Toilets on mt. Kenya. Image: SuSanA Secretariat
The first time I got up close and personal with a squat toilet, I was in Delhi Airport on a stopover, waiting to board a flight to Thailand. I hadn’t thought about the loo situation on my upcoming island-hopping trip – but now confronted with an alien, vacuum-moulded plastic bowl in the floor, I couldn’t ignore it.
“Well, this is going to be weird,” I thought as I hunkered down, putting severely under-used thigh muscles to work.
Turns out, squatting was the least of my worries when I got to Thailand.
I got used to the crouching balancing act, but not the dramatic changes in hygiene levels in Thai loos – you could pee in a shiny-floored palace like the bathroom at Bangkok’s Lebua Tower bar (where there were western sitters), then find yourself hovering over an acrid-smelling hole in a cafe bar down the road, eyes fixed ahead so as not to focus on the thick spiders’ webs above. There’d be water hoses instead of loo roll and, confusingly, always a sink but usually not soap. I got in the habit of bringing my own paper and hand sanitising gel.
A friend of mine, Zoe L, was even more wigged out by the toilet extremes when she began a trip through China and South East Asia. She would only use a public bathroom after sending in a friend to scout it out, who’d deliver a rating on a scale of one to five back to her.
“The most memorable [experiences] are the awful times,” she told me later as we compared toilet war stories, “like when you look up and there’s a frog watching you pee, or you see next door’s ‘number two’ float down a latrine that runs under the all the stalls.”
Which brings me to my point: we’re all paranoid about poo.
Public toilets in Jiashan, China. Image: hellomatt
Whether it’s down to germ concerns, squeamishness or our own, culturally-ingrained sense of what’s normal, we carry baggage when we enter a bathroom. So when travel forces us out of our toilet comfort zone, we react with fear. It’s a part of the adventure we could do without.
One thing’s certain, though: when you gotta go, you gotta go – so as a traveller you’ll quickly discover how toilet types and sanitation standards wildly change between different cultures, regions and organisations.
It’s up to you to be prepared for this, rather than panicky. Arm yourself with these tactics for finding clean bathrooms and surviving bad ones, and pooping abroad will become a far more deal-able ordeal…
1. Know which bathrooms are likely to be cleanest
Not all public bathrooms are maintained the same. Look for places that have a motivation to impress their high-spending customers and keep them coming back. In any city, these will be luxury and mid-range chain hotels (there will usually be a public toilet off the lobby), restaurants with nice table linen and department stores that stock designer brands.
Toilets at Daimaru Department Store, Tokyo. Image c. Daimaru
Due to corporate standards, you can also rely on a frequently-cleaned bathroom in mid-price chain restaurants. Art galleries and museums tend to have well-maintained toilets too, probably because the special-interest nature of visiting means there’s less footfall – plus, it fits with their aesthetic to keep things clean.
Beware places that are popular for families with kids like arcades and fast food restaurants – the bathroom gets messier quicker because it has a lot of footfall, and cleaning maintenance might be sporadic. Ditto coffee chains and smaller cafes, where there can be a lag between cleaning slots.
However, this is still all relative to how desperate you are: I’ve certainly never turned my nose up at McDonald’s, and travellers in places like India and China, where there’s a huge extreme between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ toilets in Western eyes, say it’s a veritable godsend.
Image: Terry Johnston
On the other end of the scale, places in high footfall areas where there’s no profit-related need to impress you are much less reliable for hygiene and security: think bathrooms for ‘mass transit’ routes, eg bus stations, truck stops or ferry ports, and outdoor recreation spots like parks and beaches.
This isn’t to say these places will be bad but, depending on the area, they could be.
Image: JP Carrascal
2. Bring survival equipment
So what do you do when you’re desperate, there are no other loo options and facilities are less than stellar? Reach for your survival kit.
You should have toilet paper ready in your pocket, as well as hand sanitizer gel and bottled water in case there’s no sink or soap. Dab some Tiger Balm under your nose to mask bad smells and combat nausea. If you can plan ahead that far, wear shoes that cover your whole foot, rather than flip-flops: they make you feel more protected if the floor’s grimy.
3. If there’s no privacy…
Western culture is set up on pretending bodily functions don’t exist. Public toilets without any doors on the stalls, or even stalls at all, are pretty much unthinkable. However, bathrooms without cubicle doors, or without stalls at all do exist in some countries, notably China.
In India, there are cases of open fields being used as public bathrooms (though I stress that while this is a huge sanitation issue for locals in rural areas, it isn’t the norm faced by most travellers, who tend to stick to cities and Westerner-focussed places like Goa).
This is a real shock to anyone who hasn’t grown up using the bathroom this way. The best way to avoid them is to plan your bathroom breaks carefully using the guide in point one.
An open-stall toilet in China. Image: Conortje
4. There’s an app for that
App-makers have valiantly tried to solve the problem of finding your nearest clean toilet. The free Sit or Squat maps user-rated toilets in your neighbourhood, and tells you whether they’re, well, sitters or squatters. Find Toilets is also free, maps the toilets nearby and gives you directions to them. However, these apps can lack thorough, or up-to-date information depending on the area.
If you don’t want to download an app, you can always create a DIY map with Google Maps. Before leaving for the day, save locations of local fancy hotels, museums etc, and save the map for offline use by typing ‘ok maps’ in the bar at the top.
Still feeling nervy? Well, just know that ultimately, necessity will trump paranoia. Once you go through a few rough loos, the experience gets less awful – even for someone with their own scale….
“I stopped drinking water so I didn’t have to use the loos,” says Zoe of her most extreme toilet-avoiding tactics. “But soon realised that I couldn’t keep that up for long, and my kidneys started to hurt so I decided to get over it. There were situations where I just had to go, like if we were out drinking.
“By the end of the trip, nothing could phase me.”
A heartwarming tale we can all be inspired by.