For many Americans, finding and using a public bathroom in a foreign country could be an ordeal. Squatty potties, bidets, toilet “kiosks” etc. abound. Also, if you don’t know where to look, you may find yourself walking around for (what will feel like) an eternity. Hopefully this will help you out when you’re in a situation where a bathroom is seemingly scarce.
Bathrooms change from country and region. You’ll need to get past the mindset of what you’re used to because a Western toilet my not be available in your region.
I’ll admit. This is one of those situations where I’m not entirely sure which is right so I end up playing it safe when in doubt. In many countries, you DON’T flush toilet paper down the drain but instead throw it in a trash bin next to the toilet. So, if you’re in a public bathroom and you see a trash bin with used toilet paper, you know where that goes.
However, I’m not certain when it applies to an entire country if I haven’t set foot into a public restroom before reaching my hotel. Without getting too graphic, my rule of thumb is, if I’m not sure, just use the trash bin.
Also, if you’re in a public restroom, there may be times where you’ll be asked to pay to use the facilities. Normally, it’ll be somewhere like 25 to 50 cents or something (so have small change available) and you’ll pay it to someone sitting outside the bathroom or I’ve seen it where you insert the coins into a kiosk to get the doors to open. If there is a person, they will probably ask you if you need paper. If you ate something that is desperate to find a way out, well let’s just say you’ll want to carry some tissues in your backpack just in case.
Squat Toilets aka Squatty Potties
This is something you’ll see especially in Asia and some Middle Eastern countries. It isn’t exactly a hole in the ground but for all intents and purposes, it’s a hole in the ground. As the name implies, you squat and go.
If you find yourself in one of these stalls, you’ll figure it out. There’s a space with ridges for your feet (assuming so you don’t slip) and you basically go. This probably isn’t the best time to be reading or playing on your phone though…
I’ve seen 3 different types of bidets which I think are fairly common depending on where you are. Once you get used to the concept, they actually make sense.
Stand alone bidets
Sometimes, the bidet will have water that shoots up from the basin. The bidet itself will work much like a shower will with a hot and cold tap and the middle tap will adjust the pressure coming up. This makes sense to me. It’s a little odd and if you get the temperature wrong the first time, you’ll probably be so startled, you’ll go flying into the ceiling.
Then there are the ones that look like a small sink. To be honest, when I first saw them, I thought you were supposed to wash your feet in them. I had no clue how it was supposed to work.
That said, this type of bidet is a mystery to me. I don’t get it. I seriously don’t understand the concept of this one since it seems like a lot more work than is necessary. However, you basically fill the bidet with water and sit on it. You’ll typically see a soap dish next to it along with a towel(s). There won’t be a seat cover on the bidet since you’re meant to sit on it directly. Basically fill up the bidet and clean yourself with the soap. Clean the bidet afterwards and then dry yourself off with the towel. I’ve typically seen these throughout Europe. If you’re in a country where these are common, you might as well get used to it so just jump right in and try it. You definitely don’t want to risk clogging the toilet cuz that would be beyond mortifying.
I don’t know what the technical terms is but this one looks like the dishwashing nozzle we have on kitchen sinks. Pretty much self explanatory and using it to blindly shower clean yourself.
These are the fancy ones you typically hear about in Asia. And they are very common there. You know, the ones with the seat warmers, air dryers, and music players to mask any noise. I’ve seen these primarily in Japan and Korea.
Basically, when you’re done, you’ll see a control panel to the side of the toilet. These will have pictures so you won’t need to read the local language to understand it. First you’ll see a picture of a skinny tube with water coming out. Touch that button and device that looks like a pencil will come out from the back of the toilet rim and hit you with water. You can adjust the temperature and the aim from the control panel. When you’re done, you just hit the cancel or off button. Then you can use the air dry feature which has a picture of air being pushed toward a butt.
Bidets are a little odd at first but seriously, I think they’re great (at least the last two…the stand alone sink bidet is just a mystery).
Finding a Public Bathroom
Be aware that when you’re traveling, you’ll have to be in mindframe of thinking ahead. Think of the number of times a parent will ask a child if they have to go to the bathroom before a long car ride. You’ll want to do the same. Here are some places to remember to take advantage of before you leave.
This is easy. Just go to wash up and if you have a long walk home, use the restroom there. However, if you aren’t eating there, just think of where you’d put the bathroom if you were a restaurant owner. The bathrooms are almost always in the back, down a hall, and up a flight of stairs (or some combination). But you can always pretend to be a customer and just use the facilities. Also, you can go to a Starbucks or even a fast food restaurant. If it’s busy, no one is going to know if you’re a customer and I don’t think there’s any harm in getting something on the way out if you feel it’s necessary.
Museums, theaters, public buildings
If you’re at a museum, taking a theater tour, or in any public building or space (ie mall, train station, or park) you can find restrooms. Obviously museums and theaters are easy and free. Some museums even have the restroom at the entrance so you don’t have to pay to go in. There are also restrooms in parks but the ones I commonly see are the kiosk type. They’re usually coin operated and basically look like a large room. You put in the money and the door opens. I don’t know if it opens after a certain amount of time or what but it’s been my experience that you don’t really want to spend that much time in them anyways.
Mall and train stations will typically have the bathroom attendant there where you pay or leave a tip. To be honest, as public bathrooms go, they’re usually pretty clean because the attendant does a fairly decent job of keeping them clean.
If you’re in the touristy part of town where there are tons of hotels, you can easily pop into the hotel lobby and use the bathroom. No one is going to know if you’re a guest there. Trust me. I doubt the hotel is going to care too much and if it’s architecturally interesting, I’m sure they get a fair number of people who want to go just to take photos.
You can also pretend to be a guest or pretend to be meeting a guest at the hotel bar or restaurant. It happens all the time. Just walk in and act like you belong. You’ll be fine.
So this one is doable but the rule of thumb is to only go WHEN THE TRAIN IS MOVING. The bathrooms just empty out onto the tracks below so you don’t want to use the train bathroom while it’s at the station (well if you had a really bad time there, maybe you do?). For that same reason, I wouldn’t recommend standing too close to the tracks at a railroad crossing either (if you feel a mist or a spray as the train goes by….well use your imagination).
Hopefully this gives you some idea of what to expect when you’re traveling abroad and need to find and use a bathroom. I would say the biggest concern will probably be the toilet paper issue but even then, it isn’t going to a huge deal if you forget (assuming you don’t cause a backup).
With respect to finding bathrooms, you’ll have to be resourceful and use common sense. However I will say don’t be against paying a little to use the facilities. I’ve seen numerous people scoff at the idea of having to pay to use the restroom but is you plan to hold it until you get back to the hotel? But most times, if you act like you belong, you’ll be fine.