Whether appealing (a 5* resort) or appalling (squat toilets anywhere), 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? Or that you'll have to flush some toilets by throwing an entire bucket of water into the bowl?
Or that many countries use a water spray to clean themselves rather than toilet paper? Or that, as mentioned above, the squat toilet rules supreme in many countries outside of the United States?
Let's talk toilets for travelers.
How to Deal With Squat Toilets Around the World
Every new traveler fears the squat toilet, but I'm hear to tell you that it's not a big deal. Seriously. I used to have major anxiety around using them, but after several hundred uses of them, I kind of actually prefer them to a more Western style of toilet.
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.
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.)
Experts (that would be anyone who's used a squat toilet successfully, including yours truly) agree that taking your pants off completely in a squat toilet can be a good idea -- if you've got traveler's diarrhea (see below), it's especially smart.
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.
To Flush or Not to Flush
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.
On Bum Guns
Here's a fun fact: many countries around the world don't use toilet paper. Instead they use something that most travelers come to affectionally refer to as the bum gun. It 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.
- China Toilets
- Mexico Toilets
- Russia Toilets
- Scandinavian Toilets
- Finding Clean Bathrooms in New York City
- Toilets in France
- American Restroom Association
- What's a Bidet?
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 water, not eating the food, and generally engaging in total gustatory boredom.
If you get the runs, your best bet may be to drink, drink, drink (water!) and wash those little bugs on down the drain, or hole in the ground, depending on where you are.
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.
Some travelers like to carry a water bottle with a purifying filter, and I am one of those people. I love the GRAYL water filter and bottle and highly recommend it. It allows you to drink the tap water no matter where you are in the world, and you won't get sick while doing so.
This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff.