The very idea of travel conjures up images of foreign lands, interesting new foods and meeting new people. Then when it comes to planning, the usual when to go, where to stay, what to see questions arise. You might ask for other people’s opinions or go to the guidebooks, eagerly soaking up everything so as not to miss anything. All these things are some of the fantastic parts of travel. But there is another side to travel – the more mundane, “everyday” aspects that might get overlooked as you plan, devour information and daydream in anticipation. Oddly enough, you are guaranteed to encounter these little intricacies that make even the boring unique and that help you feel like you are truly part of a place. For example – going to the bathroom.
The bathroom, well toilet really, as most of us Americans think of it today has not been around for very long. The first flushing toilet was not patented until 1775 and most homes didn’t have indoor plumbing until 1840. The modern toilet didn’t start to shape up until 1910. As far as toilet paper is concerned, the first paper on a roll was sold by the Scott company in 1879. So really, our modern bathroom has not had that long of a history.
If you have not done much travel outside of your home country, you may not realize that going to the bathroom is a very different experience in other parts of the world. In the U.S. we expect the bathroom to be pristine and germ-free. Toilet paper and soap are a given and at nicer places hand sanitizer, mints, an attendant selling various toiletry items. But, in many other places this is not anywhere near the norm.
A more "typical" bathroom
First, what constitutes a “toilet” varies drastically. Depending on the country and even where you are in that country, it could be a toilet, a ceramic basin in the floor, a room with a hole in the ground, an outhouse with a hole in the ground, just a hole in the ground, or out in nature. It’s always hilarious because you don’t know what you are going to get! Even in a nicer restaurant in Vietnam, I walked through a door to reveal a pleasantly painted and tiled restroom only to notice that it was absent a toilet…it was just a hole. This is not limited to what people think of as developing countries either. Some places in Europe also have this “turkish” toilet. It’s not really about status or price, it’s just different.
A "turkish" toilet
For guys, this usually doesn’t present a problem. For either sex I offer these tips for a mishap free trip to the bathroom. Do some serious wall sits and strengthen up your legs before you travel. Give any things you have to a friend to hold: bags, purses, cameras, jackets, scarves, etc. There likely will not be hooks for you to hang things and you don’t want anything to dangle, get caught, drop somewhere it shouldn’t or throw you off balance – all of these can lead to disaster. When you approach the hole or ceramic basin in the ground, see if there is a way you can position yourself to be able to use the wall to help prop you up. Truly last ditch effort, get a little closer to your fellow traveler and have them help hold you up. Just for women – this is another reason for wearing skirts or dresses, much easier to manage.
Besides the differences in “toilets” be prepared for differing levels of cleanliness, privacy and smells. In the state-run airport hotel bathroom we stayed at in Ho Chi Minh City, we were greeted by cockroaches of unusual sizes. Some of the outhouses as we traveled north in Vietnam were wooden shacks with holes dug into the ground. If you think a Don John’s outhouse at a one day festival smells bad, try to wrap your mind around the unimaginable stench of one of these little bathrooms that sit in the sun and humidity. To help with the smell, especially if you gag easily like my mom, put a scented lotion on your hands and around your nose before you go into the bathroom. You could also use Vicks vapor rub or the extreme knock-out all smells and clear your sinuses smelling oils that many Vietnamese people carry around as a cure all. Keep one hand over your mouth and nose and deal with it.
In addition, in some countries toilet paper is not provided and is not really used. C’mon whaaaat!?! No TP? Yes, no toilet paper. Instead, some bathrooms have the water sprayer thing like people have next to their sink faucets or nothing at all.
The water sprayer method
Thailand was the first time I encountered the sprayer, which has always baffled me. The hose is on the side of the toilet in place of a toilet paper holder and you spray yourself down when you are done, but then you leave with your parts all wet, and usually your clothes and the rest of your body as well – I was not good at controlling the sprayer. It probably just takes some time to get used to, but my solution was to carry my own small roll of TP. But, whether you bring your own or on the off chance that there is toilet paper, you usually do NOT flush it down the toilet. Instead, the toilet paper goes into the trash or a pail next to the toilet. Even if this creeps you out or whatever, just do it. You don’t want to mess up someone’s plumbing because of your hang ups on what is proper.
Last note – almost anywhere you go toilets are not as readily available to you. Far fewer places have public restrooms. In addition, many places, especially in Europe, require you to pay for the restroom – just a small amount, but it’s best to know this ahead of time so you can make sure to have change at the ready in emergencies. You also want to start looking for a bathroom as soon as you need to go.
This whole post and my experiences with bathrooms of shadier quality are not meant to deter you from traveling – not in the least. Bathrooms, like traveling in cramped conditions, sleeping in strange arrangements, taking overnight trains, etc. are slighlty unpleasant; but, add to the experience of traveling. While it might suck at the time, a true traveler experiences and appreciates these things, and will likely remember them as clearly (maybe even more so) as the visit to see the reclining Buddha or snacking on a doner kebab.
Have any good travel bathroom stories?