Food poisoning in Tonsai – More common than not

When shit starts flying

At first glance, the Tonsai Tummy sign looked like an advert for a lose-weight-fast gym programme.

“ Get that hot lean Tonsai look!

Climb harder through rapid weight loss!

Available everywhere

1000s of satisfied customers

20+ years of product development”


Without knowing the context, the sign could as well be talking about one of those popular “bums and tums” classes at the gym that promise to torture you into shape for beach season. I walked past it without further thought.

I had just arrived on Tonsai beach in Thailand, a rock climbers’ paradise comfortably tucked away from the luxury resorts that dominate neighbouring Railay beach, Ao Nang and Krabi. Surrounded by steep, dominating cliffs on three sides, the only way to get there is either by boat or by hiking for 1.5 hours. The village has been taken over by left-wing backpackers and consists of two roads, complete with cheap bamboo bungalows, chilled out reggae bars, hammocks and slack lines. You won’t find Häagen-Dazs here.

This is where hippie-minded people come to escape from the evils of capitalism and materialism, and where I came to try and figure the next steps of my life out. In this place you can easily feel comfortable being yourself. No one will scold you for only owning one shirt that you wash in the shower everyday or for not wearing deodorant. Strangers on the street smile at each other without reason like during the olden days before the internet and mobile phones.

Living conditions—for tourist standards—are low. Many of the guesthouses do not have electricity during the day, and many toilets do not have flushes. An abundant number of flies buzz around the place, hoping to land on some poor climber’s knee-cut.

Although I was sceptical of the place at first due to its primitive conditions, it only took one climb to throw all that scepticism out the window. Who needs a toilet with a flush when you can feel exhilarated and completely free, working your way up that cliff and pushing yourself beyond your limits? The reward for getting up there isn’t only the feeling of accomplishment, but comes with a breathtaking view of the beach, the forest, and the majestic cliffs.


Tonsai beach


Climbing in Tonsai

For three days I lived close to complete bliss, climbing during the day, and meeting like-minded travellers and slacklining in the evening. I pretty much lost all appetite for alcohol because I didn’t need the extra boost. I was drunk on my surroundings.

Except that of course nothing is 100 per cent perfect, and on the third day the meaning of Tonsai Tummy was finally revealed to me.

Violent, omnipresent diarrhoea. Accompanied by vomiting if done properly.

People around me started dropping out of sight and into the bathroom like flies.

I heard my roommate get up in the night and scramble into the bathroom. Unmistakable sound. He came out and sighed, deeply, painfully.

Then half an hour later he got up and went again.

And again.

And again.

The next day there were four reported incidents of diarrhoea, vomiting, or both. Speculation flew around of which eatery was the culprit. Was it Mama’s Chicken Kitchen? Was it the noodle place next to the travel agent? Was it the family restaurant?

“It’s like Russian roulette,” one guy I climbed with said. “You can get it from anywhere.”

As the days went by, reports of food poisoning grew like cherry blossoms in springtime. No one knew when it would hit, whom it would hit, or who would be next. It was nerve-wrecking to hang around, registering all the people who had fallen ill, wondering if it’s contagious and whether I’d be next in line.

Even among the sick, there’s good luck and bad luck regarding timing. Some people are just luckier than others.

“I had found myself a lady that evening,” one guy told me. “It was 4am, we were in bed at her bungalow. Everything had already been done when it hit.”

Ohhh, that uncomfortable feeling of nausea creeping into your system, making you green, then pale, then sweaty, then tense, forcing you to focus and concentrate on keeping it down. Saliva builds up in the mouth, acid taste of vomit rising steadily through the oesophagus…

“She told me I could be sick in her bathroom but I said no,” he said.

“Did you make it home?” I asked.

“Yes, I made it, just.”

One theory was that the frequent power cuts was messing with the food. I stopped going to Mama’s Chicken in favour of a more expensive place that seemed cleaner—and had its generator on all day.

Every little pinch in the stomach made me anxious, and the tiniest hint of nausea—whether it was from dehydration, exhaustion from climbing or the heat—was a reminder to track down the closest toilet. It was psychologically draining.

I hoped I’d be one of the few lucky ones to get out without being hit. Or at least not vomit. Moderate diarrhoea I can handle, but please don’t let me puke, I kept on thinking.

After a week on Tonsai beach, I travelled to Krabi with a girl I had met climbing. As the boat pulled away I remember thinking that I was safe.

We checked into a hostel in Krabi for the night before our morning flight to Bangkok.

Then the poor girl started feeling ill.

The majority of the evening she spent puking in the bathroom—or if it was occupied—into a trash can next to the bed.

I was bracing myself for being next in line, as my stomach was already acting looser than normal. That damn Tonsai Tummy.

I’ve been in Bangkok for two days now, and I’m beginning to really believe that I’ve escaped death. I’m starting to relax, but not completely, as my stomach isn’t quite its normal self yet.

I’ve read that food poisoning can take up to 72 hours to hit. So it’ll be a few more days before I’ll know for sure.

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