Laos / Travel

Bottled Water: A Traveler’s Constant Companion

Water in the Rain

As Noel Coward said, only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” I’m neither, which is why I was safely ensconced on our deep, shady guesthouse balcony – bare feet propped up, cool Beer Lao in hand.

Beer Lao and Water

My perch was a welcome respite from the heat of Luang Prabang’s toasty afternoon, and the perfect place for watching the ebb and flow on the street below.

Water Glacier

A clanking delivery truck rolled up across the street, and as sometimes happens when I’m on the verge of a nap, the blog-post lightbulb came on. The thermometer was inching north of 9 oh! Farenhot, and what I saw was a tiny blue glacier on wheels: bundles and bundles of bottled water – a traveler’s constant companion.

Supermarket Bottled Water

Bottled water is a daily part of life in Laos, and many other parts of the world, particularly some of the places we travel. Face it; drinking bottled water all the time is a drag, and a perfectly chilled Perrier in a fancy restaurant isn’t the issue. It’s the constant thought that even a small sip of unsafe water could make you sick … sort of a liquid Sword of Damocles.

Monks with water

I spied these Buddhist monks, who must be pegging the good karma-meter, and even they were carrying bottled water.

Istanbul Water Seller

When Terri and I are on a long trip we have a buddy-reminder system in place so we don’t forget and swish tap water when brushing our teeth – or God forbid – have a bacterial, booby-trapped ice cube. And then there’s the constant struggle to buy and cart home all the big bottles of water. It’s amazing how much water you can go through in a day, particularly in hot climates.

One of the first things that we say after returning from a long trip is how delightful it is to drink from the tap. This post isn’t a rant so much as a reminder that much of the globe doesn’t have this luxury, and we never take safe drinking water for granted.

Water as a backrest

The human body is roughly 70% water, and survival experts say that without water, most people won’t make it past 3 days. So if you’re on the road reading this post, don’t forget to pick up your bottled water. And if you’re at home, go into the kitchen and toast the water company with a cool, safe glass of tap water.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. This is the last post in our series on Luang Prabang. It was fun for us because it enabled us to cover a few topics that we weren’t able to get to while we were there. We hope that you enjoyed the series.

Alpine Water

Photo Credits:
1. Gary Brownell via Wikimedia Commons
4. Ivy Main via Wikimedia Commons
6. Sascha Kohlmann via Wikimedia Commons
8. ZamiK via Wikimedia Commons

49 thoughts on “Bottled Water: A Traveler’s Constant Companion

  1. Good thing about bottled water is the water, the not so good thing is that it adds to the issue of too much plastic in the world/ocean. What to do?

    • I agree Bertie. Safe drinking water is a must, but without city services, how can it be accessible without plastic bottles? Luckily, in places like Laos the bottles seem to be re-used for other purposes and not just tossed. ~James

  2. Ah yes, the very real delights of safe tap water! I once traveled with one of those bottles that had a built in sterilizer, but the water was never cold. For brushing my teeth, I put the toothpaste on a dry toothbrush, so I only need water to rinse.

    • In addition to safe tap water, another thing we miss when we travel is ice water. After all our years in hot climates we’ve become hopelessly addicted to ice in our water. It’s amazing how much more refreshing water is if it’s cold. ~James

  3. I think we’ve all heard “Don’t drink the water when your go to _____” But most people don’t ever think about other ways water is used. As you pointed out – ice cubes, used in meal prep, personal hygiene and countless other ways.

    • Bad water can get to you in any number of ways Laura, and this is something that you learn real quick when traveling. It’s a scary situation when there’s no alternative but the local water. Every drink is like Russian roulette. ~James

  4. Here in Thailand the only water that is safe to drink is bottled water, just like Laos. We are lucky enough to have 5 gallon jugs of filtered water delivered to our house every week (and each only costs $1 US!)… still, I often feel bad for all the plastic waste of the small bottles so I use refillable ones. I miss having safe tap water, and the water in Northern California is almost sweet. I totally took it for granted, but won’t if we ever move back that is for sure!

