Talking about toilets is one of those things we don’t really want to talk about, but something we definitely want to know about when we are travelling. As a westerner, I do find toilet experiences quite challenging, while travelling. But it is all much easier when I know what to expect.
Now, before I continue, I just want to reassure you. I am not going to try and gross you out – just share my experiences in a factual way, and share a few tips.
Top end posh toilets winner: Hong Kong
Hong Kong has been the leader in the posh toilet scales on our trip. Hong Kong is so concerned that there may be some germs lurking anywhere, that they go to great lengths to provide top end toilets. Toilets are generally exceptionally clean and you have to touch as few things possible: automatic taps, automatic flushing, no-touch dryers or paper towels. And there is always soap available, toilet paper and paper towels available. Many toilets have dedicated toilet attendants who ensure that standards are maintained. And if in any doubt about what is acceptable and what not, there are clear signs in the toilets telling you what you can or can’t do. No squatting on the toilet seat, no smoking, no eating etc.
If you need to use a toilet in Hong Kong, shopping centres provide the best standard. Public toilets are common and generally perfectly acceptable. It is rare to find poor toilets, but they do exist outside the city, especially on some of the outlying islands. But never did I come across a toilet where I had the “I think I will rather wait” response.
Also read: Weird Vietnamese street food in Hoi An
You can flush toilet paper down most toilets in Hong Kong. Where you can’t, they will have a sign up to tell you so.
Pot luck toilet provider: Bangkok
Bangkok certainly is a city of contrasts. The poshest toilet I have ever used in my life, was in the new Central Embassy shopping mall. The design was curvy and wavy, and would look at home in a spaceship! The toilet itself had controls: sensor to auto open the lid, heated toilet seat (wasted in 40C heat!), massage vibration, spray, auto flush and more.
First the good news, toilets are normally western “sit on” shape. But in older parts of the city, the toilets are dingy, not so sanitary, and have the “you cannot flush toilet paper down the toilet” rule. The problem is, often the signs to tell you, are written in Thai script, so you cannot read nor understand it. So, the rule of thumb is: if there is a sign up in a toilet, you can assume it is asking you not to put the toilet paper (or anything else for that matter) down the toilet. Even when the sign is in English, it is often badly translated, making you think it is only other items not flushable.. but in fact, what they mean is: toilet paper is included in the non-flushables.
Also read: Unspoken rules for getting around in Vietnam
But use your common sense. Old sewage and drainage systems will require you to be more cautious. If you think you can flush toilet paper down, ensure it isn’t the thick luxury type! That is sure to get stuck.
Good toilets are a surprise in Vietnam
The average standard of toilets is a little cringeworthy in Vietnam. Even some lovely, hip, snazzy cafes have pretty crappy (excuse the pun) toilets. Toilet bowls may have been cleaned, but the rooms, walls, floor and seat are often very unsanitary. Only about 50% will provide soap, and perhaps 25% will provide a dryer or paper towels. At least toilets are western, sit-on shape!
Some toilets, especially in people’s homes or informal restaurants will not provide toilets. Instead there is a water spray gun, which we have taken to call a bum gun. It takes a while to get used to. But let’s just say, you position the gun and spray. It is normally quite a strong spray of water. If there is toilet paper too, you then sort of dab-wipe afterwards and place paper in the bin next to the toilet.
Once again, the more upmarket the place where the toilet is, e.g. Shopping centre or posh hotel, the more likely to get better toilets, so plan stops around toilet breaks.
Tip: as there is often no water, soap or paper towels, it is good to carry around some wet wipes and a small pack of tissues.
Toilets in western restaurants, Laos
In Laos, we found that posh and tourist restaurants, serving western food, normally have the best toilets in Laos. If you’re invited to someone’s home, use a public toilet or will be travelling outside of the big cities, expect toilets to be asian style (squat) toilet.
Also read: Hanoi to Hoi An by train
Now here is the thing about asian style toilets: you need strong quad muscles to squat. And, I don’t know about you, but I am not naturally comfortable in a squatting position. But walk around some asian streets, and you see people taking a squatting pose whilst doing every day things: food preparation, texting on the phone, watching the world go by and more. They look as comfortable in this position as I would be at a table and chair! So it is no surprise that an Asian toilet would be natural for them. But not so for us westerners. Most of us struggle.
Tip: in the same way that you’d strengthen your quad muscles before you go skiing, you may want to strengthen the same muscles, to prepare you for toilets … if you’ll be travelling off the beaten track!
Shocking toilets in China and India
The worst toilets I have ever experienced have been in China and India. Once again, if you’re in a posh hotel, shopping centre or modern apartment block, you will probably find good standard toilets, but outside major cities, you may be presented with toilets that you may not even recognise as toilets!
In India the majority of toilets are squat toilets. And unless you have a lot of practice, trying to keep your balance whilst simultaneously avoiding your trousers from touching the dirty and/or wet floor, is a challenge. Add into the mix that a cockroach or mouse could throw you off balance too, can’t be discounted! (Yes, I speak from experience).
Another thing you may find quite shocking is that toilet cubicles in China often have no doors, or sometimes have communal toilets with no privacy. Some systems, I have walked into without being able to figure out how exactly you’re supposed to use them.
Tip: if you know you will be on the road, limit your liquid intake beforehand, and ensure you use facilities before you set off. Assume there won’t be toilet paper or soap, so take a stash of toilet paper, tissues and wet wipes, which is a must! Wear shorts or tights if you can. Floppy trousers are the hardest to keep off the floor whilst squatting!
I am still traumatised by some Asian toilet experiences, but the more I travel, the smarter I become. Some unsatisfactory experiences are inevitable, but at least if you know what you expect, you can plan around it.
I hope this has helped others planning to travel to Asia. But if I have missed anything, or got any of it wrong, let me know, so we can update it.
If you liked this post, why not read these too:
- Bangkok – then and now
- Bangkok observations and interesting facts
- What makes Vietnam unique? Part 1
- What makes Vietnam unique? Part 2
- What makes Vietnam unique – part 3