Karen Custer Thurston
"My Sad But True Dodgy Karma Around Toilets In Asia"
Updated: Jan 28, 2022
From a lack of flushing water and toilet paper to navigating the joys of trying to balance over a rudimentary hole in the ground, Karen explores the less glamorous—but always entertaining—side to backpacking in Asia.
I chuckle as I write this story. In my opinion, you are either a world traveler and will immediately recall these kinds of toilets OR you travel with more money than me, staying in expensive hotels which have “European-style Toilets.”
Well, settle in for the ride, my friend.
During our Thurston Girl travels and treks throughout Asia, my daughter and I have had to quickly adapt to squat toilets. These are widespread in emerging world countries. My daughter, Rachel Sarah Thurston, and I choose these countries to stretch our travel dollars.
We have found squat toilets which varied from tile floors in hotels and guest houses to the proverbial hole in a wood floor in extremely wild areas. The latter were quite rank.
One type of a “fancy” squat toilet is a large inverted porcelain bowl imbedded into a tiled floor. Horizontal grids are installed on both sides for foot placement. There is nothing for a person to hold onto for balance, ergo, the “squat” name and visual. We also learned to use the nearby bucket of water, placed under a dripping faucet, for gravity flushing. Good manners are to leave the bucket filled for the next visitor. Used toilet paper is always placed in a nearby trash can, never down the toilet. In more rural areas that do not see foreign trekkers, a rough hole of proper diameter is cut into the wooden floor with no suggestion of where to place the feet. With nothing nearby for balance and no foot grids, you figure out where to stand, although previous visitors with bad aim do complicate foot placement in nasty ways. Strong leg muscles are helpful.
Falling onto the foul floor is bad form.
Rachel and I were blessed to complete the Everest Base Camp Trek and the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. I was lucky to solo the Gokyo Ri Trek which placed me up close and personal to the dangerous Chinese border. My fourth trip was a failed attempt for the Annapurna Sanctuary, which I did with a friend. Pneumonia and food poisoning scuppered that adventure. Throughout all of these trips to Nepal and other countries throughout Asia, Rachel and I have had endless experiences using squat toilets.
Rachel and I became quite adept using these toilets. There was, after all, no choice.
We learned that full skirts were smarter for us to wear for remote trekking. In toilets, pants are lowered to, sometimes, unspeakably horrific solid waste collected on concrete (concrete is the material of choice in emerging nations). If water was available, the bathroom monitor hosed down the floor. The collected matter on these floors is easily cleaned by high powered hoses. When we saw that a high powered hose was at hand, we worked hard to be long gone from the area.
I learned an extra lesson once when wearing a pair of lovely silk wrap around trousers on a trip to Asia. I needed just one bathroom visit in this apparel to leave them behind on the next trip. Wrap trousers must be completely removed to proceed. No hooks are available for hanging where we travel. Often, the door to the compartment will not close. It was a comedy of errors to be in a squat toilet with those trousers slung over my shoulder, holding my roll of toilet paper, a dodgy door and passersby.
One of my worst situations comes to mind. This particular toilet was in a remote area on the Everest Base Camp trek in Northern Nepal. Pausing near a one room market on the trek, I asked for the bathroom, having learned it is always smart to know the local word for “toilet.” A local Nepali man, dressed in a colorful tunic and baggy trousers, gestured in a direction off trail. It was an easy path to follow. It was the village path to the village toilet. As I neared what might have been the toilet, I saw a kind of stick structure, then a ragged burlap cloth that didn’t quite cover the entrance. I couldn’t call it a door. There was no door. Countless bluebottle flies droned drunkenly outside the material as if trying to figure out the flying pattern to pass through the torn covering. As I moved the material to step inside, I found a horde of bluebottle flies, that had cannily figured out the entry, droning in the noxious air. Closing my mouth to prevent a surprise entry, I quickly found a conundrum. Breathing the odor through my mouth was just too awful. I decided I would alternate breathing through my mouth then the nose. It seemed the best option at the time. I couldn’t hold my breath long enough for my visit. Being exceedingly careful to not look down at the community’s collected business, arranging my stance on crossed boards, I concentrated on my task. And, remember I was holding my precious roll of toilet paper far away from the Pit of Despair. Alternating concern for the germs I breathed in and the germs my mouth allowed to enter kept me intellectually busy. Dodging the occasional incoming, ponderous fly added to the moment.
Even in a UNESCO World Heritage Chinese town, I had a dodgy toilet time. Toilet paper was never provided in restaurant toilets on that trip. In addition to our personal rolls of TP, we also carried packaged wipes to clean our hands. Although China is not an Emerging World Country, there were many places in remote areas that were beyond primitive. In Lijiang, we stayed in a beautifully replicated “ancient” Chinese guest house. We loved the step over threshold, the carved Old Kingdom doors to our room, the large padlock opened with an ornate and tasseled key and the courtyard festooned with hanging lanterns and silky red tassels.
The bathrooms, however, were a different experience.
The women’s bathroom had no dividing walls for the five squat toilets, just waist high structures that were tiled, giving a thin impression of privacy. One fine moonlit night, I was awakened by the familiar need to visit the bathroom. Feeling happy because of the delightful accommodation, I skipped with a light heart out of our room, through a dark hallway and around a corner. I decided on the middle compartment of the stalls. My heart sang that I was the only one up for the night. Now I wouldn’t need to make stilted conversation with another woman who probably wouldn’t speak English. I wouldn’t need to awkwardly acknowledge another woman with a half-smile for meeting in this area in the moonlight.
I was set for an efficient and joyful experience before returning to bed. As usual, I had my own toilet paper roll as well as my trusty flashlight. I found I needed one more hand to work with my sarong for my task. Seems I needed 3 hands because Rachel and I were steadfast in never letting anything we owned touch a surface in these squat toilet areas. I carefully maneuvered my sarong, held the roll of toilet paper and my flashlight in my other hand.