    • These bigs jugs are brilliant Jenny, for lots of reasons. We try to rent apartments whenever possible, and we’re finding more and more that the owners provide these big jugs of water. It makes is sooo much easier. I travel with a collapsible platypus bottle which I refill whenever possible. And given all the drought and water shortages in Cali, things may be different when you get back. ~James

  5. Hi James & Terri! My inner hippie cringes whenever I have to buy water bottles while traveling (and sometimes there really is no alternative!), and I totally identify with this post. The water bottles with filters built in are what I normally use on domestic trips, but so many have a membrane too large to filter out the viruses that can taint tap abroad. Plus, drinking through the straw can take forever and the water’s never cold… so unsatisfying on a hot day. Sigh. Our inner hippies live to cringe another day!

    • Welcome back from your RTW Miranda – it’s great to hear from you. Because we had no choice, Terri and I drank water from the Nile for 2 years. And even though it was filtered, you can imagine the kind of intestinal critters that found there way into our systems. Since then, it’s bottled water for us. And one thing I’ve noticed in the past few years is that most places seem to be getting a better handle on disposing of the bottles in a responsible manner, and rural areas do lots of re-purposing as well. ~James

  6. Ahh yes, bottled water and let’s do add the cold beer. It seems like all my lunches included that. I pack extra toothbrushes in case one of us sticks the brush under tap water. Hasn’t happened yet. Love the photo of the truck delivering water.

    • I felt like the ultimate sloth sitting on the balcony drinking beer and taking photos Lynne, but somebody has to do it. I don’t drink lots of beer, but I have to admit that an ice-cold beer on a hot afternoon is hard to beat – especially when I can squeeze a post out of it. 🙂 ~James

  7. We can definitely relate to this post! Returning home from our three weeks in South America we paid homage to the kitchen tap. We are so very fortunate to have the luxury of clean water.

    • Sue, I just read that 750 million people don’t have access to clean drinking water. That’s 2X the population of the US! It was in the context of the UN spending money on projects that didn’t accomplish much, and not spending money on projects like clean drinking water. And you’re right, we are very fortunate. ~James

  8. Perfect travel topic! I remember asking in Vienna if the tap water was potable and getting a scornful answer: “This is Vienna.” But really, I had to make sure, as we were living in Ukraine at the time, where safe drinking water was not available. Here’s the partner topic: what is the perfect balance of water to drink when you are on the road – enough to stay hydrated but not enough to need a bathroom when none is available? I haven’t figured a good answer to that one yet.

    • A very good question Susan. This is an issue that travelers deal with on a daily basis. As you know well, like safe drinking water, not all places have easily accessible public toilets. And the whole hydration/having to pee quandary never goes away. The one time when we take liquid control very seriously is right before a long bus trip. If there’s any way to find a bus with a WC, we take it. An indelicate subject perhaps, but one that every traveler has had to deal with. ~James

  9. Years ago, before bottled water was the norm here, I remember how ‘fashionable’ it was in Europe. You could buy it on the street from a random person- even Perrier. It convenient and always welcome in the heat. The last 5 years we only drank, cooked and brushed teeth using bottled water. It is nice to be home and just turn on the tap…. a little thing many of us take for granted.

    • Yep, there’s nothing like a bit of depravation to remind us how great we have it in the west. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in China, so I know that drinking water isn’t the only thing that you look forward to on trips home. ~James

  10. Unless the water looks ridiculously bad, we still generally use local water when brushing our teeth.

    We like to think a little exposure to potential germs will only build up our levels of tolerance (only sick once in over 12 months in Latin America hasn’t caused us to doubt this strategy).

    As necessary as it is in underdeveloped countries, we hate the plastic waste (which at best ends in landfill, at worst in the rivers, seas or is burned releasing toxins), and as such grabbed ourselves a steripen to steralise local waters.

    Ultimately, we never used it (battery issues), so the best we could do was to re-use smaller bottles as long as possible, and purchase only 1 larger bottle as needed…

    Nice post by the way, I love seeing those Monks with the trappings of the modern world (I remember those with cell phones in Chiang Mai, and a younger monk with a toy ray gun in Luang Prabang)!

    • Good point about building up a bit of immunity Chris. For me, it ultimately depends on how long I’m visiting a place. The waste issue is a big one, but in my experience, many places are getting a better handle on dealing with some of the problems, particularly when it comes to water bottles. Re: the monks. We saw these young guys all over SEA, and it’s pretty easy to separate the serious from the non-serious. It’s a pretty big deal and I’m sure there’s lots of pressure from the family to give it a shot, but I’d be curious to know the long-term commitment stats. ~James

      • Youngsters in Theravada Buddhist countries often spend some time as monks as a family obligation – could be as short as a couple of weeks. They do not have to take lifetime vows.

