Which one is Gents and which one Ladies?
When you are travelling abroad in Asia, one of the things that you have to contend with are the so called squat toilets. At the basic level, they are just a hole in the floor. But more likely than not, there will be a kind of porcelain bowl on the floor with foot rests on either side. Unlike in the “traditional” Western toilet, there is no seat. Many foreign tourists travelling in Thailand turn their noses up at these squat toilets as being unhygienic. However, at the end of the day, the squat toilet wins hands down when it comes to health – though not always to safety as I will reveal in a moment.
People have complained about the state of toilets in Thailand. They may not be pristine or even convenient in all locations, but it could be a lot worse. I remember when I was backpacking across China and the thing that struck me first was the fact that the toilet cubicles hardly ever had any doors. Then, when I reached India I noticed that many people were relieving themselves alongside the road. I guess the Indians like this convenience so much that they even built outdoor toilets for men with just a low wall to shade you from prying eyes. However, as you did your business, you had a nice view of people walking up and down the street.
Sometimes you have to pay to use the restroom
Once I finally reached Thailand I was relieved to find better toilets. Though, mainly only in Bangkok and major cities around the country. By this time, I already had a plan of action in case of being caught short during the day. What I would do is make a beeline for the nearest five star hotel and walk into the lobby as if I owned the place. These toilets were generally a lot better. An alternative was the big shopping malls which often had a bigger budget for their rest rooms. They often also had cleaners there full time in order to keep the place clean. However, be warned, if you are a man standing at a urinal doing your business, don’t be shocked if a female cleaner comes in and starts mopping the floor between your legs. Thais don’t bat an eyelid so you shouldn’t too.
Outside of Bangkok the toilets are more hit and miss. You will also hardly ever see any more Western style toilets. Even in Bangkok they are not everywhere, but you might find a couple of cubicles which don’t have squat toilets. In theory, if you are at a tourist destination then the toilets should at least be clean. This is because they often charge you a few baht to enter. This then pays towards the cleaner who is usually there all day. Sometimes there is a machine that dispenses a small box of tissues for a few baht, but again you cannot rely on this. Usually the price of entry for Thai and foreign tourists is the same. However, I noticed in Ayutthaya that they charge more for foreigners for the same service. Maybe they leave more of a mess?
Bilingual Toilet Signs
Although I have now been living in Thailand for many years, I must admit that I am no expert when it comes to using squat toilets. I tend to avoid them like the plague. The toilets in the house that I bought were all squat toilets and those were the first things that I had ripped out and replaced with something more comfortable. If I go out then I try not to eat so much. However, if you are a woman, or you had something to eat that didn’t quite agree with you, then sometimes you have no choice but to take the plunge. Though, as the floor is often wet and slippery, be very careful that you don’t fall in or let something fall out of your pockets into the toilet bowl.
For many Asians they have no problems about using squat toilets. I guess they have been trained to squat properly since an early age. I remember noting when I was travelling through China and Pakistan that every time the long distance buses stopped for a break or broke down, that the locals got out and then sat down by the side of the road. However, they didn’t actually sit down. They squatted with the soles of both feet firmly on the ground. When I tried to do the same, I could only balance on my toes. If I squatted with my soles firmly against the ground then I tended to slowly tilt backwards until I tipped over. Then, trying to balance only on the front part of my feet was also difficult, and painful, and I couldn’t last long without falling over. The locals just made it look so easy.
There have been a number of campaigns in Thailand to clean up the toilets. Some government officials put in charge of campaigns were called “Mr. Toilet”. I remember one time that they tried to change all the squat toilets in army barracks to Western style toilets. However, even though they sent the soldiers on training courses, the mission failed badly. Many Asians consider our toilets unhealthy as you have to make contact with the seat. Unlike theirs where you just squat above. What happened with the soldiers is that many of them decided to squat up on top of the toilet seat. This of course made the seats even dirtier with muddy footprints. And of course, the seat cover isn’t made from porcelain and they then often broke. Sometimes I see stickers in shopping malls that tell people not to squat on top of the toilet seat.
Which brings us back to the Asian squat toilets and how we are supposed to use them ourselves. Well, not with ease. You need to practice. Apart from the balancing act which I have already mentioned, you also have to be very careful not to soil your clothes. A woman with a skirt would probably find it the easiest. With trousers you need to make sure that you are tilting back a little otherwise you might deliver your package in the wrong location. So, some people decide to remove their trousers in order to avoid this problem. However, you will find that the toilet floors are often always wet. This is because of the traditional flush system. There isn’t an automatic one and you have to do the job yourself! This involves using a bowl to scoop out water in a large container and flushing the toilet by hand.
Toilets for Ladyboys
When I was backpacking I always carried with me a spare roll of toilet paper. However, strictly speaking, you shouldn’t flush toilet paper down the toilet as the pipes are not wide enough to cope with them. So, what Thai people do instead is use the plastic bowl you find in every cubicle and scoop some water into it. You then use this to clean yourself. You should remember to use your left hand to do this job. This is why in Asian countries the left hand is always considered unclean and you shouldn’t use it to eat food or pass something to someone. When you are cleaning yourself, you also need to make sure that you don’t get any of your clothes soaking wet. This explains why the floors are so wet. If you need to use some tissue, you will often see a wastepaper basket alongside the squat toilet and you should dispose of it there.
I don’t really want to scare you about using toilets in Thailand. In my own experience, they haven’t been too bad. However, I do tend to avoid public toilets! And when I need to go I try and pick one that looks clean from the outside and that they charge you to use. Though the toilets in shopping malls and places like temples and restaurants are often free. The only slight problem you might have is knowing which one is for men and which one for women. The sign is nearly always written in Thai. If you are lucky then there will be pictograms of the different sexes. But, don’t count on it in rural areas. Sometimes you do need to memorize the letters for each sex otherwise you might end up in the wrong place. And sometimes, you need to know how to ask where the toilet is. I think that was my first phrase that I learned. “Hong nam, yoo tee nai”. Have fun and don’t fall down the toilet!