When traveling, water is a concern for health, ecology and money. Depending on which water you choose to drink, it can also be an important part of your budget, as you may drink at least 5 liters in 3 days.
Tap water is not drinkable in South-East-Asia, but you can use it for brushing your teeth if you feel like. The quality of tap water differs from a place to another, because of the quality of the tubes and local water management. For example, in Penang island (Malaysia), the water has so much chlorine that it smells almost like a swimming pool.
When you stay on an island, the water can sometimes come from pipes directly connected to waterfalls or sources. This water seems better, but it’s not perfect neither (the pipe can be old, there can be parasites in the water, who knows).
Here are the different options of drinking water available :
Bottles : more expensive and not always a better quality, as well as polluting,
It must be stated on the bottle. A few brands are real mineral water, and the most famous ones, such as Nestle brands, can be fake imitations. Mineral water can be found in super markets, in small shops and sometimes restaurants. Sometimes it is still ozonated or treated.
Available in 0,5 L, 1,5 L or 5L bottles.
Drinking water (UV, Ozonated)
Treated water, from tap water or underground water. Usually, filters, UV and Ozone treatment are used. Ozone is a gas that kills germs and evaporates after treatment. It seems safe and I’ve been drinking it for a while.
By the taste, I feel it can contain none or less chlorine that tap water in some western countries.
Available in any shop, in many brands. Many tourists think that they are drinking mineral water because they don’t read the information on the bottles.
Available in 0,5 L, 1,5 L, 5L bottles.
20 L reusable water containers : handy for home
The same kind of treated water as the above “drinking water” sold in smaller bottles. This is what local people and many expats drink daily (if they don’t drink rain water, like in the country side or boiled water). This water is sometimes offered for free in restaurants and in hotels.
This water is also safe and much cheaper than the 0,5, 1,5L or 5 L plastic bottles sold in supermarkets.
You can spot the big containers, either blue, transparent or white, in local shops. It costs around 4 USD for buying the container with water in it, then when the container is empty, you can exchange it for a refilled one for about 1 USD in Cambodia, in Thailand it was 13 bahts (about 32 cents for 20L). If you return the container at the same shop where you bought it, they should give you back the 4 USD invested at first, especially if you mentioned it on the first day.
As a single bottle of 1,5 L of treated water costs around 1 USD, you will anyway save money, even if you don’t get your deposit back.
To carry the 20 L bottle, a scooter, a bicycle, a strong friend or a nice seller are the different options, as well as home delivery (a daily water bottles pick up comes at a certain time for delivering hotels, restaurants and shops, when you see them, just wave at them to come to your place).
This option is my favorite, because I can have water at home for a few days, one week or more if I’m alone, and if you travel with 2 people or more, it’s good even on a short stay.
Refill machines : cheap, clean and easy.
Especially in Thailand and Malaysia, in cities and small towns, you can find those machines on the street, even in Bangkok in less touristic places. I found one in Phnom Penh (they may have more of them now).
They look like an automatic distributor of sodas, but they have a big spot to put your empty bottle and press a button. The cost is cheap, in Thailand it is 1 baht for a liter, 0,03 USD, in Malaysia it’s 0,10 RM.
The system used is usually : tap water filtered with reverse osmosis, taking away most of the heavy metals and germs. It is a good option for people traveling alone and moving often (except that you have to find the machine and go there often).
Some machines will taste better than others, depending on the machine’s maintenance maybe. You are your own judge about the quality. I pick another machine if the smell or the taste doesn’t feel good and I never had problems.
Machines in Malaysia (especially Penang Island) claim to have great « alkaline water » from Japanese system. I mostly lived on that for 3 months.
These filters are very popular in Malaysia. Used at people’s house, restaurants and some guest houses that generously offer you free water. Depending on the filter they bought, it is similar to the water machine (but it depends on what system they chose). Except that they have to take care of the maintenance (changing filters), so it can be better or worse, depending on the people.
You can buy straw travel filters, that are made of carbon and other filtering materials. The quality will depend on what you buy, and on local tap water. Using street machines or home filters is likely to be similar (same source of water, and quality depending on the system, reverse osmosis could maybe take away more pathogens). For the maintenance, you know at least how new your filter is.