  11. Bottled water is a big thing here in Spain as well, although the water is supposed to be safe to drink, it is not pleasant and even the tea tastes like chlorine. Yuk! So we installed a filter and no longer have to cart large bottles of water home. Glad we did it before the hot weather has descended upon us. Yes, we in North America are fortunate we have safe drinking water.

    • When I’m in the US, I always drink tap water, and only buy bottled when I have to. It’s interesting to see so many people buying bottled water and paying a premium. Frequently, it’s just filtered tap water! As I said to someone else, I drank filtered water from the Nile for 2 years so I don’t think the US tap water is any threat. ~James

    • Thanks Martha. When we visited LP, we didn’t really have enough time to do it justice. So it’s nice to be able to finally post a bit about it. Yes, bottled water is a mixed blessing, but having been on the receiving end of a few water-born diseases, I’m happy to have the option. ~James

    • I’m one of the folks that’s critical of the local water company for their decades-old technology. But a trip to a place like Luang Prabang makes me quickly re-evaluate my criticism. ~James

  12. Well said James. That’s what I like about travelling good or living somewhere different from time to time to really appreciate the ordinary luxuries that exist at home, and take care of them.

    • Eight pounds/gallon Joanne. I hate to think how many pounds of water have been lugged home in my backpack. One of the things we locate first is the closest shop selling water. ~James

      • Many years ago, some climate change people said water was going to be the oil of the future and wars would be fought over water. Given the growing issues with water, I’d say that prediction is closer than makes me comfortable.
        I’m even more concerned when scary people like the CEO at Nestles states that water is not a human right. Whaaaat?!!!

  13. I used a little device called a steripen when traveling in South America. It’s a battery operated UV wand that you place in your water bottle and swish around for 30 seconds. It kills everything in there that could cause you any harm and seemed to work very well for me. I suppose you could even use it in a restaurant if you order water with ice – once the temperature of the water is cool enough, take out the ice, sterilize and enjoy the cool glass of water!

    • Thanks for the comment Rosanna and for dropping by the blog. I don’t know this product but checked it out online. I’ve used water filters for backpacking and they work well, but they’re far to big to carry in a suitcase. Since you’ve traveled for a couple of years in South America and had no problems, I’d say that was a glowing recommendation for the steripen. Thanks for the info. Hopefully, our readers will take note. ~James

  14. I love coming home to tap water and not having to lug big bottles of water around all day. Unfortunately, even playing it quite safe, I’ve been caught out twice with water-borne diseases – not fun at all!

    • Fi, I’ve had insect, food, and water borne diseases, and in my experience, the only good thing about water borne diseases is they pass through the system quickly; violently but quickly. Interestingly, I read that the most common traveler’s diseases are food borne rather than water. Regardless, playing it safe is a good idea. ~James

  15. What I love is that you have a balcony overlooking a busy street. This is something we always try to do when we travel so we can soak in the locals’ real live even in at-home moments. It makes a big difference.

    • Louise, this street was, by LP standards, very active. It was interesting that there were no front yards, but the area just outside each house was just an extension of their living room. There was lots of activity on the sidewalks that made for great for great people-watching: haircuts, kids playing, cooking prep, and socializing with neighbors. And our balcony was the perfect shady perch. I hope that all is going well on your end and that your reno is coming along. ~James

  16. It never ceases to amaze me just how much water we get through when we’re abroad. Carting it around in large plastic bottles, searching for it in shops and paying for it certainly bring it home.

    • The daily slog to carry water home is one of the things that gets to me most when we’re on long trips. My usual technique is to stuff the backpack with as much as I can carry so I can take a couple of days off before the next heavy load. That’s why it’s so pleasant to just turn the tap. ~James

  17. Hi James and Terri, I have been reading some of your posts about Luang Prabang and they are delightful. The posts are entertaining and the descriptions of early morning activities are very evocative.

    • Thanks for the comment Margaret and for dropping by the blog. Luang Prabang is a special place, and it’s especially pleasant in the early morning. Terri and I both discovered this together and on our own, and it is one of our fondest memories of Laos. ~James

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