I’m lactose intolerant, have a sensitive stomach, tend to be a bit of a germaphobe, and generally have a thing about bathrooms. I’m also quite tall and quite inflexible with very tight Achilles tendons due to salsa/dance and wearing predominantly heeled boots which make squatting flat-footed impossible and any long-duration (more than fourty seconds) squatting extremely difficult and uncomfortable.
Based on discussions, topics, videos—you name it—my expectation was that nearly every bathroom in Asia outside of Japan’s ultra modern robot-toilets were some variation on squat toilets. Descriptions of filthy hole in the ground squat toilets with shit-smeared walls, filthy water, and crud-encrusted sprayers were prolific and what I was expecting. This had been a similar fear about Africa, which had, to a lesser extent ended up being somewhat true. Though, there again, it was largely western-manufactured mythology or limited to very remote or poorest parts of the countries I visited.
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Squat toilets are also a massive logistical pain in the ass, and I always find myself in perpetual fear that I’m going to spray my shoes, pants, and legs. In talking to most western travelers, many have similar fears which often lead them to completely strip naked before using squat toilets or perform some random mixture of bathroom-based acrobatics.
It’s a bit childish perhaps to make a big deal out of this, but for me, it’s a major factor. If I’ll be hitting the toilet at least once a day, with the possibility of more while feeling rather unpleasant, that last thing I want layered on top of everything else is a miserable and embarrassing experience.
Then there was also the on-going confusion on just what the hell I was supposed to do with what. Was that big bucket full of water sitting next to the toilet for splashing your bum with? Or washing your poo-covered fingers? Weren’t you then bum-water cross-contaminating yourself with every other filthy poo slinger who had visited the toilet before you? What about the hose, reminiscent of the one we use for dishes in the kitchen sink in the U.S.? Just how exactly was I supposed to use that without drenching myself or leaving the bathroom with a soaking wet bum? Also, hadn’t every other filthy poo-fingered person who came before me grabbed that exact same handle, doused it in poo water, and then wandered off?
You can imagine my level of anxiety as my plane touched down in Vietnam, and the immediate sense of surprised relief when I discovered western toilets just about everywhere I went. Lots and lots of toilets. Normal, seated, western toilets. In fact, despite multiple visits to Asia, in total accounting for nearly forty-five days of total travel, I’ve never had to use a squat toilet. Of course, I saw a few, and if the timing had been a bit different, once or twice there’s a small chance I might have had to use one. But, the reality is that even in non-tourist restaurants, homes, and destinations, the toilets were more often than not sitting toilets. Now, true, one or two lacked seats, but you’ll find the same in the U. S. if you go to a dingy enough place.
I also finally got concrete explanations for what your basic methods and types of toilet protocol are. You have your conventional western toilet at one extreme. This can be used with paper that is flushed, or as is more common outside Europe and the U.S., a fold/twist and deposit in a covered wastebasket method. In many areas, you also have the hose I mentioned. This is where the whole clean right hand, dirty left hand comes into play. When sitting on the toilet, you sit as far back as possible on the seat, thread the sprayer in between your legs (some from the front, others from the back) and use the hose to spray upward. Depending on what you feel is needed this is all done with your right hand, and you can add your left hand, either from the front if there’s room or back to gently aid the flow of the water. Once done, there’s usually toilet paper on hand, but it’s used to pat dry the water.
You’ll also sometimes find a large bucket of water, though this is not to be used on your bottom. Instead, it’s used to flush manually. If you look at how your traditional toilet works, flushing just floods and pushes old water up and over an air pocket then down into the pipes. We’re used to having this stored and dumped from a large tank, but there’s not necessarily any need for this. The pan/large water bucket is just a relocated water tank. When done, scoop water, and dump it in until you’ve replaced the polluted water in the toilet with clean water. These otherwise function like normal toilets and may be used with or without paper or a hose.
Then you have your squat toilets. A surprising number of Westerners come to love them Frankly, I’d rather take a poop in the woods. The logistics of these merit added research, upon which the Internet offers a wealth of how-to advice.