Let's face it, if you're traveling for more than a couple of hours you're going to need to use a toilet. Sure, some of the guidebooks give a bit of information on what kind of toilet facilities to expect in a given country, but there never seems to be quite enough information. Where are the cleanest? What's the best place to run to in an emergency? Do I have to use my hand? What's the deal with squat toilets?
Here's a quick guide to what I've observed as the state of toilet facilities in each of the Asian countries I've traveled in as well as a discussion of that horror of horrors (or so you think!), the squat toilet!
[See the Toilets - Readers' Submissions page for more tips and advice from other travelers including the all important female perspective. Updated January 13, 2009]
If you spend any appreciable amount of time in Asia outside of your hotel room you will at some point probably find yourself faced with the intimidating task of using a squat toilet. However, once you've conquered the skill, and it's hardly a skill, and you've experienced the inside of a restroom in a public bus station in China, you'll probably become thankful that squat toilets are often the norm.
While intimidating to the uninitiated, ask yourself ... Did you ever do it in the woods? Surely you've been on a camping trip or something, whether as a kid or an adult, and had to take a dump behind a tree somewhere? Well, squat toilets are the same concept.
You can find two basic varieties. Squatters that are level with the floor, and what I call 'hi-risers', which sit maybe fifteen to twenty centimeters off the floor. The former are quite easy to use while the latter can be very uncomfortable if you are more than about 5'6" or are the least bit heavy. Not only do the hi-risers require a performance of a balancing act, they can also stick you in a tight position.
As far as giving advice about using squat toilets, what I say is going to be geared more towards guys than gals. However, female advice can be found here.
I think the most difficult thing people inexperienced with squat toilets contend with is how to drop their drawers and keep them out of the line of fire, from either end. On a conventional western toilet you drop your pants to your ankles, take a seat, count the mold stains on the door or read your Lonely Planet and do your business. Now, settle yourself over a squat toilet with your pants at your ankles and take a look at how things are positioned. You're gonna pee on 'em is what's going to happen. When using squat toilets you only drop your pants a few inches down which is just far enough to create some clearance. The seat of your pants will be well above your knees and well out of firing range. Also be careful of the contents of your pockets. As your pants are high, they are in a prime position for items such as keys, coins, etc to slide out of your pockets and into the toilet, usually after you've done your duty.
Some squat toilets flush the same as a regular sit-down toilet, while others have no flushing mechanism. If you encounter the latter, you should see a tub of water and a scoop nearby. Scoop water from the tub and pour it into the toilet and watch as your mess gradually disappears with each scoop of water you pour. This water and scoop is also used for cleaning yourself.
More likely than not, with the possible exception of hotel rooms and a handful of shopping malls in Bangkok, you're not going to find any toilet paper anywhere. Carry some with you at all times and at the same time ask yourself if you want to shake anyone's left hand? Which is kind of silly because plenty of people still use their right hand but they just won't admit to it.
If you're stuck without toilet paper there's still hope. Some facilities sell small packets of toilet paper, especially in Thailand. If you're really lucky there will be a butt sprayer, which is a small nozzle attached to a hose to the side of the toilet. Point the nozzle where you want to fire and push down the lever. If you've never used one of these before you'll probably find the pressure is more than you expected and you'll make a real mess of yourself if you're not careful. So here's your warning: Test the pressure with a quick blast away from you and then when you're ready to clean, press the lever gently until you're confident you can control the water flow! After finishing with this exercise you'll probably ask yourself, "Now what! Am I supposed to sit here and drip dry!!??!!" Hence, toilet paper and a butt sprayer are the best combination.
If there's no sprayer your next hope is that there's a tub of water and a scoop. This is common in Southeast Asia but not so much in China or Central Asia. The conventional advice is you're supposed to splash some water on the messy area. Really, I've never seen the use in that, sort of like spilling a plate of stir-fry on your shirt and trying to wash it off by dabbing a dry tissue on it. Really, if it's a bit nasty down there and all you have is water then you're just going to have to use your hand, get it dirty, and hope there's some soap nearby.
As an American I grew up in an environment where there was no water by the toilet in any form, it was dry toilet paper and that's it. Now, after six years in Asia, I can't imagine not having water nearby and I'm a little mystified how this seemingly obvious concept of cleanliness hasn't made it into American bathrooms. However, I'm also equally mystified at the lack of toilet paper in Asian restrooms and the idea of don't eat with your left hand. But a lot of people here carry tissues with them, wash their hands when they are through and eat with whatever hand they like.
