Ten Toilets You’ll Meet on Your Travels (and how to cope with them)

I don’t know if it’s because we all have this in common or whether it’s the most shocking part of life on the road, but toilet tales seem to be a favourite topic for travelers who’ve just met. Once the banalities (where are you from, where have you been, where are you going) are out of the way, I find, as once pointed out by a singing cast of Scrubs, that everything comes down to poo.

Though we all loathe those nose pinching, gut wrenching squat toilets, they’re an essential part of travel and I for one would not have it any other way. What would I have to email home about if every toilet in the world was pristine and fully functioning? Here are ten toilets to make you cringe – and maybe to bring back a few memories.

The Locomotive Loo

Attending to business on a moving train is never easy, but when you add the need to squat, the difficulty level is hiked up another notch. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an on-board toilet with a hole leading straight to the tracks. It can be nerve-wracking, desperately clinging to your money belt for fear it might be sucked under the train in a torrent of your own wee, but it could be worse – a lot worse.

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On a train in China I encountered a ‘toilet’ which was little more than a deep dent in the centre of the bathroom floor. A dent that rapidly filled – and overflowed – as desperate passengers on the 20-hour journey could hold off no longer. Few things spring to mind that could be worse than rounding a bend and slipping onto a floor that others have misaimed all over. But short of dehydrating yourself or holding off for hours on end, you’ll have to learn to deal with the locomotive loo at some point on your travels.

How to cope with the locomotive loo:
NEVER enter a train toilet without rolling up your pant legs first and ALWAYS make sure you’re wearing sturdy shoes – preferably not sandals. And it doesn’t hurt to practice your squat in advance.

>>read about 7 Best American Train Trips Less Than $100

Navigating the ‘Wide Drop’

Everyone’s heard of, and most have experienced, the long drop: the water-free, eco-friendly way to crap. But less common is the wide drop. It shares the characteristics of the long drop – a cavernous hole whose depth can be gauged by the sounds you hear while using it, but here the architect got either careless or carried away. I’m not sure what he was thinking when he dug a hole over 12 inches wide. I just can’t imagine how that could ever be necessary.

What I do know is that when you crawl out of your tent in the middle of the night, with nothing but the moon and a head torch to guide you, the wide drop is not a welcome sight. I mean, it’s bad enough to misplace your feet in a standard squat toilet, but if you don’t account for the ridiculous dimensions of the wide drop, the consequences don’t bear thinking about. Would you want to end up thigh-deep in a lavatory without plumbing?

How to cope with the wide drop:

With a little forward planning you can avoid getting tangled up in this toilet. Before heading off on a wilderness trip, be sure to invest in a powerful torch and whenever you encounter a wide drop, carefully memorize the width and position of the hole in question. If all else fails, ignore the latrine altogether and find a secluded spot to go bush!  

Going Bush

Whether you’re camping in the outback, caught short on a long hike or just attending to calls of nature on a cross country drive, everyone everywhere will pee in the bush at some point. Some find it freeing, some find it revolting and most find it difficult to dispose of their toilet paper afterwards. We’re told to remember the three Bs – burn it, bury it or bag it. Of course, the former can be risky in arid wilderness spots and to successfully bury your debris you’ll need a sturdy shovel and a little brute strength (six inches is the recommended depth for burying your garbage).

So as gross as you might think it is, keep some plastic bags with you and carry that used toilet roll until you can find a bin. You might consider it disgusting but anyone who’s peed at a popular bush toilet will know that there’s nothing on Earth more disgusting than a dozen scrunched up sheets of long-since used toilet paper strewn across a beauty spot.

How to cope with going bush:
If you haven’t mastered the squat, look for a couple of large (but moveable) rocks. Push them together and voila – a makeshift sit-down toilet. And a word of warning – if you’re attending to, erm, solid business in an area you’ll be sticking around in (when camping for instance) it’s a good idea to mark your used territory. There are few feelings as low as accidentally stepping in your own poop!

>>read about 8 Tips for Trekking Responsibly

An Unscheduled Shower

If you don’t think I’m weird already, you might do after this. Anyone who’s traveled in the Middle East will have seen what I can only think to call ‘the bum hose’ – a handy device to ensure you, erm, stay clean after a bathroom visit. In more up-market conveniences this can be found in the form of a hand-operated shower hose attached to each cubicle wall. In less salubrious bathrooms the cleansing H2O comes from a pipe inside the toilet bowl, aimed in the appropriate direction. Honest travelers will admit that they’ve given the bum hose a go. The truly honest (and overly inquisitive) might also admit to testing out the hose while standing in front of the bowl, curious about how powerful that jet might be. This, of course, is where the shower comes in.

