Bitten in Bangkok
Khao San Road, circa 3am… (and this is not the first story I’ve told on these pages that picks up at that time & place!) …my Canadian buddy’s waiting for me in the street while I pop in to a bar to grab us two more beers and make use of their restrooms.
(drinking in the street on Khao San, toilets are an issue; you have to use the (paid, shitty) public toilets, pay to use a hotel’s, or, best, pop into a cheap bar to take a leak and grab takeout beers… guys can also pee in alleyways of course, but that’s running a high risk of being cornered by a pack of ladyboys… happened to me once and I only narrowly escaped!)
Heading back out to rejoin him and resume whatever political debate we’d been in the middle of, I suddenly felt the most unexpected of sensations – a set of sharp teeth sinking themselves into my Achilles tendon… this fucking little bastard dog just ran up out of nowhere, unseen and completely unprovoked, and got stuck straight into the back of my leg!
I shook it off, and when it gathered itself to lunge again I aimed a kick at its face, which didn’t connect but caused it to back off. At this point, the owner of the bar intervened – very much on the dog’s side! The mangy little mutt didn’t look like anyone’s pet, but she was obviously fond of it and told me to leave it alone.
Me leave it alone? Haha… I was most definitely not the aggressor here!
Fact is, Thailand unfortunately has an issue with street dogs, or soi dogs (soi is the Thai word for alley); living rough on the streets and forming into packs as wild dogs do, they have tough lives. It’s awful to see animals living in lousy conditions like that, but that’s not the only issue. They can also be really sketchy, sometimes outright aggressive, and human fatalities do occasionally occur directly from dog attacks, and more frequently from rabies contracted from dog bites.
As much as I pity the soi dogs, they also shit me right up; though this was the first time I’d actually been bitten, this wasn’t the first run in I’d had…
Territorial Soi Dogs in Ayutthaya
On my first visit to Bangkok, my buddy Danny and I took a day trip up to Ayutthaya; as we got off the boat across the river from the station, a random dog snapped at Danny’s bare ankle, Danny just pulling his leg away in time. Totally unprovoked, and of course it makes you worry about rabies. A short time later as we walked to the ancient ruins, we rounded a corner to find a pack of seven or eight dogs straggled across the road; their ears pricked up and they all stood and took interest in us, and not in a friendly way judging from their body language. We turned back and found a different route.
A Face Off with Two Soi Dogs on the Laos Border
A few years after that, when en route from Chiang Rai to Laos, I’d spent the night in the Thai border town of Chiang Khong (this was before the 4th Thai – Lao Friendship Bridge existed, and we hadn’t made it in time for the last boat over the Mekong); my beloved Leeds United FC were playing in the League One Playoff Final that day, and I went off in search of an internet cafe to follow the game (smartphones and wifi everywhere weren’t a thing yet). I totally failed to find an internet cafe though, and in fact the whole town was shuttered up for the night; but what I did find was a pair of stray dogs blocking my way back along the town’s only road.
Attempting to calmly pass them didn’t work; they jumped to attention, growling and snarling and adopting threatening postures. It seemed they’d attack if I got any closer, so I backed off and waited for them to hopefully lose interest or wander off.
But they stayed right there, so I tried to pass again by walking flush against the wall at the side of the street, giving them as wide a berth as possible; but they still wouldn’t let me pass.
I couldn’t see any other way around, but there was a pile of bricks at the side of the road. I picked up a brick in each hand, and decided I’d just call their bluff and walk past them; and if they actually attacked, I’d just have to fucking well bash their skulls in… or get ripped to shreds… even odds, perhaps; any more than two though and there’d have been no chance.
So, thus armed, I approached again; as they snarled and gathered themselves to lunge, I told them (as calmly as I could) to chill out and let me pass, and started walking through.
They snarled; they growled; and then they ran at me. This was it, they were actually attacking, I was in a fight to the death with two dogs… shit! I raised my right hand, brick at the ready, and shaped to smash it into the first dog as it leapt – and the dog slammed on the brakes, whimpered and yelped, and ran away with its tail between its legs, its companion following suit.
