The best, and worst, toilets all travellers with have to deal with

I have a confession: I'm kind of obsessed with toilets. I think a lot of travellers are, in fact. What's seen as such an everyday and even embarrassing chore at home becomes a legitimate and constant topic of conversation when you're overseas, when you're experiencing all of the myriad facilities out there, when you're keen to swap notes on where to go and where to avoid.

Toilets become part of the travel experience, they say so much about the country you're visiting. From the high-tech wizardry of a Japanese toilet to a very public Amsterdam pissoir to the fairly challenging Indian long-drop, the local facilities can tell you all you need to know about a place.

So set aside your breakfast for a few minutes. Put your prudishness on hold. And let's talk about all the different toilets you're likely to encounter out there.

The Japanese toilet


Photo: Alamy

I admit it: I have spent long periods of time sitting on these things and just pressing all of the buttons to see what they do. Japanese toilets are like space ships; they're high-tech command centres. They have little panels on the right-hand side (or on the wall next to them), allowing you to spray your bits with water, to dry them with warm air, to play music to cover any embarrassment, to warm the seat, and to warm the water. They're great; every country should have them.

The half-Western

These are the toilets you often find in south-east Asia that look, at first glance, like the sort of facilities you'd use at home. Then you begin to realise a few things about them: they don't have a seat, which means you're going to have to hover awkwardly over the top of them; and they don't flush, which means scooping up water from a bucket and tipping it into the bowl. Passable, but not ideal.

The squat

I used to be pretty freaked out by squat toilets, the type of facilities used by the vast majority of the world's population, and yet so intimidating for those of us not used to them. These toilets can range from the spotlessly clean and approachable to the absolutely disgusting, but the challenge is the same: to remove most of your clothes (I assume) and then balance over the hole to do your business without toppling over. After all these years, I still haven't mastered it.

The bum gun

There are a few variations to the squat, and they mostly relate to the way you're expected to clean yourself once you're done. At their most basic you'll just get a jug or a bucket of water, which requires a tipping and splashing technique that baffles me to this day. If you're lucky, however, there will be a hose attached to the side of the toilet – the "bum gun" – with which to give yourself a spray.

The pissoir


Photo: Alamy


You'll spot these no-frills public urinals in plenty of European cities, most notably in Amsterdam. They're men-only facilities mostly designed to stop drunk people peeing in the street. Some have screens for privacy, some don't, but the central tenet is the same: a very basic public facility that seems pretty gross until it's 1am and you really need to go.

The bidet

Another facility that's fairly confusing for first-timers: I've heard of people washing their clothes in these toilets-that-aren't-toilets that are found in European bathrooms. The trouble is a bidet looks a lot like a normal facility, only it just has a jet of water rather than a full cistern and is designed for a genteel washing of your nether regions, not as a place to clean a few T-shirts.

The long-drop

These are found in campsites and roadsides across the world, sit-down or squat jobs that don't have flush facilities, but rather just open pits far below. As with many styles of toilets, long-drops can range from the perfectly fine to the shockingly horrendous, depending on the upkeep of everything on top of the pit, and the length of the drop below.

The not-so-long-drop

This is a problem: when the long-drop isn't so long. I've seen these in Mongolia, where it's so freezing cold that everything below you instantly solidifies and forms an enormous mountain that gets closer, and closer, and closer. I've seen facilities in India where the drop was never really a drop at all. These are a serious challenge.

The hole in the floor

This is often an intimidating combination of a squat and a long-drop, the most basic facility you can have (save for digging your own hole). The most memorable of these I've seen was on a long-distance train in Vietnam, where the bathroom was just a small, featureless space with a hole cut into the metal floor, train tracks flashing and wheels rattling directly below. Turns out that makes it pretty hard to aim.

What are the most memorable toilet facilities you've seen on your travels? Do you think travellers are more prone to talking about this stuff than others? Why is that?



​See also: Nine big problems every solo traveller has to deal with

See also: What happens when you flush a plane toilet?