Most of us don’t travel to see toilets. The occasional potty may make it into conversation, if it was amazingly gorgeous and sophisticated (Japan or a 5-star resort), or incredibly disgusting [insert anywhere, potentially your home country]. But this universal hole-in-the-ground is, I think, the invisible secret key to better trips, especially for women. Below are my general principles for managing our digestive system and navigating washrooms around the world (with a particular focus for developing countries).
I think the easiest way to think about going to the toilet / washroom / WC / restroom is to group the lifehacks into two categories:
- Comfort when going to the washroom (top half of the infographic below)
- Preventing surprises, usually diarrhoea
Start with soul-searching toilet questions.
While needing to go to the toilet is a universal human experience, our personal tendencies to pee and poop are unique. By extension, it makes more sense share how one might think about going to the toilet rather than sharing how I specifically go to the toilet. Instead, below are more concrete questions to approach thinking about the general idea of “what works for me?”
- Do I need to drink a lot of liquid / water? If yes and you’re not willing to compromise, you likely need to use the washroom often. More often means more planning.
- Do I need to go pee after I drink a certain amount of liquid or after a certain amount of time? For example, if I don’t drink water, I don’t get thirsty and don’t need to go much all day whereas once I start, I’m always thirsty and need to go almost once an hour. If I exercise, I can drink a litre just to replenish lost liquids. Knowing this helps me control my water intake so I don’t get caught needing to go.
- How soon do I need to go pee after drinking water / tea / coffee? Drinking sugary drinks may not trigger anything because sugar dehydrates you. Tea and coffee are diuretic, so they’re likely to make you go to the washroom.
- Do I have any regular habits (such as pooping at a certain time of day)? As far as I understand, having these habits means your body has a solid rhythm going, which is healthy and convenient for predicting your toilet needs. Note that travelling can disrupt your usual cycle.
- Are there foods that upset my stomach? Boring tip, but just avoid them unless you are by a clean toilet all day and don’t mind sacrificing some travel time for culinary satisfaction.
In my “tips” below, I’ll be giving some ideas of things to do (or skip doing). While I personally feel the points below are a good baseline of planning to prevent unwanted surprises and maximise travel time, in the end everyone’s trip is their own. Rather than take anything below as a “must-do”, what’s most important is for you to figure out what your body does, what your needs are, what your travel priorities and preferences are, to decide what works for you.
Rethinking squatting toilets, starting with Japan
For readers from wealthy countries, one of the biggest hurdles is getting over a squat toilet. Consider for a moment that one of the most advanced nations in the world, Japan, famed for its cleanliness and aesthetic tastes, is unashamed of its squatting toilets, even in venerated high-end establishments.
If you are in Japan, walk into a high-end department store such as Mitsukoshil Takashimaya, or Daimaru (at Tokyo Station) just for the washrooms alone. You may well find marbled walls with mirrors and pristine vanities before turning to the toilet stalls. You will find heated seat toilets with a spray bidget, maybe birdsong tunes, and other functions. Try to spot the one or two stalls with a step, which leads you to a pristine squatting latrine. Toilets have been optimised in Japan, but they still see value in the humble latrine.
Most places are no Japan for squat toilet design, but research has repeatedly shown that squat toilets provide a more comfortable position to poop. The rest of the article, for the most part, assumes that travellers are going to developing countries with squat toilets, or few accessible public toilets.
Rely on your own tissues.
Not having tissue should never be a reason to stop going to the washroom. Prevent it at home and abroad by getting a small spare package to keep handy in all your bags and handbags. The backpacker’s version is a whole roll of toilet paper to save space (but ensure it’s protected in a plastic bag). They are also useful in restaurants because in places like Hong Kong, local restaurants may not provide them.
On a related note, other toiletries to bring include hand sanitiser and wet wipes. Also bring your on moon cup (menstrual cup), tampons, or pads that last for one cycle (for trekkers and backpackers in off-the-beaten track countries) or at least a few days. In places like Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, periods cause many girls to be absent from school (for those interested, this is UNESCO policy paper from 2014), so it’s better to bring your own than assume that convenience stores will have stock.
Map reliable washrooms.
If you’re staying more than one day somewhere and planning to explore, taking a few minutes to look up washrooms will save you from frantic searching later. I keep mental maps of places that I’d go to: public toilets (if reliable), McDonalds and Starbucks (in cities where WCs are unlocked), community centres and libraries in wealthier countries, department stores, and five-star hotels (marching right in with an air of entitlement). The general rule is, the more expensive the establishment, the more likely there’s a nice washroom with no line-up, and a sitting toilet. Also note that many countries may charge a small fee for washroom usage, usually for public ones in places like markets.
Chill and squat.
Hovering over questionable toilet bowls is probably a experience universally unacknowledged. To me, that seems to be half-way to a squat. Or perhaps you have a fond memory of digging for shells on the beach, looking for fish in rivers, or tying a shoelace on the street before chasing after your family. I’m fairly certain those moments involved squatting. Given a choice, I will always choose the (clean) seat toilet, but being able to comfortably squat means being able to go to more interesting places that have fewer (non-squatting) tourists go to. If you’ve not tried before, just try squatting to look at the flowers in your garden next time and practice standing up slowly.
Time your poops if you can’t squat.
Although research repeatedly shows that it’s easier to poop squatting because your muscles relax, I still prefer a seat. Because I figured out what triggers my “Number 2”, when travelling I can more or less trigger it in the morning before heading out to explore. Coffee is a mild diarrhetic, and tea is a milder version. Online searches have other food lists, if you want to try those. Exercising also helps. If you can get your poop out of the way when you’re at your hostel, hotel, or AirBnB, you’ll be that much more free to roam around and do your thing.
Prepare for all conditions.
I’ve only lived in wealthy countries and global cities, and I like my urban amenities. But I want to learn about peoples and places too much to allow toilet preferences to dictate where I go. Every city and town has an appalling washroom if one looks hard enough. I personally find it liberating to have a bar set low, so that I can appreciate small comforts such as a door for an odourless stall. I set expectations according to specific neighbourhoods in cities rather the countries they’re in. Managing expectations to frame everything as a pleasant surprise rather than horrifying lack shrinks a terrifying ordeal back into manageable human proportions. Below are some toilet situations that North American readers may encounter:
- needing to pay to use a public toilet
- outhouses and pits (really, like construction lavatories or mountain top huts)
- manual flushing with a bucket or paddle (usually provided in a corner)
- not having toilet paper (sometimes because there’s no budget, and other times because people really use it all up)
- a plugged toilet (look for a bin where tissues are discarded and throw yours there in countries like China to avoid plugging toilets)
- basically a running stream right under you
- a broken light (i.e. dark)
- slippery conditions
- mud (which looks bad at first, but is definitely not the same as crap)
- declarative smells that lead you to the needed toilet
If you are in less wealthy countries and going the well-trodden travel route (think the Lonely Planet listings and Southeast Asia Pancake Tour), you’ll probably have a bit more luck having amenities that are similar to North America, North and Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. I personally think the more interesting places to go are the more “difficult” places like India and Myanmar.
Do not drink the water you bring.
This tip is most essential for rides, especially on long-distance coach buses. Your sealed (or boiled) bottle of water is essential to stay hydrated and not beholden to whatever stall that might have questionable (unsealed) bottles. I personally ration the water for two reasons: 1) because you can never be sure how long a ride will be, and 2) I avoid peeing on buses, even the cleanest coaches. I slow down my entire digestive system in transit by sleeping. I drink a small sip when my mouth feels dry and eat just enough to keep my stomach happy. The rest of the time, I sleep because it does wonders like kills 8 hours, prevents me from fear of crazy driving or road conditions, and keeps me from every getting motion sickness. By sleeping and drinking minimum water (forget coffee and tea), I comfortably stretch washroom breaks through several hours. The same logic goes for day trips, areas I go to where I don’t expect to find public toilets, and popular tourist destinations that always have long queues.
Take all washroom breaks.
If a long-distance coach bus stops, I suggest taking the opportunity to go to the washroom, even if that is in the bushes. The best scenario is that you’re saving yourself from a painful situation of needing to pee 10 minutes after the bus starts again, and “worst” scenario is that you have nothing to pee out and you stretched your legs. Either way, I feel one never has anything to lose by using a clean washroom whenever one encounters it, in transit or while wandering through a city.
Eat sizzling food only.
Foodies who, like me, love trying unidentifiable things that smell incredible and seem edible, diarrhoea is perhaps the only cause of hesitation. I never got diarrhoea the two times I travelled in India (on trains, through markets and street stalls), in Mynamar, Laos, or Nepal amongst other places. Diarrhoea is usually caused by the bacteria that contaminate food. Contamination is virtually guaranteed in raw foods for developing countries because the bacteria is foreign to our bodies. Other points of contamination can be in reused oil, questionable chemicals, and unclean utensils such as knives or containers. This basically means that cooked food, served sizzling, has killed off bacteria. Even if the serving utensil is black with age, if it was dipped into that boiling pot to scoop out the food, it’s basically been sanitised (though unclean oil can be a problem). Meat has a lot of bacteria. Avoid food that is on precooked on displays, especially meat. So in summary, eat food that you can see cooked, right in front of you after you’ve ordered. Restaurants are more difficult to judge, so be warned.
Go with boiled, bottled, or filtered water.
Water and their containers may be even more likely to get us sick than food, but the prevention is simple. If you’re backpacking, boil water. Many big cities such as Hong Kong and Tokyo officially have safe drinking water from the tap, so if you’re really thirsty, it’s probably fine. Still, most people in Hong Kong and Tokyo will boil their water and let it cool to room temperature. Personally, I think thermoses, water bottles, and/or water pouches are travel essentials. If your hostel or AirBnB has a kettle, take your own boiled water out and do everyone a favour by saving yourself some money and creating less rubbish (because honestly plastic bottles are usually not recycled). If you don’t have a kettle, you can get a water filter bottle or water purification tablets campers often use to drop into your water.
