The squat toilets in Asia aren't the most glamorous of subjects to cover, but you're bound to encounter one or more while traveling in Asia. Many Western travelers try to avoid them but eventually have to face their fears.
Knowing a little about what to expect — and how to use a squat toilet properly — helps alleviate some of the dread.
Most hotels that cater to foreign tourists now having sit-down style toilets for guests, but you'll probably end up having to use a squat toilet at some point during your time in Asia. Squat toilets are still the default found in public bathrooms at temples, shopping areas, and some restaurants.
If you're one of the many travelers each year who have to deal with stomach ailments, you may become more acquainted with "squatters" in public bathrooms more than you prefer.
If you encounter a squat toilet on your travels, don't panic. A large portion of the world's population uses them daily without personal injury or lasting psychological effects — you can do the same. In fact, many medical experts actually agree that using squat toilets are better for colon health! This is due to the angle of the body when using them.
An Introduction to the Squat Toilet
Some new travelers needlessly fear Asian squat toilets more than getting sick, robbed, or losing their passports. The toilets are certainly one of the top 10 things travelers complain about in Asia. Instead of risking damage to vital organs by waiting too long to go, approach using squat toilets as a cultural experience, perhaps even with a little sense of humor. After all, didn't you leave home in the first place to see and learn new things?
Although more and more Western-style toilets with seats and flushing mechanisms are turning up in tourist areas around Asia, you'll still find squat toilets in open-air markets, local restaurants, temples, and a few modern shopping malls.
Even Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat, a famous UNESCO World Heritage Site, has humorous signs instructing people not to stand on the seats of the Western-style toilets; some visitors there have never seen a seat on a toilet!
Not all toilets in Asia are a challenge. The rumors are true: Japan is home to technologically advanced toilets with heated, adjustable seats and more controls than a home theater system. Public bathrooms in Singapore are often equally as impressive; you can be fined for failing to flush one!
Squat toilets are by no means an Asian curiosity; you'll find them in the Middle East, Europe, South America, and pretty much throughout the world.
Types of Squat Toilets in Asia
Squat toilets vary widely throughout countries in Asia. Sometimes they're nothing more than a hole in the ground. Others have porcelain basins that are elevated or at foot level.
Annoyingly, some squat toilets are Western-style toilets that have had the seats removed. Travelers agree that these "hybrids" are the most challenging to use without getting wet. They're too high to squat, but you can't sit!
Some bathrooms in Southeast Asia have a bucket, or in some cases, a tile/concrete tub next to the toilet. This water is for flushing. In Indonesia, the basin containing water (and hopefully a ladle of some sort) is known as a mandi — you can use it to flush, wash hands, or clean.
Health Benefits of Squat Toilets
Studies actually show that not having a seat could ultimately be better for health. Aside from the obvious benefit of being more sanitary (you don't have to make physical contact with any surface while doing your business), using squat toilets may have actual medical benefits such as preventing hemorrhoids, hernias, and lower-intestinal contamination.
Because of human physiology, the squatting position is more natural for better elimination and reduces "fecal stagnation" which is thought to play a big part in colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and even appendicitis.
Rules for Using a Squat Toilet
- Rule #1: Never, ever, ever throw paper or anything else, no matter how biodegradable you think it is, into Asian squat toilets. The ancient sewers and septic systems are not designed to handle paper or hygiene products. Putting paper into the toilet creates a serious problem — and expensive repair bill — for the establishment later. They may be moved to close the toilet to the public. Instead, put toilet paper into the plastic bin unless you are certain the place you are visiting has modern sewer systems (e.g., Singapore, Japan, South Korea, etc).
- Rule #2: Always keep your own toilet paper handy. Paper is rarely provided to the public out of fear that you will break Rule #1. Your other option is to do as locals do and use water to clean yourself rather than paper products. Ironically, toilet paper is often provided at the table in restaurants and street-food stalls. Put a little in your pocket for later.
- Rule #3: Flush. Many squat toilets lack tanks or plumbing. Instead, a dipper and bucket of water are provided. Even if using the slimy-handled scooper is icky, do so out of courtesy for others and to cut down on the spread of bacteria. A few scoops of water should push waste down. If you used all the water, refilling the bucket with the tap — doing so is a courtesy and good karma.
Tips for Using Squat Toilets
- Although paying for the privilege to use one seems drastic, not all public squat toilets in Asia are free. Keep a few coins handy at all times in case you are in a hurry.
- Take your shoes. Some businesses require that you leave your shoes at the door before entering, however, many squat toilets stay perpetually wet with substances you may not want to get on your feet. Worms and parasites can enter through bare feet. In Japan, communal toilet slippers may have been provided as part of local etiquette.
- Finding soap or a towel for drying hands afterward is rare in Southeast Asia. You may want to carry hand sanitizer.
- The area around Asian squat toilets is often wet and sometimes slippery — be careful, particularly if leaning against the back wall to support yourself. Try to avoid bringing in a bag or items that need to be left on the ground.
- Be careful when using the hose next to the toilet; pressure varies wildly. A wet bathroom may be an indication that the "bum gun" — as it's sometimes called — is living up to its nickname.
Why No Toilet Paper?
In many cultures, water is used to clean the posterior after going to the toilet. Sometimes the left hand takes over duty for toilet paper and is then washed with the hose near the toilet.
Handing someone something or eating with the left hand are often taboo in countries where this is practiced. For good practice, consider your left hand the "dirty" hand and use your right when gesturing, eating, or interacting with others.
As already mentioned, composting septic systems and ancient sewers are not designed to properly break down toilet paper. Many businesses mitigate the risk of messy blockages by not providing any paper at all!
The Best Way to Use a Squat Toilet
Everyone seems to have their own technique; no need for messy details.
How you choose to make use of the squat toilets in Asia is really up to you. Remember, the floor is usually wet, so avoid bringing in a backpack or items that will need to be left on the ground.