If you did remember to carry toilet paper with you the next question you may be faced with is what are you supposed to do with it when you're finished? In theory, if there's a waste can near the toilet, that's your cue that it's to go in there. However I know a lot of people can't be bothered to do this and stick the paper in the toilet anyway and more often than not it's not a problem, or at least not a problem they'll ever see. There's really not a lot of rhyme or reason as to which toilets can handle paper. Some septic tanks in even the most rural places in say, Cambodia, can handle toilet paper without problem, while the plumbing in a midrange Bangkok hotel cannot. So do as those before you, if there's a waste can, stick it in there, if not, flush it down. Let your conscience be your guide.
Toilet facilities around Asia:
In general, public facilities in Asia lag behind the west in hygiene standards but this is by no means universal. There are plenty of filthy restrooms in the west and plenty of spotlessly clean ones in Asia.
Most hotels have western-style toilets with butt sprayers attached. Some cheap guesthouses may only have squat toilets. At even some low to midrange hotels they may neglect to place toilet paper in the room leaving you to chase down the staff for a roll. Public toilet facilities are for the most part nonexistent. A local restaurant will probably have a squat toilet in a shed somewhere but there's no guarantee of this. Squat toilets are usually of the flat variety. Out in the sticks everyone goes in the woods. If you're in a mined area (and you probably won't be, but if you are, you will hopefully have been already versed in land mine sense), you'll just have to take John Lennon's advice and do it in the road, even if it's not quite what he had in mind. If you're on the highway between, say, Poipet and Siem Reap, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh and Battambang, you're not going to be anywhere near a land mine, so don't worry about it. And don't be shy about ducking behind a bush regardless if you are male or female, it's what the locals all do.
I can only think of a few places in Cambodia with public facilities. One is Kralanh, a town between Siem Reap and the border at Poipet, where some locals got the idea to build a block of toilets to service all the buses passing through town. The idea caught on and several more enterprising families built the same. These facilities, though offering only squat toilets, are clean and usually have toilet paper. They cost 5 baht or 500 riels to use. In downtown Phnom Penh there are a couple of public facilities near the National Museum. I've not been inside any of these so I can't report on the condition, but apparently when they were first constructed a few years back, several homeless families promptly moved in. If you can find a real gasoline station, and certainly Caltex would qualify, you'll probably find they have restrooms of some condition.
At the Angkor temples, there are old toilet blocks by the pagoda next to Angkor Wat, at Preah Khan behind the souvenir stalls on the west side, at Ta Prohm behind the souvenir stalls on the west side, at the Bayon on the east side, and at Banteay Srei across the road. Expect to pay 500 riels for the privilege. In the past year, additional facilities have been built along the roads away from the tempkes on both the inner and outer circuits. It is no longer an issue to find toilet facilities when visiting the temples.
There is not one single bus in Cambodia that I have seen with a toilet. I'm not even sure what the dilapidated old trains offer, either (never been on one). Most of the speedboats have toilets on board that are quite usable. The exception is the small speedboats that are designed to hold about a dozen people and run between Battambang and Siem Reap, they have no facilities. The next size up of speedboats, that seat about 40 people and are used sometimes between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh when the water levels are at their lowest, have a toilet, a hole really, stuck in a small closet which you'll have to crouch down to get inside and you won't enjoy this experience. Clean, western style toilets can be found in the main airports.
For the most part, everything you have ever heard is true. Facilities in China can be absolutely horrid. The good news, however, is that public facilities are everywhere.
Most hotels have western-style toilets though don't count on a butt sprayer. Plumbing can be iffy so what you put in there may not go away so easily. Some cheap guesthouses, and certainly basic guesthouses out in the sticks, will often have nothing more than an outhouse out back and you won't want to look down while you're using it.
Now, as I said, public facilities are everywhere. Scattered throughout major cities are what are sometimes rather large restrooms. Just look for a WC sign and an arrow, and follow your nose. Most of these facilities have little or no privacy. You may find a long cement block with a trench down the center that may or may not have partitions every couple of feet or you may find individual holes in the cement, which again, may or may not offer any privacy. And yes, it can be a little intimidating to walk into a public toilet and see twenty guys squatting over holes staring around and smoking cigarettes and pointing at the foreigner that just walked in, but at least the bathrooms are there. Usually you have to pay a nominal fee of a couple of jiao.