Avoid fruit skin.
India has an incredible mango season. I’ve not had the good fortune of enjoying it, but just sayin’. Thailand is the more commonly known option. Gorge on the mangos from the inside; don’t touch the skin. Even after you’ve washed it, there are likely bacteria that your (healthy and natural) gut bacteria won’t like, and even worse are the likely pesticides given little agricultural regulation in developing countries. If you are in places like Nepal or Laos, the great news is that you are probably eating local if you are buying from a market stall. Avoid fruits such as apples, grapes and pears unless you have your own clean knife and feel confident about peeling. The great news is that the tropics and especially Asia has a crazy number of fruit species such as lychees, longan, rambutans, durian, pomelo, pomegranate, dragon fruit, and guavas. If unsure, check out how locals prepare the fruits, as they usually will have effective ways of avoiding skins and seeds (which, again, are better not swallowed for convenience).
Redesign a veggie and fibre diet.
Street food, especially in Southeast Asia, looks exotic and usually comes packed with flavour. Most of it is also deep fried, meat-based, or carbs, which is good for maybe a week. Your body will poop out excessive oil, but that’s because it’s not happy. For long-term travel, avoid constipation, which the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) classifies as pooping fewer than 3 times a week, having dry, hard, and hard to push out poop. Drinking enough water and eating veggies helps. Please don’t force yourself to swallow the same unseasoned veggies from your trauamtic childhood dinners, but instead I urge you to keep your faith in food and persist your search for fresh, vibrantly coloured, flavourful (not large) food that you can fall in love with.
So much of travel the world is about tasting places, so I’m optimistic that you will have a memorable trip because of that one dish you fell for. Cuisines around the world are well practiced in making vegetables delicious for the simple reason that until the past century, most people couldn’t afford much meat. Instead of going for skewers at food stalls, go to a restaurant and order a dish with any colour other than brown because it probably probably vegetables (and spices).
If you’re in developing countries, do not make your own salad with the greens from a market for the same reason as you wouldn’t eat fruit skins, but cooked leafy greens will keep your digestive system happy and humming.
Bring diarrhoea pills.
I hope everyone takes an emergency medical kit for their travels. My must-have is diarrhoea pills (Advil and Tylenol is a waste of space). These pills when taken immediately stop the runs. Stopping your body from expelling toxins is not actually good, but it saves you for the train ride that you’re stuck on. After you get to your hotel, take all the time you need to let everything out. Make sure you drink water, and add a bit of salt to stay hydrated!
Don’t go for immunity.
There’s a saying in Chinese about how the water and climate doesn’t agree with us (水土不服). When we travel, our natural body cycles get disrupted. If it’s your first time on a major trip or you’ve arrived at the next country and suddenly things go wrong, it’s probably nothing lethal. It might be you go poop a bit more often or a bit less for the first few days. Of course, things might not change if your body isn’t getting a balanced diet, so paying attention for the medium-term helps. I don’t think of it as making my body immune to change, but rather about training my stomach to be internationally adaptable. Overall, it’s about adjusting my body to work with different environments. For example, changes in humidity, temperature, our exercise habits, and the food we have access to makes a huge difference. The faster I can assess my environment and predict my body’s reaction, the more time I can spend with an itinerary that works for me while on the road.
The big nerdy deal.
If our home had a flushing toilet, it’s unlikely we ever thought about its history. Yet, the sitting and flushing toilet is a relatively new phenomenon, one that our grand parents probably remember being introduced to. The modern toilet is dependent on another miracle of the 20th century: the widespread use of enclosed sewage systems forming the invisible support, along with electrification that makes urban centres hum. Before that, open sewage was prevalent. London finally looked into building a sewage system after the Great Stink of 1858 (while ancient civilisations from Rome to Nepal had sewage systems).
The history of the toilet is still being written. New cities are emerging, whether they are planned by governments or built by people who need roofs over their heads. But just as we don’t think about the toilet we use, people don’t think about planning for toilets until they need them. According to the World Health Organisation, 2.3 billion people (over 1 in 3 people) still do not have toilets or latrines (squatting toilets). This is to say that by venturing beyond our homes, it is almost a norm that going to the washroom presents challenges and requires some planning. Below is a fun TED Talk about a serious toilet topic:
A final thought: Perhaps the unspoken tip is also to travel with a friend, for the single reason that it’s always easier when someone is watching your stuff for you.
Now that you’ve gone through these items, you can forget most of them. They are probably everyday habits you already have even when planning your errands around the city or window shopping on the street. Once we’ve adjusted to squatting toilets and generally accepted that toilets are as diverse as peoples around the world, I’d like to think we can go anywhere. If we’re aware of our environment and our bodies, we can do works for us — create comfort. As long as we don’t throw all caution to the wind and poison ourselves with contaminated food and water, we prevent surprises (and emergency toilet runs). That leaves plenty more time to explore, eat, connect with people, and enjoy all the places we want to go! Happy travels!
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