I guess they were as scared of me as I was of them; their threat display was menacing, but all it took was a threat display in return and they backed off. These dogs live hard lives, and have likely taken a kick or two before. And so, thankfully, I got back to my guesthouse unshredded (where I eventually learned (via SMS, I think) that Leeds United had lost the final).
Bangkok’s Soi Dog Problem
There are an estimated 8.5 million (Bangkok Post, via Wikipedia) to 10 million (Canadian Medical Association Journal) stray dogs in Thailand with 300,000 in Bangkok, 1 in 10 of which are estimated to have rabies. Dog attacks are a regular occurrence (I can’t find any full national statistics but according to the above CAMJ report, 1.3% of foreign visitors get bitten), occasionally severe enough to be fatal – and even if the wounds themselves aren’t severe, the victims sometimes get rabies and that is virtually always fatal.
By day, the soi dogs look positively wretched and pathetic, curled up in gutters and keeping a low profile; but come midnight when the road and foot traffic dies down and it’s dark, packs of soi dogs roam the streets and you don’t want to bump into them when they’re on the move with their tails up. Half a dozen growling dogs in a dark alley is seriously scary, even if they are skinny little things. Some people even carry weapons for just that reason.
It isn’t just the soi dogs that are scary in Thailand either; pet dogs very much double up as guard dogs, and walking through residential areas at night you’re constantly subjected to aggressive barking from the dogs in the houses you pass. It’s not so bad by day, but even then they’ll still sometimes give you a bit of verbals as you pass. The houses all have high walls and solid gates so it isn’t scary per se, but it’s extremely tedious and they don’t half scare the bejesus out of you sometimes when you’re not expecting it – what’s more, the barking of the house dogs attracts and excites any soi dogs in the area. Between the aggressive guard dogs and the roaming packs of soi dogs, I quickly learned to simply not walk around late at night.
In a perfect world, all of these poor animals would be rounded up, the rabid ones put down humanely, and the rest adopted and taken in by people who would show them a bit of love. Some lucky dogs do get adopted, but given that that’s not going to happen in anything like sufficient numbers what really needs to happen is a large-scale program to spay & neuter enough of the existing dogs to control the future population. The Soi Dog Foundation is a Phuket-based charity also active in Bangkok which runs adoption and spay & neutering programs; if you want to help, check out their website (and here’s the Wikipedia page for more background reading)
So anyway, back to Khao San Road; I’d just been bitten by this little shit that may or may not have been a pet, or perhaps semi-stray, and now the bar owner lady was giving me shit for not being happy about getting bitten!
Although it was a bit like adding insult to injury that she was having a go at me, it was actually a good thing from a rabies perspective. And that was the real issue – although the bite did hurt a bit it was only a small dog and I was wearing jeans and socks, so the wound was light. But a light wound is still enough for rabies transmission, and a rabies infection is a death sentence; if the animal is wild or stray, a full course of shots is required (usually 5 shots over a month) with the first within 24 hours of the bite.
But if the animal is known (e.g. someone’s pet), it helps as the animal can be observed – rabid animals are only contagious in the final days before death, so if the animal is still healthy 2 weeks after biting you, you’re in the clear. You still have to have a shot within 24 hours and a second a few days later, but the full course can be discontinued if the animal can be observed and confirmed healthy within the relevant timeframe.
So, while I didn’t appreciate the bar owner taking sides against me, at least it would help that the bar staff seemed to know this animal… or at least, it should have helped. But when I tried to ask about the dog’s health, where it lived or if it belonged to anyone, she got really defensive; when I persisted (politely) I was told to fuck off, right to my face, with a few guys appearing to back her up. Having seen some vicious beatings on Khao San in the past, I knew I had to just walk away and accept I’d need the full rabies course.
It did occur to me I could still report it to whatever body is responsible for dangerous animals and rabies in Bangkok (if indeed there is one), but it also occurred that the dog would likely then be destroyed, and I’d have made some enemies on Khao San Road – not a good idea when you live in Bangkok and drink on Khao San several times a month! And perhaps that’s why she got so defensive of the dog – she didn’t want it getting put down. Fair enough I suppose.