Out in the sticks there are many toilet facilities as well. As in most villages nobody has a bathroom, each village will have a toilet facility which anyone can use. I use the word toilet loosely as it's usually nothing more than a few holes in the ground behind mud brick walls. But again, they are there.
Bus stations will of course have bathrooms and they tend to be disgusting. Train stations are usually no better. Even airports can be a little stinky. The only buses in China with toilets are the super deluxe express buses. These are, for example, Yunnan Express, and some of the services between major cities, i.e. Beijing and Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen/Hong Kong, etc. But for all the regular buses, forget it, no toilets. However, it's been my experience, and other foreigners have had similar experiences, that in a majority of cases bus drivers are agreeable to make a pit stop when requested. Trains have toilets at one end, usually two of them, which basically consist of a hole in the floor.
There is a slight trend to improving facilities in the cities. Aside from the public blocks which are still generally hideous, you can find usable toilets in shopping malls and some fast-food restaurants. Some of these may be of surprisingly clean standards. I can recall personally using a facility in a mall in Guangzhou that was no worse than any shopping mall facility in the west, toilets at KFCs in both Kunming and Shanghai that were clean by anyone's standards, and the Pizza Hut in Chengdu offers one of the cleanest public bathrooms I've seen anywhere in the world.
I was surprised that given the level of development in Malaysia that the public facilities wouldn't be better. In our time in Kuala Lumpur we found the bathrooms in a number of shopping malls were limited to squat toilets which were quite dirty with standards lagging well behind what is found in the facilities in a similar style shopping mall in Bangkok. Ironically, while we were there there was an editorial in one of the local English language newspapers addressing this issue and what an embarrassment it was for such a developed country to have such underdeveloped restrooms. Malaysia is a hybrid of multiple cultures and it was my impression that the Chinese were given the duty of sorting out the bathrooms.
I haven't been in Malaysia long enough to detail the availability of facilities around the country, but I do know that the a/c long distance buses seem mostly to have them and western toilets are, as is the case in most of the region, placed in all but the most basic of accommodations. There are numerous rest facilities along the expressways and of course gas station restrooms are plentiful.
Like Cambodia and Vietnam, public facilities are virtually nonexistent. And like these same countries, most lodging will have western toilets except at the most basic level. I found butt sprayers available more often than not in the hotel rooms in which I stayed. The rules are much as in the other countries in that ducking behind a bush is always an acceptable course of action. Local restaurants will usually have a squat toilet in a shed somewhere. I traveled by air and by car so I can't speak for the bus and train stations. Facilities in the airports were usable, though not exactly modern.
For a country that makes such a big deal about having spotless toilets I can't say I was all that impressed by what we found. I'm sure somewhere there are spotless facilities, but for the time being my cleanest public toilet in Asia award is still reserved for the Chengdu Pizza Hut in China. And in Changi Airport, which I think is one of the world's premier airports, I found about what I'd expect to find in any large western airport, really. Overall though, facilities in Singapore are quite good and relatively clean facilities are available in shopping malls, gas stations, restaurants, etc., which often have both western and squat toilets with a reasonable chance of having toilet paper as well. While Singapore does have the cleanest bathrooms in Asia, don't necessarily expect the reality to match the hype.
In general, public facilities in Thailand are pretty good... but then again sometimes not. A lot of squat toilets in Thailand are of the uncomfortable hi-riser variety I mentioned in the introduction. In Bangkok public bathrooms can be found all over the city in malls, gas stations, restaurants, etc. As with most of Asia, hotels and guesthouses offer western style toilets with butt sprayers. Cheap guesthouses may have squatters only.
Shopping mall facilities vary widely in quality and cleanliness. In central Bangkok, clean facilities with western toilets and toilet paper can be found at the Emporium Mall as well as most any Central Department Store and most malls bearing the Central name (Central Rama III, Central Silom, Central Pinklao, etc). Other malls, such as the World Trade Center, Siam Center and Siam Discovery tend to have only satisfactory facilities. Though most every stall will have a toilet paper dispenser it's a lucky day you'll actually find paper in any of them. Head to MBK or most any mall across the river on the Thonburi side and you'll find predominantly squat toilets and no toilet paper. Many restrooms do however, have toilet paper machines which will give you a small packet for 2 baht. Availability of butt sprayers is hit or miss. And don't be surprised if you're in a shopping mall restroom standing at a urinal doing your business when some woman walks behind you with a mop wiping the floor inches from your feet. Many facilities in shopping malls are staffed seemingly around the clock by women who perform an endless cycle of floor mopping and counter wiping all the while the men go about their business.