For reasons unknown (even to myself), I once followed a co-traveler to the door of the men’s bathroom and stood there while he demonstrated a quirky latrine he’d discovered. I watched, regrettably open-mouthed, as a spurt of water shot out of the toilet bowl five metres away, hitting me squarely in the face. As I contemplated the grotesqueness of bathing in bog water, I could only be grateful that I hadn’t tested this one out while sitting down, such was the power of the jet.

How to avoid the unscheduled shower:
Curiosity drenched the traveler – if you want to test out the cleansing properties of the bum hose, do it while seated. Colonic irrigation-strength fountains are rare and you’ll save yourself the revulsion of freshening up in real eau de toilette.

>>read about the Top 10 Middle Eastern Experiences

The Elusive Western Convenience

You might think that I’m referring to the trials of hunting for a sit-down loo in an Eastern country. Tough as that may be, there is a bigger challenge – finding any toilet at all in certain western nations. The UK springs to mind and London in particular poses a problem for the weak of bladder. At least in Asia you can pee anywhere – any restaurant, any bar and even any shop; just ask and it shall be given. For someone with a peanut-sized bladder, this takes away the massive stress of a wander around London, wondering if a kindly restaurateur will take pity and allow you to pee for free.

A common routine involves using a customers-only pub toilet then having to buy a beer to meet the criteria for peeing there. Naturally, an hour later that pint makes a reappearance, you locate another pub and the cycle continues. There is another alternative of course – paying the princely sum of 50p and using one of the public toilets whose aroma will dispel the post travel blues, transporting you back to the developing world. A word of warning: these latrines often lead straight onto the street, as discovered by a friend who discovered, too late, that your 50p does not necessarily include the use of a functioning lock.

How to seek out the elusive western convenience:
For girls, a tried and tested way to guarantee access to a restaurant loo is stuffing a jacket up your sweater and faking pregnancy. Guys are better catered for with free, if gruesome urinals. Or you could always test out that myth about peeing in a London policeman’s helmet…

>>book a flight to London and read about How to Save Money on Your Trip to London

Don’t crap where you swim!

One of the most comically grotesque toilet tales I’ve heard recently was from a friend whose vacations are dedicated to sailing around European islands. Now, I’ve never set foot on a yacht, but apparently there are strict rules about toilet usage, since your business gets emptied straight into the ocean. No toilet paper, no peeing in port and be aware of the daily schedule before you empty your bowels. An afternoon swim will quickly be ruined when your younger brother flouts the rules. My friend told how, after a hard day at the helm, she was relishing a dip in the Mediterranean, but climbed back aboard almost as quickly as she’d dived in once she realised that her swimming companions were a couple of her sibling’s turds!

How to cope with the on board bathroom:
You have to fine-tune your body to ensure that you can go when you need to go and don’t end up spoiling your shipmates’ down time. You could consider upping your prunes and bran intake. Or if all else fails, swallow your shame and make sure everyone stays informed of your bowel movements so they can keep out of the ocean when you’re visiting the bathroom.

>>read about Nine Unique Ways to Explore the World by Water

Don’t forget your gas mask

When Rudyard Kipling uttered his oft-quoted statement “the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it” I wonder if he’d ever visited a Nepali latrine or a squatter in some African shed. When travel toilet tales come up in conversation, the foul-smelling powder rooms are those which are most often, if not most fondly, remembered. You’ll find that telltale odour everywhere, from British coaches and Parisian privies to Indian alleyways and pretty much any bathroom in China. It can stir a few memories as well as your stomach and if you ever want to stray far from home, the malodorous latrine is totally unavoidable.

China was the not-so-proud host of the stinkiest toilet I’ve ever had the misfortune to use. Beijing Belly had struck and once the bowel blockers had worn off I was forced to pay a visit to a horrifying splat of a bathroom. Between attending to business the only way to avoid passing out into a pile of other people’s poo was to periodically stick my head out the window to gasp for much-needed fresh air. The more you travel, the more your nose gets used to the stench emanating from the pit toilets, chemical loos and public urinals of the world and even if they still make your stomach turn just think of it as one of the essential components of travel – maybe someday you’ll learn to love it as much as tasting the local beer or browsing eclectic markets…

How to cope with the malodorous latrine:
One of my must-have travel items is a mask – one of those small face masks often sported by health conscious residents in large Asian cities. I no longer care about the stares I receive as I stand in line for the bathroom, sporting my very own gas mask. A couple of drops of menthol can seal the deal. It may make your eyes water, but no more than the bathroom’s aroma would.