Perfectly balanced on my strong bent legs, the clean toilet paper roll slipped out of my hand. Stunned, I watched it slowly unroll across the white tile into the moonlight before coming to a stop against a pebble, eight feet away.
And it’s not just toilet paper that we fear losing in these dark places.
When we travel for these adventures, Rachel often teases me for bringing no less than three toothbrushes on our trips. With no reliable electricity in remote areas, I leave my beloved electric toothbrush at home. The three toothbrushes are necessary because I am bound to drop one around or into a squat toilet or onto the ever slick-with-curious-moisture airline bathroom floor. I’m an equal opportunity toothbrush dropper. I’ve dropped my toothbrush in Nepal, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico’s Chiapas and Oaxaca states. I slight no country. Even in the United States, I once dropped my warm earmuffs into the European toilet at a gas station in northern Indiana’s Amish country. I really liked those earmuffs.
In these international travels, I’ve learned to appreciate the value of running water around the toilet area. Notice that I do not say “in” the toilets because that would be a European toilet which rarely exist for us. I am talking about a running artificial or natural source of water that comes through or under one wall and departs out the opposite wall, taking with it solid waste that has been deposited by the visitors and locals. That running water is always a bonus. Places without the running water result in quantities of solid matter in place for as long as it takes someone to come clean it out. I shoot no photographs of these places. Who would I show them to?
Rachel had quite an unfo travels and treks throughout Asia, my daughter and I have had todapt to squat toilets. Th ese are widespread in emerging world countries. My daughter, r, men. A surly, burly Chinese woman drove the bus and was in charge of every travel detail. She was a harridan every moment of the trip yelling at the two of us that there was no room for our backpacks on the top of the bus.
She then shrieked that there was no room for our backpacks inside of the bus. Did she hate us for being foreigners? Did she hate us for being foreigners with money? Was she having a bad day?
The other passengers stared at the spectacle of the two foreign women being yelled at. They seemed to be fervently grateful to be on the sidelines. In a hissy fit, our bus driver threw our heavy backpacks behind her seat and started the engine. We didn’t want her to throw us out as well so Rachel and I quickly clawed our way into the small space behind our freight and kept very still as she bulldozed out of the bus terminal in grey diesel fumes. Hours and hours later, the driver pulled over on the side of the narrow gravel road for a bathroom break, probably because she was in need. A small concrete building about 200 yards away seemed to be the place the men and women passengers headed. Tall dry weeds everywhere and not much a path in sight, the place was not a U.S. National Park rest stop.
My intuition said “not on your life” but Rachel was in greater need than I. I said, “God go with you, my child.” She gave me a dirty look and followed the people headed to the unpainted, blocky building. The minutes ticked by. Men and women trickled back from different sides of the structure.
Where is she?
I was irritated, then I was worried.
What could possibly happen to her such a short distance away?
I waited and waited, uneasy with the minutes ticking by and others returning from whatever the adventure presented. I’m always uneasy when she is out of sight on any international trip. Finally, I saw her walking back through the weeds and dusty path to the bus. I asked what had happened. She said, “Later.” Our seats were directly behind the bus driver’s seat. The bus driver climbed in and away we went with a belch of diesel smoke, raising clouds of dust on the gravel road.
Later, Rachel shared that the inside of the building was an open, weed filled expanse, poorly roofed by missing metal sheeting, with trenched, concrete runnels. The waterless channels were filled with months of “business” by visitors. No running water in the trenches to carry away the solid matter meant that it must have been an archaeological site of great fecal importance. Rachel had no idea where the men had gone but the women filed in and squatted where they found a clear spot beside each other in rows over pre-dug holes that were already mounded over with “business.” The concrete water channels were a joke or maybe there had been water once upon a time. I tried not to imagine the scene. Then, Rachel continued, after she had chosen her spot in the desolate area, our bus driver dropped down closely beside her, as if they were buddies, for the driver’s extensive business. The driver merrily talked and talked in Chinese with Rachel during the shared toilet time. Knowing my amiable daughter, I’m sure she responded in kind as best she could.
Again, I tried hard to not envision any of this.
In Kazakhstan, riding in the choking, unventilated back of an ancient Soviet era truck, including a leaking and smelly diesel container, I saw the famous Steppes of the Soviet Union. The Steppes meant vast harvested wheat fields stretching hundreds of miles in all directions. No trees. No shrubs. No fences. Tall concrete towers for electrical lines stood every mile of so, interrupting the endless terrain. During the longer than long drive, the men didn’t care about traffic when they needed a bathroom. Men are feral. As the only woman on the trip, I asked the driver to park near one of the concrete towers. Even then, I had a 500 yard walk to the tower. The tower base was a concrete block, four feet wide on each side and three feet tall. Everything around was as flat as any pancake. I did, however, have the option of either exposing myself to either the east bound or the west bound traffic. I chose one and ignored the appreciative honks from the other drivers.
Perhaps I take all these toilet adventures in stride because I was reared on a large family farm. When the electricity failed or our water lines froze, we headed outside to the field or behind the barn for a bathroom, no matter the weather. I also ride horseback with friends in remote areas of thousands of acres. Large rocks suffice for us. No big deal.
Two things will happen in our future travel for Rachel and myself. We’ll continue reminiscing and comparing new toilet experiences with our backlog of historical archives.
And I’ll give Rachel a look after returning from whatever bathroom.
She will see that look and ask, “Don't tell me, you dropped another toothbrush?”
*Copyright 2022 Karen Custer Thurston.
Photo #1: Saeed Sarshar, Unsplash
Photo #2: Stockvault
Photo #3: Hello, I'm Nik, Unsplash