s a great way to be sure that nothing back can happen, and at the very least give you some peace of mind.

chinese-temple-with-dog-george-town

Your trip to Malaysia

If you’ve been to Malaysia, with or without diabetes, I’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences there. If you haven’t been but are thinking of going and have any questions, please let me know.

And always remember this: You can go anywhere with diabetes!

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

Next page: Tips for traveling to Thailand with diabetes

“Advice on traveling around lovely and inviting Thailand with diabetes. Remember these tips on food, insulin, T1D supplies, and staying healthy.”

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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