Coping with an audience

I don’t know if it’s prevalent in other parts of the world, but those who’ve ventured off the beaten track in China might well be familiar with the communal bathroom. At best, it will contain low, doorless stalls (thankfully not unisex). At worst you might find a row of eastern toilets side by side in one large room or a solitary trench where toilet-goers squat one behind another. As if that wasn’t bad enough, you have to add in the curiosity factor. Outside major cities, westerners tend to be on the receiving end of constant stares in China – and those stares do not stop when you enter a communal bathroom. And even if all eyes are not on you, the dilemma of what to do with your eyes also rears its head…

How to cope with an audience:

There’s really no way to deal with this other than pretending you’re elsewhere, keeping your eyes fixed on the floor and peeing as though your life depends on it – the horror will be over in a matter of minutes.

>>book a flight to China

Staying in the Dark

It can be a little disconcerting entering a pitch-black toilet, your sense of smell being the only guide that you are in the right place. Those primitive conveniences lacking electric (or sometimes even natural) light can be traumatic as you tiptoe around, wondering what you’re treading in. But there is something worse. While sampling the delights of a North Korean theme park I was forced to try the ultimate thrill ride – a foul smelling bathroom hidden away from the rickety rollercoasters.

It was the middle of the day but the absence of light bulbs or windows meant that inside the cubicle total darkness reigned. After relieving myself I opened the door and decided to use the thin stream of light to find the flush. It was then that I realised there was no flush and that this toilet had not been emptied in days, if not weeks. It’s a disturbing feeling knowing that you have just peed on the biggest pile of crap this side of Jurassic Park. Sometimes it’s just better to stay in the dark.

How to cope with the unlit stall:
Well, you could keep a flashlight/torch handy for lighting up dark stalls, but sometimes if you see what’s lurking, you end up having to hold it. If you really need to go, just wander in blind, be as quick as you can and get out, all the time thinking beautiful thoughts.

Mastering the technological toilet

Commodes in the far, far east do not fall into the category of terrible toilets, but I don’t know a single person who’s visited South Korea or Japan without passing comment on their futuristic bathrooms. Attending to business in the Far East can be a lengthy process – not for the line ups but for the wealth of choices open to you once inside the stall. A friend recently observed that she’d never seen instructions on how to use the john before, but when the toilet looks like a robot, it really needs a user’s manual.

Your first choice is whether or not you require a heated seat. Then after attending to business you can choose from a range of jets designed to massage and cleanse, followed by the automatic drier. Those who cringe at embarrassing noises can opt for the ‘flushing sound’, an unconvincing recording meant to drown out the usual restroom soundtrack. And the top-of-the-range toilets even come with a wall panel where you can raise or lower the seat at the touch of a button.

A word of warning though – the arm rest control panel is meant to be used while someone is seated and buttons depicting water are not the way to flush. More than a few first timers – myself included – have emerged from those ultramodern cubicles screeching and soaked, for once the spraying begins it takes forever to stop.

How to master the technological toilet:
If bilingual instructions aren’t provided, perhaps you could ask a friendly local for a brief orientation in futuristic peeing. If that’s a little too embarrassing, remember this golden rule – if you don’t know for sure what a button does, never push it. And don’t touch anything unless you’re sitting down!

>>book a flight to Japan

Read about the author, Lucy Corne, and check out her other BootsnAll articles

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Photo credits:
Train by Brett L. on Flickr, London by That_james on Flickr, Bush by CavinB on Flickr , Chinese public toilets by Rivard on Flickr , Japanese toilet instructions by lifewithkarma on Flickr

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Older comments on Ten Toilets You’ll Meet on Your Travels (and how to cope with them)

Anonymous
05 May 2009

This is hilarious, thanks for the much needed laugh as I have shared many similar experiences. Well written!

Derick Snow
16 August 2009

Oh man. I’ve not used the robot toilet but this article gave me back the memories I had once blocked out properly. Thanks for that!