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The Truth About Foreign Toilets: The Only Thing You Have to Fear is Fear Itself
Words of encouragement for finicky Westerners like me.
The first time Michael and I were considering traveling to Southeast Asia, I made the mistake of watching some of those scary YouTube videos showing how "primitive" the public toilets there can be.
I'll admit it: I was traumatized. I'm pretty finicky when it comes to toilets. TMI alert, but I may be the world’s only travel writer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
But three and a half years later, having lived in Southeast Asia, and many other non-Western countries, I now know that those YouTube videos don't tell the whole story.
First, if you're an American, here's what you're likely to find in other countries:
Many public toilets outside of America, and often even in Western Europe, charge to use the facilities. This is more of an inconvenience than anything, because the charge is usually modest, but if the facility is automated, it often requires you to carry exact change.
In some poorer European countries, especially Eastern Europe, public toilets often don't have toilet seats. For the life of me, I do not understand this. Are you supposed to just sit on the bare rim? Hover over the toilet? (I opt for the latter.)
Some famous churches in Europe or Eastern Europe will have only a single one-person bathroom, despite massive crowds. I understand why: these churches have only become major tourist attractions in the last hundred years, and it's hard to remodel a twelfth century building made of thick stone.
In many Islamic countries (like Turkey, where we are now) and parts of Asia, squat toilets are common in public restrooms. These are the "scary" toilets you see on YouTube, and they really are often just a hole in the floor, sometimes with tilted foot rests. This is actually a "healthier," more natural way to go to the bathroom, but if you're not used to this, who the hell cares?
Squat toilets usually flush with a foot-pump, and there is often a hose or hose-like device next to the toilet, which is used like a bidet. Toilet paper is not flushed (because the pipes are too narrow to handle it and will clog them), so it's placed in a covered bin next to the toilet. But this isn't as disgusting as it seems: because of the hose, the paper is used for drying purposes only.
In the "worst case scenario" of squat toilets, there is no hose or flushing mechanism, just a bucket of water with a cup which is used to "flush" the toilet, and also to clean yourself. And there also might be no stalls, just a row of holes in the floor.
Oh, and there's frequently no toilet paper. You are expected to carry your own, or you can sometimes buy it from an attendant.
Sometimes even seated toilets don't have obvious flush mechanisms, just a bucket of water and facet next to the toilet. Yup, you pour the water in yourself.
There will usually be a sink to wash your hands, but not always, which is why it's traditional to wash yourself with the hand other than the one you eat with. Soap isn't always available either, even if there's a sink.
In Mexico and much of central and South America, you will find conventional "seat" toilets, but you also usually can't flush toilet paper. So, once again, you place the used toilet paper in a bin next to the toilet. The bins are sometimes covered, but they're often not. Here you're expected to fold or wrap your toilet paper in a way in a way that makes it less obvious what it was used for.
Okay, that's the bad news. And it sounds pretty grim, right? Especially to a would-be traveler who is used to a completely different kind of toilet experience.
But I'm here to tell to the rest of the story — the "good news" — which will hopefully put your mind at ease.
Public toilets are more common in the rest of the world than in America. Seriously, what's the deal with New York City? Where are you supposed to go to the bathroom in the Big Apple? And on the subject of New York toilets, what's the deal with Broadway theaters with bathrooms that only have three stalls for women — or two stalls and two urinals for men? How is that enough for fifteen hundred people during a fifteen-minute intermission? I know these theaters are mostly very old, but when did this ever work? Did people go to the bathroom less eighty years ago?
Public bathrooms are often cleaner in other countries — in part, I think, because there's a fee to use them. In poor countries, where there are privately-run public toilets, go with the ones that look best. And look for signs (usually in English) that say, Clean toilets!
Men's rooms usually contain some kind of traditional urinal, although privacy screens can be rarer, at least in poor countries.
Toilets are usually free in churches or mosques, even in cities where most public toilets require a fee. But again, they may be only one bathroom, and a long line.
Some form of the bidet is common throughout Europe and much of Asia, which is objectively superior to the toilet paper method in America. Given how finicky and decadent Americans often are, I honestly have no idea why bidets haven't caught on in the United States.
Many countries, especially in Western Europe, have toilet "rooms," not the ridiculous, less than private "stalls" that are so common in America.
Those squat toilets I mentioned earlier — the ones that are featured so prominently in all those scary YouTube videos? What the videos don't tell you is that you can almost always opt to use the facilities at a nearby café or restaurant instead, or in the lobby of any large hotel. There the facilities will always be much better, much more private, and will almost certainly have a traditional "seat" toilet, if the area includes tourists at all. And if you're a Westerner in a country with public squat toilets, the reality is that a cup of coffee or a soda from one of these restaurants or hotel lobbies will probably cost you less than a dollar anyway. I've very rarely been forced to use a "worst case scenario" toilet. And I go off the beaten track.
If you're in a place that's so remote that there is no café or hotel nearby, there's probably not going to be much of a viewing audience anyway. I've never been truly embarrassed in a public toilet (though I have had friends who had uncomfortable encounters, but only in very remote places).
Look, here's the real takeaway. Going to bathroom is the most natural thing in the world. The most truthful words ever written might be the title to that children's book, Everyone Poops.
And come on, there is absolutely nothing truly strange or embarrassing about the way any culture on Earth goes to the bathroom. Understanding and accepting this is called "being an adult."
But part of being an adult is also understanding and being sympathetic to people's embarrassments and feelings of discomfort. When it comes to toilets, the only villains are people who are deliberately cruel toward others. Honestly, that might be in true of everything in life.
The point is, most people are surprisingly understanding about other people's discomfort.
And the bigger picture? What seems strange in a YouTube video won't seem that strange in that time and place.
Yes, there may be a couple days of trepidation, and maybe a moment or two of embarrassment. But then you'll make a mental leap, much the way you did when you learned to use chopsticks.
You'll think: Oh! This is just another way of doing something I've always done.
Context matters. Indeed, context is almost everything. It will all feel much less strange when you're actually there. Just act like everyone else.
Play it cool and go with the flow.
And I say this as someone who is not an especially play-it-cool and go-with-the-flow kinda guy. The fact that I'm writing this article at all hopefully proves that.
Whatever you do, don't let your fear of or anxiety about foreign toilets keep you from exploring the rest of the world. Because these places with "strange" toilets? They're some of the most interesting on Earth. And they're inhabited by some of the nicest people.
Trust me, the guy with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. You'll be just fine.