A much needed tell-all tutorial about using the toilet of the East. Know before you go — literally. Experiential learning on one of these machines is a traveler’s right of passage that’s better left averted. Just believe us on this one.
Khao San Road is my definition of tourist hell: inflated prices, constant hassling by touts, and herds of poorly-behaved travelers making obnoxious asses of themselves, giving foreigners a bad reputation. I have trouble deciding what I found more bothersome about Khao San: getting hassled three times in ten paces to buy a suit in the 95°F/35°C heat, or watching men of four different nationalities take turns trying to force themselves onto an innocent-looking Thai girl who just happened to have stumbled into the wrong party. This area is not a place in which I like to linger long.
Still, Khao San Road has its merits. It’s a good base of operations to re-kit your travel gear and there is cheap accommodation to be found if you know where to look. All roads in Southeast Asia eventually lead here, so you might as well try to enjoy it. It’s also a good hub to connect with experienced travelers, if you can spot them among all the ruckus.
After a long day of traversing Bangkok, I settled into the only bar in the area that offered drinks at normal Thai prices. I was shortly joined by an attractive blonde 30-something, a special needs teacher from Brooklyn, who had stepped into Asia for her first time that very afternoon.
Conversation flowed easily between us and so did the drinks. A smart woman, she alternated small beers with large bottles of water. As can be expected, she soon had to make her way to the bathroom to relieve some fluid pressure. When she returned, although her tough New Yorker attitude tried to conceal it, there was a mild look of horror and confusion on her face. I quickly realized what had happened and couldn’t help but grin at her like a schoolboy.
“Everything go smoothly?”
“Yeah, it was fine….”
“Did you figure out how to flush?”
Her eyes widened. “Wait, it can flush?”
Little did the Brooklynite know, but she had just completed a rite of passage: her first run-in with the ever under-appreciated squat toilet.
In the month since that meeting, I’ve had to explain the mechanics of using and flushing squattie potties to three other people. Obviously there is a gap in Western knowledge about the preferred Eastern bathroom appliance. Without much further ado, it’s time, dear readers, to learn how to poop in Asia.
You very well may think squat toilets are weird. Try to keep in mind that ‘weird’ doesn’t really exist — it’s all culturally determined. You are an English speaker, so there is a decent chance that you consumed un-fertilized chicken embryos, white liquid pumped from the body of another mammal, and crushed grass seed mixed with bacteria that was twice-cooked for your breakfast. Weird is all in your head. Moving on.
Squat toilets have two major advantages over sit-down toilets: they’re healthier and more hygienic. In terms of health, the squatting position straightens the lower digestive tract, which reduces strain and helps you empty out completely, decreasing your chance of hemorrhoids and, supposedly, even some types of cancer.
Hygiene-wise, the fact that you’re not sharing butt bacteria with strangers is a big plus. Not to mention, for the majority of squat toilets you wipe with water rather than paper. The concept seems nasty at first glance, so I will quote my former housemate on this one: “If you had poop on your hands and just wiped it off with paper, would you feel clean? No? Then why is it different for your butt?”
The Logistics: Making a Deposit
First, inspect the toilet. There are two primary types of squattie: the porcelain hole-in-the-floor version and the hooded kind that looks like a urinal tipped on its side. Second, find a water source. Ideally there is a sprayer attached to a hose – known as a “butt sprayer” or a “bum gun”. In lieu of this, there may be a water tap with a container underneath and a plastic ladle to spoon the water out. If there is no obvious water source, go find some paper, as someone was too cheap to have a water line installed.
After you’ve inspected the area, drop trow. Be careful to ensure that your pants don’t sag and touch the wet toilet or floor. For beginners, it’s highly recommended to remove your lower clothes completely and hang them on a hook or use the old traveler’s trick and put them on your head. It looks silly, but no one is watching you (Hopefully!). After you have some practice with squatties, removing clothes is no longer necessary. Just roll up your pants and push them down (still buttoned) to just above your knees. This should keep them from sagging and getting wet.
For the hole-in-the-floor toilet, squat down and position yourself directly over the hole. With the hooded version, align yourself with your face pointing towards the hood itself. Once in position, you are free to take care of business. For men, make sure your manhood isn’t pointed at your feet or pants if you plan to urinate as well.
The Washout: Restoring Your Dignity
Once the act is completed, it’s time to clean up. If the stall has a hose in it, simply spray with one hand while using the other hand to remove extraneous debris. It’s best to spray from the front, particularly for girls, to keep any nastiness from getting pushed towards your privates.
For the ladle and bucket method, the system is a bit more up close and personal. Fill up the container with the tap, and use the ladle to scoop up some water. Still squatting, let the water run down your backside starting just above the crack. It should wash right over the crime scene. One hand should be pouring while the other hand is gently helping to remove the feces.
Women using this method should squat as low as possible to further guard against accidental cross-contamination. I’ve also heard of a method for women that involves splashing from the front and wiping towards the back. This sounds more hygienic, but I don’t know any further details – for some reason none of the women I asked wanted to elaborate. I guess you will have to experiment for yourself.
If you have paper, dry yourself off and put it in the trash can. Do not flush the paper! Squat toilets often have narrow plumbing that clogs easily. If you don’t have any paper, don’t worry about patting yourself down. Your bum will dry off on its own.
The Cleanup: Removing the Evidence
Finally, time to clean the toilet. If it has a flush handle, no explanation is needed. The other option is a “manual flush” toilet. For this, you will find a plastic bowl or small bucket by the the water basin. Fill it up and pour the water down the toilet as many times as necessary to get rid of yesterday’s lunch. Beware of backsplash.
Once everything is finished, wash your hands thoroughly until you are no longer horribly disgusting. Being prepared with an alcohol-based sanitizer is useful at this point, as many bathrooms don’t provide soap. Enjoy thinking about this lack as you step back into the restaurant to eat your dinner that the staff made by hand.