Hungover Sunday Hospital Visit for Rabies Treatment
So, anyway, there I am on Khao San, they’ve just told me to fuck off and pulled the shutter down to end the conversation, and my buddy has to leave soon anyway with an early morning flight to catch. So we finish those beers and call it a night, and I head home to deal with the bite. This means first thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the wound, then getting to a hospital within 24 hours for the first shot. As I got home at 4am, I decided to get some sleep after cleaning it, and head to hospital when I woke up.
Not how I like to spend my Sunday, especially when hungover! To make matters worse, the public hospitals close on Sundays so I had to fork out for a swanky private clinic (the Sukumvit Hospital next to Ekkamai Skytrain station, near where I was living at the time – yes, Sukhumvit is usually romanised with an ‘h’ in it, but the hospital styles itself without the h for whatever reason). I have to say it was top notch – the doctors and nurses were excellent and all spoke great English – but factoring in the consultation fee, a rabies shot, a tetanus shot, and some antibiotics, made it by far the most expensive night out I ever had in Thailand!
Fortunately (and to my surprise) they said the rabies vaccination I’d had many years earlier was still good, so I only needed two shots rather than the full 5 and this would be the same regardless of whether the dog could be observed or not, so no need to try checking back on it.
A few days later I went for the second shot at the Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University Hospital (near Victory Monument Skytrain Station), which was far cheaper but still gave exemplary service and care. The young doctor cracked a nice joke referencing Khao San’s reputation for crazy behaviour, asking if I was sure it was actually a dog that bit me?!
This actually happened in the same month that a drunk driver almost took me out when he totalled his sports car right in front of me… seemed like Bangkok was trying to tell me something! (and I took the hint – I moved back to Taiwan a short time later)
So anyway, a few injections and that was that. Not nearly as good a story as my Canadian friend who got savaged by a monkey in southern Thailand a few months before that and had to get all 5 shots – she was a good source of advice!
Should You Get the Rabies Vaccination Before Travelling?
So is it really worth getting the rabies vaccination in advance before you leave? Well, the shots are likely more expensive at home, but in the event of a bite you only need 2 shots, which will be far less disruptive to your trip than having to make 5 separate hospital visits! And on the one hand, only 1.3% percent of foreign visitors get bitten by dogs in Thailand; but then on the other hand, a whopping 1.3% percent of foreign visitors get bitten by dogs in Thailand! That works out as more than 400,000 tourists per year, which is quite a lot really (and that’s not even counting monkey bites).
One line of reasoning is not to get vaccinated in advance as, in the event you do get bitten, you can then claim the costs back on your travel insurance; this is probably fine so long as you’re never going to be more than 24 hours away from a clinic, you’re able to cover the cost of the full course until you can make your claim, and are prepared to accept the extra disruption to your trip of making five separate hospital visits. I always use World Nomads for my travel insurance, especially as I’m usually buying insurance on the go when I’m already overseas (which most travel insurance companies don’t allow – as I once found out the hard way when my camera got pinched in Bangkok); however, another thing to consider is that if you’re not vaccinated, in the case of severe bites they’ll also want to give you an immunoglobulin injection which a) may not be available outside major cities and b) sounds deeply unpleasant (it’s a big old injection, apparently), so take that into account too.
What to do if You Get Bitten
Firstly, clean the wound thoroughly with disinfectant, soap and water, or whichever of those you have available, and then seek medical attention – remember, the most crucial thing is to receive the first shot within 24 hours. If you’re somewhere remote like rural Laos, you need to get yourself to a large town with a decent hospital as pronto as possible.
As for the animal, if it’s possible to observe it for the next couple of weeks, and if there’s a relevant authority in the country you’re in, then it’s worth contacting them and possibly saving yourself having to do the full course of treatment; otherwise, you have to assume the worst and get the full set of shots.
For more detail, see here
Again, don’t forget to buy a good travel insurance policy! If you did leave home without one, World Nomads will still cover you.
And finally, if you want to help soi dogs in Thailand, here’s the link to the Soi Dog Foundation again.
Have you had any run-ins with soi dogs in Thailand? Been bitten? If you have any questions or stories, leave me a comment below!
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