Water is a sacred entity in Southeast Asia. Not only is it the source of life, like anywhere else on Earth, but it takes on a higher status, or even personified, than a natural phenomenon here. Some cultures revere rivers as a goddess that blesses civilizations living along their banks. For example, the Thai word for it is mae naam, where mae means ‘mother’ in Thai.
Many Southeast Asian festivals also revolve around the celebration of water. Songkran is celebrated in Thailand and Laos where water is poured on everyone on the streets, symbolic of water’s cleansing property not only for the physical body, but also of the sins and bad karma in one’s life. Loy Krathong in Thailand sees multitudes of people releasing little krathongs, leaves or waterproof materials folded into a boat with a candle erected in the centre on board, into rivers and moats where the water is supposed to carry all the bad luck away with the krathong. Cambodians celebrate Bon Om Tuk, the reversing flow between the Cambodian river Tonle Sap and the Mekong River. Water is also where commerce take place, as evident in fishing activities and floating markets in different parts of the region.
Travellers to Southeast Asia will no doubt be able to immerse themselves in such water-appreciating experiences in different parts of the year.
However, just as water is the source of life, it can also be the one that threatens life if we are not careful. For all its elevated status in Southeast Asian cultures, water sanitation and hygiene remains an issue to be solved. With the exception of Singapore, where water is treated before being consumed by the public, water flowing from the taps in most parts of Southeast Asia is not safe for direct consumption. This is especially true in rural areas where water is pumped directly from the water tanks with no treatment involved. According to FreeDrinkingWater.com, the lack of access to clean water resources is one of the most serious environmental health problem faced by a large fraction of the world’s population. Microbial-contaminated water supplies are the leading causes of acute and chronic water-borne diseases such as intestinal diarrhea in 3.4 million people globally, most of them young children. It is a hazard that we cannot ignore.
Those of us who come from countries where water from taps are safe to drink may not be aware of this, and sometimes we carry this drinking habit with us wherever we go. Even though you may not suffer any immediate ill effects, you never know the condition of the pipes through which the water flows, especially in public toilets. In some areas, we do not even know where the water comes from.
Southeast Asia has a tropical climate which is hot and humid, which means we tend to perspire a lot here. As such, drinking water is of prime importance for staying healthy and avoiding heat strokes. Bottled water is the de facto mode of drinking water here, whether you are at your hotel or on the streets. This is how people here drink their water, whether in the urban or rural areas, and you should follow this practice. Bottled water is inexpensive, and is easily available everywhere, from the largest hypermarts to the smallest provision shop. Do not stick to the habit of drinking from the tap just to avoid carrying a bottle in your hands, because it is not worth the risk of getting diarrhoea and end up spoiling your day or even your entire trip.
Also, even when you are at the hotel or in someone’s house, do not assume that tap water is safe for drinking. Even locals drink from bottled water delivered to their homes in 19-litre plastic containers. This holds especially true in rural areas. The families who hosted me for meals when I visited the mountain district of Doi Wawi in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, use bottled water for cooking as well. Just be careful of the belly burn you can get from a bowl of potent tom yum soup, though.
Most hotels three stars and above will provide free bottled water, or at least sell them at their premises.
What about brushing your teeth using tap water, you ask? Generally, the water in the hotels and homes, even in rural areas, are safe enough to rinse your mouth with, since there aren’t enough microbes to enter your body through rinsing to cause an infection. However, there are people who do not want to take the chance, and so they brush with bottled water. Either way, the choice is yours.
There is no doubt in my mind about the sanctity of water, but just be mindful of what you do on your trip, and you will be happily water-worshipping like Southeast Asians.