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Currently travelling in Laos, we are asking ourselves whether we should drink tap water or not? Could it potentially be dangerous or is it just a matter of a short and light sick?

As I am currently testing it, the water tastes good, but I worry of the tank in the house garden, with plenty of plants inside-out and that seems to serve water in the house we are occupying.

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Your username suggests you are happy with an alerter native to water - ask if they have any of that :) –  tim.baker Dec 16 '13 at 19:33
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My 2 cent anecdote: I just spent almost two months in Laos, always drank bottled water, and happily ate everything including street food. I never got anything more serious than a few urgent bathroom calls. –  hippietrail Dec 18 '13 at 11:51
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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

On top of what has been written by @toy and @user34936, which I can support 100%, I would like to give you the following advice:

When traveling to remoter areas in Asia (I would count Laos into that), and specially if you do not do so frequently (several times a year), you are risking to get Diarrhea as a minimum and intestinal parasites as a worst case scenario where you run risk of severe organ damage in the long run. While the risk is, as mentioned, highest in India, there are 2 levels of caution that go along with the amount of inconvenience you have to face to execute them:

Easiest level, should prevail in most developing countries in Asia, can be ignored in Japan, mostly also in Hong Kong & Singapore for example:

  1. Do not drink Tap water
  2. Do not rinse your mouth with tap water after brushing your teeth (sounds stupid, but you always ingest some of it, and if you follow step 1, this is a direct consequence. That's why a lot of hotels in Asia have small bottles of water now standing next to the sink instead of in the room)
  3. Do not eat cold street food, specially fruits, ice cream etc.

Next level, should be observed in any remote, rural area of the developing countries outside of international hotel chains and in almost all of India:

  1. Do not eat any uncooked food, such as salads
  2. Do not eat unpeeled fruits and do never eat water melons. They are sometimes injected with water to make them heavier.
  3. Do not eat anything that has to have a consistent cooling chain without unfreezing such as ice cream, imported fish etc.
  4. Basically do not eat anything that is not served by established restaurants or hotels that you would find in a tourist guide.
  5. be very careful with ice cubes. Rather drink what has been cooled in a closed container such as cans & bottles than ice cubes.

The issue here is that you have to decide how much you want to reduce your flexibility in the country to avoid a light diarrhea and how much experience you have when traveling across the world in remote places. You body will build up resistance against a lot of bacteria types if ingested in small quantities. However I know a person who lived in China and other places such as Hong Kong for all their life who got a parasite in India that caused a almost 100% kidney failure and repeated operations over the following years. Also: While asking for bottled water might become quickly expensive since the hotels try to sell you Perrier etc, asking specifically for local bottled water is often a safe but very cheap alternative.

Also consider that Diarrhea as such might not bother you too much, but dehydration and other consequences of that issue might cause more trouble that might severely disrupt the trip for you.

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Thanks for these precious advices. Except for the higher level number 4 do not eat anything that is not served by established restaurants or hotels that you would find in a tourist guide that seems pretty hard for me because I won't especially use recommanded hotels and restaurants mentioned in the trip guide and because I plan a rather long trip, everything seems to be simple to apply. However, thanks for the advice about * not rinsing the mouth with tap water* because, even if it made me feel uncomfortable, I thought it was potentially a low risk but seems not as you mention it. –  smonff Dec 17 '13 at 8:27
    
When you mention imported fish does it include stuff used for seafood dishes you can find in Laos ? –  smonff Dec 17 '13 at 8:31
    
@smonff A lot of the Asian local fish markets do not have refrigeration. When presented at the market, they lie on a table in 30 degrees temperature, often not on ice. The fish is essentially not cooled from the boat to the table. If you do not have the impression that the restaurant makes enough turnover to serve today's fresh fish and buy from a reputable source, I would consider ordering the chicken. –  uncovery Dec 17 '13 at 8:42
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I would personally advise against it, unless you plan on staying there for a long time and are trying to get used to it.

I found a UN report about water quality in Laos. You should read it for yourself to get the details, but here in short:

  1. Most water sources/wells seem to pose a health risk.
  2. There is little contamination with chemicals and the like, so it's mostly biological pathogens.
  3. "Diarrhea, cholera, hepatitis and intestinal parasites" are cited as diseases that can be transmitted via the water, via faecal matter.

I am not so sure how likely those are to occur, but be aware that your immune system not being used to this water, you're more likely to get sick compared to the locals.

If you still want to drink the water, you should find out where the water in the tank comes from. Also ask the locals, while them drinking the water is no guarantee of it being safe, them not drinking it would indicate that there's something really wrong with it.

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It's not safe to drink from the tap in those areas, Laos, Thailand, etc. If possible please ask for bottled water. You might not get sick immediately as you will of some parts in India but it's not safe.

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