Unfamiliar toilets can make us do strange things. At the risk of embarrassing my sister Jennie, I will relate this tale of toilet woe: when I was eight years old, my parents, sisters, and I traveled to Paris (a trip I am surprised that my parents don’t regret, due to our misbehaving most of the time and demanding to eat Domino’s Pizza.) Jennie, who had her fourth birthday on the trip, was of course toilet-trained, but still had some potty-related issues. Specifically: she did not like to use any toilet that did not have a white seat. That meant no beige seats, no pastel-colored seats, and no black seats. At home, all of our toilet seats were white, so this did not pose any issues. In Paris’ public WCs, has anyone else ever noticed what color the seats are? We checked several different toilets. They were all black, every last public toilet seat in the city. Jennie refused to sit on any of them, and ended up wetting her pants in public.
Jennie’s Parisian toilet trouble is minor league compared to how some Western travelers feel about Asian-style toilets, aka squatty potties. They may be intimidating at first, but they’re really not that bad. They do require a certain degree of balance and flexibility, but with practice (lots of squats at the gym?) it gets a lot easier. They are often dirty, for myriad reasons- but even if the toilet itself is dirty, I think it’s more sanitary than Western-style toilets, since no part of the body needs to ever touch the toilet. (If there is a flush, do what I do and use your foot to press down on it.) The most common complaint I hear is that it’s too hard to aim. Foolproof tip: make sure your feet are flat on the ground, or as close as possible. Balancing on the balls of your feet is a surefire way to pee on your hem.
I’ve been asked before: where in the world has the worst toilets? Rural Chinese and Mongolian toilets are the most horrifying I’ve seen so far. One fellow traveler we met called them “Chinese splatter trays.” Most rural public toilets are just troughs in the ground. There are two or three low partitions over the trough, to demarcate three or four “stalls,” and one side remains completely open; there are no doors.
If you want to preserve your modesty, travel with an opaque umbrella. Open it up to create a fourth wall for yourself while you do your business. These same toilets may not have plumbing, either. To put it delicately: breathe through your mouth and don’t look down. It sounds bad, but I think there is a cultural reason behind it. The Chinese are extremely pragmatic people, and tend not to dress things up. The attitude concerning toilets seemed to be “Why bother? It’s just a toilet.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to not install plumbing in public toilets, I can kind of see their point. The most important thing is that it works, not how it looks.
I don’t mean to scare people away from traveling to China. Generally, in bigger Chinese cities, all the toilets I used had proper stalls and doors, but not in Yunnan, especially in the city of Jinghong and along the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. In well-traveled areas, nicer public restrooms can be found, but those are for the benefit of the tourists, not the locals.
If you are particular about what kind of toilet you use, I recommend using the facilities in shopping malls, nicer restaurants, or at tourist attractions that charge an admission fee. Everywhere in the world, train station toilets are the worst.
One neat feature on many toilets around the world is the option for a “big” or “small” flush. I’ve never seen that in the States—all of our newer toilets are low-flush, but anyone who’s used these knows the inherent problem with them. Low-flush toilets do save water… unless you have to flush two or three times to get everything to go down.
Where in the world have you found interesting toilets?