For the audio version of this article, read by the author, go here.
Brent and I write a lot about the incredible experiences we have traveling the world as digital nomads. It’s a great life!
But not always.
We’ve always said we want this newsletter to be “informational,” not just “aspirational.” We’ve promised to share as much as possible about our travels, the good and the bad.
Even the toilet stories.
I promise not to get too graphic, but, well, this story is what it is, and if you don’t want any of this in your head, leave now. I will also try hard to avoid “othering” foreign toilets, because there’s too much of that.
Still here? Okay, here goes.
Brent and I are currently living on the island of Penang, Malaysia, for a month. Our next destination is Bangkok, Thailand, and last week, it was my job to visit the local Thai consulate to apply for our extended visas.
My stomach had been upset the past several days, probably from something I’d eaten. I’d thought it was mostly over, but during the ride to the Thai consulate, I felt a little rumbly in my tummy.
I arrived at the consulate at 8:40 am, twenty minutes before it was scheduled to open. A dozen plus folks were already in line, so I stepped into the back of the queue.
This was going to be a problem. I wasn’t number two in line, but “number two” was now very much on my mind.
I’m sure I’ll be okay, I thought, standing there. There must be a bathroom inside, and I can use it as soon as they open.
But as the minutes ticked by, the rumbling in my stomach grew worse.
How can I put this topic delicately? Perhaps a nice metaphor? Everyone likes trains. So let's put it like this: the way things were going, it wouldn’t be long before the train left the station.
Nine o’clock finally arrived, which was very good news. But unfortunately, the conductor was nowhere to be found — that is, the person inside the consulate who would unlock the front gate for the people in line.
Growing increasingly distressed, I started to fear an early departure. To make sure that didn’t happen, I started clenching my…luggage very tightly. I definitely didn’t want the train to leave before I was ready.
9:05 came and went, and still we waited. I looked up and down the street. Might there be another bathroom somewhere nearby?
Nope. This was the diplomatic quarter — nothing but high walls around fancy looking houses as far as the eye could see. Most of them had literal security guards.
In my mind’s eye, I now saw a headline: “Sweaty, Pasty American Causes International Incident at Thai Consulate, Is Refused Visa.”
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I wondered if I should order another rideshare — called “Grab” in Malaysia. But how long would that take? And exactly where would I go? I searched the app, and “closest public bathroom before I have a really embarrassing accident” wasn’t a menu option.
I decided my best option was to stay and pray for the best.
9:05 came and went.
9:15! Each passing minute taunted me like a schoolyard bully.
I was now in serious trouble. The train was definitely leaving the station soon, and let’s just say the cars were packed.
I really didn't fancy a crowd of visa seekers from all over the world witnessing this particular departure.
9:20. Finally! The consulate gate opened, and we all filed in. Since I was one of the first twenty people, I was allowed in the main building where we all sat in chairs while clerks behind two different windows processed our applications.
A quick note about how this waiting room works. Each time someone was called up to one of the two windows, we all had to stand up from our chair and move one seat over until we reached the last chair.
Yeah, it was a strange system. Couldn’t we just take a number?
Anyway, instead of sitting down, I dropped my backpack onto my designated chair and asked the woman next to me if she’d move my stuff each time everyone shuffled over a spot.
She agreed, and although she seemed trustworthy enough, I still wasn’t about to leave our passports, financial documents, and visa fees behind. I yanked the manila envelope with everything out of the backpack and raced off.
Alllllll aboard! The train is about to leave the station!
I quickly found the bathroom, and to my relief the lone stall was empty.
Although it was kind of gross, and the floor was wet. Naturally, someone had peed all over the toilet seat.
Could this whole experience possibly get any more unpleasant?
Oh, it could, Michael. It definitely could.
I looked for toilet paper to wipe down the seat.
There wasn’t any.
There wasn’t even a dispenser for toilet paper. But there was a hose curled against the wall, because, oh, yeah, this is Asia, and lots of bathrooms don’t have toilet paper. The hose is used like a hand-held bidet. To dry yourself, everyone carries a packet of tissue.
Which I always do.
But which, of course, I had somehow failed to do today, and I was REALLY GOING TO NEED IT IN ABOUT THIRTY SECONDS.
I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to be my favorite day in Malaysia.
I rushed out of the stall and started looking for paper towels by the sinks.
Nope, this was a dry-your-hands-on-your-shirt situation.
I ran out into the hallway hoping to find something — anything — I could use in lieu of toilet paper back in the loo. Paper from a recycling paper bin? A stack of denied visa applications? Leaves from a banana tree out in the yard?
There. Was. Nothing.
If Brent had been with me, I could’ve messaged him to help me out, but he was home happily sleeping away.
Mind the gap! Doors are closing!
Or opening, as the case may be.
I looked toward the ladies room. Maybe they had toilet paper? But what if one or more women were already inside? This was a predominantly Muslim, pretty conservative country, and I really didn’t want to have to explain what I was doing in the ladies room to the Thai diplomatic corp.
And my time had finally run out by now anyway. The train was departing either back in that gross toilet stall — or out here in the hallway.
At least there was a hose. I’d be wet afterward, but this was a warm climate. I’d dry fast enough. Being wet with water sure beat the alternative.
Still, there was no way I was sitting on that disgusting toilet seat. I kept one hand on the wall to keep my balance, the other trying to keep my shorts off the ground. I clenched the manila envelope with our passports in my teeth.
The train was off — enthusiastically, like it was the Hogwarts Express taking happy, excited kids off to some magical fantasy realm.
But this was way less magical than in the movie.
At least it can’t get any worse, I thought.
But it can, Michael. It can.
The train was gone, but that hose on the wall?
It didn’t work. No water came out.
No, no, no! I thought, fumbling around, trying to get it to work.
Part of me refused to believe this was happening. But it definitely was.
If I were Matt Damon, and this was The Martian, I’d totally improvise some genius scientific solution using leftover potatoes.
But I had no potatoes.
As I stood there, the manilla envelope with our passports still clenched in my teeth, I thought: Funny, I’ve never seen an Instagram story covering this aspect of travel.
Wait! I had a Matt-Damon-in-The Martian flash of inspiration. I could take off my underwear and use it to…
No, I really didn’t want to do that unless I absolutely had to. Not exactly sure what my plan was, I pulled my shorts up just high enough to not flash anyone and shuffled out of the stall.
Fortunately, the bathroom itself was still deserted. And the sink had soap and water — two of the three things I desperately needed.
But what would someone think if they came in on me in the middle cleaning my, er, caboose?
“Hello!” I’d casually say. “Are you enjoying Malaysia as much as I am?”
I shuffled to the sink, joyfully realizing I could lock the main bathroom door, and got cleaned up.
I was wetter than I wanted to be, but disaster had mostly been averted. Things could have been a whole lot worse.
Looking back, I consider myself lucky. And I’ve learned a very valuable lesson.
I’m never ever ever ever ever going anywhere in Asia without tissue again.
Michael Jensen is a novelist and editor. For more about Michael, visit him at MichaelJensen.com.
Oh my gosh, this made me so nervous...only because I can relate to the terror of not knowing where the nearest bathroom might be. In fact, I have a recurring nightmare that I am in search of a public restroom and one stall is grosser than the next. Not sure about that possible dream interpretation, but I did get a chuckle out of your story. Glad everything came out ok in the end (ha ha).
The bathroom "situation", as you so eloquently reported on in this article, also has a history of happening in North America. I certainly have left souvenirs of used underwear in a variety of places throughout the US. Lately, I've taken to carrying an extra ensemble with me, in addition to anti-diarrheal medication, just in case I need it. Isn't life grand at times?