Most all petrol stations in Bangkok and throughout the country will have restrooms, though again, don't expect a western-style toilet or toilet paper, though some of these places can be quite clean. Restaurants, if catering to westerners will usually have sit-down toilets and paper. Small local restaurants, if they have anything, will offer a squat toilet in a back room somewhere. Many small bars and restaurants, especially in the main entertainment areas (Patpong, Nana, Cowboy, Pattaya, etc), have shared facilities, so to speak. A block of urinals for the guys and stalls next to them for the gals. If you're a guy and you find yourself in need of a real toilet go ahead and barge into the ladies side. Most of the medium and upper range hotels will have facilities in the lobby and most don't appear too concerned about non-guests coming in and using them.
Bus and train stations will have restrooms but you should expect squat toilets and a 3 baht fee to use them. Some of the facilities, for example at Morchit Bus Terminal, are kept reasonably clean. Airports, as can be expected, usually have western toilets stocked with toilet paper. Long-distance buses, depending on service level, may have toilets. For the government buses (WHICH ARE THE ONLY KIND OF BUSES YOU SHOULD BE USING!!!!!) all VIP-24 and VIP-32 buses have toilets. All first class buses (blue and white paint scheme and buy your ticket from the windows with the blue writing) will have toilets unless it is a very short route (i.e. Bangkok to Ayutthaya). I have never been on a first-class bus on a route in excess of 150 kilometers that did not have a toilet on board. Second class (red, white, and blue paint scheme and buy your ticket from the windows with the red writing) and ordinary, non-AC buses (orange paint scheme) do not have toilets on board. Trains, of course, have toilets, but nothing to get excited over. BTS (Skytrain) stations do not have restrooms.
Like Cambodia and Myanmar, public facilities are virtually nonexistent. And like these same countries, most lodging will have western toilets except at the most basic level. I found butt sprayers available more often than not in the hotel rooms in which I stayed. The rules are much as in the other countries in that ducking behind a bush is always an acceptable course of action. Local restaurants will usually have a squat toilet in a shed somewhere. I have never heard of any bus in Vietnam, tourist or otherwise, having facilities on board.
I did have one unique experience in the south. I was on the back of a moto heading to the Cu Chi Tunnels when the familiar but dreaded stomach rumbling began and in short time I knew something had to be done and done NOW. My motorbike driver wasn't very optimistic about finding anything but asked at a small roadside food stand anyway. They pointed around back to a small pond and above it raised on bamboo sticks was a "toilet". I walked on a small bamboo bridge to this "toilet" where privacy was provided by forty-centimeter high plastic tarps. The "toilet" was simply some bamboo arranged in such a way as to allow placing your feet on something solid while you squatted over a hole and everything dropped into the pond. But! And this was the surprise, in this makeshift toilet was a roll of toilet paper, a newspaper - presumably for reading while you did your business, a small bucket of water, and a bar of soap! Everything you needed - in a small bamboo structure surrounded by a piece of plastic over a pond!
Toilets are rarer than water in Afghanistan. There also aren't very many trees and a lot of the fields have land mines in them, all of which tends to narrow one's choices down a bit. A decent hotel may offer clean facilities but that's about it. A cheap hotel may have some kind of toilet down the hall but it will be as bad as anything on offer in China, perhaps even worse. Some of the small guesthouses and chaikhanas will have no facilities whatsoever. Restaurants? Maybe a hole in the ground out back. And butt sprayers, toilet paper, and things? Forget it.
Take a shortcut through a residential neighborhood in Kabul and you may find half a dozen men squatting in open lots behind their homes and you can imagine the smell. I have no idea what the women do. In Bamiyan, UN Habitat built a public toilet block which was nothing more than four cubicles, each with a hole in the cement and everything winding up in a pile behind. It was almost unbearable to be downwind from these blocks. And this was an improvement! Fortunately, Afghanistan doesn't yet attract the type of person that would find the lack of facilities to be much of an obstacle to travel.
Pakistan is only marginally better than Afghanistan. The main difference is that due to more advanced and established accommodations, you can expect decent toilets in your room. But other than rest areas on the major highways, public facilities are hard to come by in Pakistan. Even some restaurants don't have toilets. Pakistan is a good place not to get caught short. Plan on using your hotel and if you're afraid you might get sick in the middle of Lahore, carry some immodium and prayer beads or something.
[See the Toilets - Readers' Submissions page for more tips and advice from other travelers including the all important female perspective.]
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