The Ultimate International Toilet Guide

Entrance to a public toilet in Madagascar
••• A public toilet in Madagascar. Franck Metois / Moment / Getty Images

Whether appealing or appalling, toilets around the world serve the same purpose, and there's no avoiding them. So just how much is there to say about using the toilet as you travel? You'd be surprised.

Did you know, for example, that you can't flush toilet paper in many countries' toilets? And you'll have to flush some toilets by throwing an entire bucket of water into the bowl? Or that people in many countries use a water spray to clean themselves rather than toilet paper? And the squat toilet rules supreme in many countries outside of the United States.

Squat Toilets

A squat toilet is just how it sounds. It's essentially a hole at floor level over which you'll squat and into which you'll aim. Despite travel horror stories, the vast majority of them are clean, easy to use, and even come with a flush.

The first time you encounter them they can be a little shocking, but after that, you'll be a pro. Like many widely-traveled folks, you may find that you prefer squat toilets to the Western style after repeat use.

Something interesting to note about squat toilets in many countries is the clean up (of you). The water in that bucket near the toilet is meant to clean yourself with (using your left hand) after you do your thing (Factoid: this is one reason the custom of shaking hands with the right hand developed—one never knows where someone's left hand has been). If you're headed for toilet-paperless places and feeling squeamish, carry your own wet wipes (like those used for babies' butts) and/or antibacterial gel.

Other Considerations

Something else you can expect to come across while traveling is poor plumbing. Many countries' septic system cannot handle toilet paper, and doing so can cause blockages. The easiest way to tell if you should be careful is if there is a small wastebasket of tissues beside the toilet. If that's the case, you should wipe and place yours in there along with everyone else's. 

Many countries around the world don't use toilet paper. Instead, they use something that works like a bidet and is a small hose attached to the side of the toilet. You detach it, hold it into the toilet, aim, and then fire. It actually gets you much cleaner than using paper and most travelers miss them when they leave, even if they do find them weird to use at first. 

Toilets Around the World

If you're heading to a particular destination and want to know what lies in wait for you, here are some helpful examples of what the toilets are like there:

Traveler's Diarrhea

The squirts, trots, Montezuma's Revenge—whatever you call it, diarrhea's a drag. Common travel wisdom is to let it run its course; plugging up the source with Imodium keeps the bad bacteria in and keeps you sicker for longer. E-coli, which lives in fecal matter and developing countries' tap water, is a major source of cramp-causing traveler's trots, as are bacteria Salmonella and parasite Giardia. Prevention ideas include not drinking the tap water being careful of the food.

If you get the runs, your best bet may be to drink, drink, drink (bottled water!) and wash those little bugs away.

Because diseases like dysentery spread through contact with infected feces, lack of handwashing by waiters and cooks is a common cause of many unpleasant maladies. Flies carry dysentery, so avoiding fly-festooned street food carts is easy enough. When eating street food, be sure to pick a cart with one of the longest queues—high turnover means fresh food and the locals wouldn't choose to eat anywhere that would make them sick.