By: Dale Gottlieb, Cannon Editor-in-Chief
In December, my sister and I planned a trip to Asia to visit a friend in Hong Kong and tour Cambodia. Both of us have severe peanut allergies, and despite the warnings from nearly everyone, we figured as long as we were careful we’d be fine. The flight landed at 7:30 in the morning in Hong Kong, and by noon we were in the emergency room after eating a dumpling filled with peanuts. In less than three hours, the trip went to hell.
What went so wrong? We went to the world-famous Michelin Star restaurant Tim Ho Wan and ordered Chiu Chow style dumplings. My friends tell me that any Chinese native would know that Chiu Chow basically means peanuts, but I can’t speak to the validity of this since I’m not from the area. More importantly, my sister and I went in with the North American assumption that anything containing peanuts would be clearly labelled on the menu. My friends also tell me this was a mistake.
In Asia – and in the vast majority of the world – people don’t know about allergies. It’s not something common, and it certainly isn’t something life threatening. Hong Kong at least has world class hospitals and is a developed city. If we ate a peanut in Cambodia it would mean almost certain death.
After this incident, my sister decided to fly home but I continued with the trip.
I flew from Hong Kong to Bangkok using AirAsia, and nearly had an anxiety attack on the plane. Every surface I touched I imagined was covered in peanut oil. Every 5 minutes I doused my hands with sanitizer. I asked to borrow the pen from the person next to me to fill out the immigration card, and felt terrible when I handed it back and reapplied hand sanitizer right after. I knew it was rude, but if he was from Thailand, I imagined him being coated in a thin layer of Peanut oil.
I thought Bangkok was the worst place I’ve ever visited. On the taxi ride from the airport, I saw crumbs in the seat cushion, and feared I was sitting on peanut shavings. At the hotel, I pictured the previous tenant lying in bed eating Pad Thai getting peanuts everywhere. Even walking down the streets, I was worried that the air from the food vendors was from peanut oil and I’d enter anaphylaxis.
I took a trip to the Grand Palace, which was of course closed this one day throughout the whole year because the King was visiting. So it goes. But I took a tuk-tuk to Wat Pho, a nearby temple. After the ride, I shook the drivers hand and immediately gave myself a good washing.
At night, I went back to the hotel and met with my tour group. I decided to book the trip through Intrepid rather than winging it since I figured a native Cambodian tour guide could keep me safe from peanuts.
When I announced to the group that I was allergic to peanuts, everyone clearly thought I was an idiot for coming to Cambodia. I didn’t disagree.
However, nearly two weeks went by without incident. Not a single plate was brought to my table with peanuts, and I was able to eat local food at street vendors. I was even able to eat a tarantula which was fried in vegetable oil. I thought I was immune, and was prepared to write an article about how misunderstanding of Cambodian food we all were and how they almost never used peanuts in cooking. This was until the last meal of the trip.
We took a round trip from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, that lasted for a few days. When we returned, we ate at the same restaurant as the week before. With my peanut anxiety in full swing, I ordered the same meal the I got before knowing there were no peanuts in it. I took the photo of it for this article, and right before I took a bite, the tour guide told me to not eat it and he spoke to the waitress in Khmer.
The meal was taken away, and a new one was brought. This one clearly had different looking oil around the chicken, and no longer contained peanuts. What I only found out on the last day of the trip, right when I thought I was a master of avoiding peanuts in Southeast Asia, was that the tour guide was protecting me the whole time. Little to my knowledge, he was behind my back the whole time protecting me.
Would I be dead if I toured Cambodia myself and didn’t use a tour group like Intrepid? Almost certainly. I don’t hold my own life in higher regard than my social anxiety to ask a waiter if there’s any peanuts. Even after the whole fiasco in Hong Kong, I didn’t ask if my dinner in Thailand contained any peanuts.
Would I tour South East Asia again despite the inherent risks involved? In a heartbeat. I think you can’t put a price on the experience of travelling and seeing a new culture. Even my own life is worth exploring the world. Frankly, I’d have a higher chance of death on my way to the airport, and if I die on vacation at least my family gets the travel insurance payout.
I got plenty of beautiful photos and wonderful memories out of my trip. What grinds my gears is that the fear of injury held me back from ever going to Asia, and made me write it off as a possible destination in my life. I would highly recommend that anyone who has an allergy don’t let it hold you back. I’m not taking responsibility if something happens, but travel responsibly and safely and you’ll be fine.
My dream place to go for my next destination is Saudi Arabia to participate in the visiting student program at King Abdullah university. This is probably not the safest place in the world for me to travel too, but I hope I’ve learned to be a more responsible traveller in the future. And opportunity like this is worth risking it all to see the culture and talk to people from one of the most well-known kingdoms.