Home made water filter
It is actually quite easy to make an efficient water filter system. This is what promotes the organic community of Punpun, in Pai, Thailand, that have been successfully using it for 10 years. From this community, Jon Jandai, an interesting revolutionary farmer and active man, has tutorial videos about how to make it. It is organized with 3 big containers: the first one with rocks, the water coming from below, the second is filled with cleaned sand, the third is filled with active charcoal (in these videos it’s also explained how to make it). Well, this is a bigger project than just getting a straw, but it’s always good to know that it’s possible.
This is what locals would traditionally drink if they don’t have other sources of fresh water. People still rely on rain water drinking in many countryside areas. The water is captured on the rainy season and stored in big containers for months.
The containers are now made in cement, because clay ones are smaller and may be more expensive. Even though, the water tasted OK and I had no problem drinking it during a few days trip to a remote area, and at the very end of the dry season.
The quality of that water will depend of course on the roof collecting the water’s material, but this one should be cleaned by the heavy rain before the water will be collected. See more on how to Harversting rain water for drinking in the tropics here.
What plays an important role is the quality of the air, if there are a lot of factories around, or a lot of air pollution. If the rain carries pollution, you can spot black marks or black dirt on mango trees leaves for example. More signs would be available to someone interested to explore the subject, and local people may also know about it.
Boiling water kills most germs and bacteria. But much more should be removed (such as heavy metals and pollution) to be a healthy daily drinking water. I had it everyday in Sumatra and after a week I felt sick with nausea.
Water at the restaurant
Local restaurants, especially in Thailand and in Cambodia, will usually offer free water, sometimes tea, available on the tables or as self service in a corner of the restaurant.
This water usually comes from the 20 L containers that are delivered to the restaurant, or from a home filter. Restaurants are not likely to bother going back and forth to the refill machine with 5 L bottles especially that the price is almost the same. Some places are said to cheat and put tap water too, but personally, I never had any problem at restaurants. I tend to trust more local restaurants, that would lose their fame by doing such a thing, compared to touristic restaurant, where people may never come back anyway. The taste and smell can be a good indicator.
I also never use ice, because I don’t like cold drinks, but it is said that only the factory ice, that has a hole in it, is certified to be safe.
In any case, always trust your senses, if the taste, the smell or the feeling of the water you drink is bad, then you can look for another option.
If you want to save money and produce less waste, while being generally safe as well, the best option to me is to have the 20 L containers or your own travel filter or using the one from the street water machine or your hotel, and refill bottles for going out.
You can even drink them at restaurant offering free water if you don’t want to trust the restaurant. There is no problem at all to drink your own water in a free water restaurant. I personally like to drink the water from the restaurant, unless it tastes unusual (in Penang’s indian restaurants I’ve beet to, the water felt bad to me).
Treated water is not as tasty as mineral water. I like to add some herbs to give life or perfume to it. You can use for example : jasmine flowers (locals do so sometimes), mint, basil, star anise, ginger, pandan leaves,…anything edible that has a good taste. Do not keep it more than a day in your water, or it will start to ferment or get rotten.
Mineral water or not ?
As for the need of minerals in the water, I haven’t been convinced yet for or against it, but I am convinced mineral water is just a trend and not necessary (plants absorb minerals from water and rocks then we get these minerals from plants).
The best water is for sure the water flowing out from a natural source, but after it has been sitting in a plastic bottle for days, assimilating plastic molecules, and losing it’s moving energy, then what is left? Some minerals, some rocks.
Mineral water is a big market, it’s a commercial product that has powerful lobbies. There is no proof that having minerals in the water is better than not, and that these minerals are absorbed by the body or that these minerals will not remain in the wrong place in the body, as too much minerals is not good too.
On the top of that, when we buy mineral water, we give money to big companies and support a system where some multinational trademarks bought sources away from local people. One could also say that at least these sources are protected from pollution, which can also be true.
Growing up in France, I heard that rain water is not drinkable because it doesn’t have minerals. Then, traveling around in the world, I found out that it’s the water people drink daily in many countries, even in Australia. Rainwater is free, it keeps people being able to live without depending on money.
Plants are specialists to catch minerals and store them into their body. By eating greens, fruits, actually all food (but less in refined cereals and sugars), we get tons of minerals . So are minerals in the water needed or not ?
I personally get my minerals from food and avoid adding more plastic bottles in South East Asiand rivers and landfills.