The Honest Truth on Bathrooms Around the World

You yearn for peace and some time to catch up on Twitter. Conveniently you also need to pee. So you head to the bathroom, iPhone in hand. But it wasn’t always so, and bathrooms around the world don’t always bring peace.

For instance, have you heard of the open-air urinals in France (1)? They’re just like they sound. They’re usually decorated, often with a flower pot on top. Not great for women or for watching YouTube.

But that’s not all.

When you travel around the world, you need to adapt to different ways of doing business. And by that, we mean using the toilet.

Have Pee, Will Travel

Want to know a funny fact? 

No matter who you are, or where you’re from, at some point you’ll have to use the toilet. And that’s true whether you’re dining in New York City or market shopping in Mumbai. Even astronauts need to tinkle! 

Want to know a funny fact? 

No matter who you are, or where you’re from, at some point you’ll have to use the toilet. And that’s true whether you’re dining in New York City or market shopping in Mumbai. Even astronauts need to tinkle! 

And when nature calls, you’ll need to use what’s available. That’s fine if you’re in America or Canada or Australia. Washrooms are pretty much standardized. But if some Pad Thai rips through your system and you find yourself staring at a squatter with a hose in Thailand, you’ll have no choice but to adapt. 

Hence you need to learn about different bathrooms around the world. 

Without further ado…

Here’s a quick look at bathrooms and our habits in them, from all over the world.

North America: The Gold Standard

Before you delve into the mysteries of the three seashells, take a look at your humble American washroom. You know the deal. There’s a toilet, usually with a sink nearby. A roll of toilet paper hangs from the wall. 

If it’s a bathroom there’ll be a shower, and probably a bathtub to go along with it. You may even see some towels hanging somewhere, and the obligatory mirror. 

Sound familiar?

I know what you’re thinking. That’s not exciting. After all, it’s just a bathroom. But get this: The entire system behind toilets is complex and amazing. 

Where American Pee Goes

When you flush an American toilet, a bunch of things happen (2).

  • First, gravity pulls water from the cistern above the toilet into the bowl and flushes your deposit down a pipe
  • Then, gravity pulls all that yucky stuff along the pipe to the sewage main in the middle of your street
  • Next, that sewage main converges with all the surrounding sewage mains into a central main
  • Finally, the big central main flows to a waste treatment plant

To help the entire process, sewage mains follow creek and river beds, which run downhill. And wastewater plants are always located on low lying ground. 

Wastewater treatment

By now you’re probably wondering what happens to all of that raw sewage once it hits the treatment plant. 

Check it: 

Most plants in the developed world use three stages in treatment. 

Here’s a closer look. 

1

Primary treatment is the first stage. Here, the water sits and all the solids sink to the bottom while the scum floats to the top of the water. Then the water is chlorinated to kill any bacteria.

2

In the second stage, water flows into a big aeration tank teeming with friendly bacteria. The bacteria consumes all the organic materials in the water. Then the water flows to a settling tank where the bacteria die and sink to the bottom.

3

Finally, wastewater goes to a clarifier, where chemicals are added to remove nitrogen and phosphorous. Often there are filter beds involved to remove any lasting particles. Lastly, more chlorine gets added before the water is released back into circulation.

Bathrooms Around the World

Not everyone uses America’s system. For many developing countries, this entire process is too expensive or too complicated. Some places just dump their wastewater into the nearest river. 

Meanwhile, some countries find America’s system archaic. Germany, Japan, and South Korea use highly advanced 21st Century wastewater treatment processes.

And wiping? As varied as the opinions on squatting vs. sitting. 

Wiping and sanitation aside, the toilets you’ll use when traveling--and how you’ll have to use them--are way more important to learn about. 

After all, the toilet is the ultimate personal assistant. 

Don’t Flush Toilet Paper In Mexico

Did you know that you can’t flush toilet paper down the drain in Mexico? It’s true! The reason is that their waste treatment process isn’t as developed as our own. 

...and there’s more to it.

Mexico’s creaking sewage system is in desperate need of replacing. 

And those pipes simply can’t handle balls of wet toilet paper. 

So do everyone a favor and don’t flush toilet paper in Mexico.

The Mysterious Asian Squatter

Enter a washroom anywhere in Asia and you’ll be met with a hole in the ground. This is the infamous squatter toilet. And depending on where you are in Asia, these squatters vary in complexity.

For instance, in Japan and South Korea, the squatters are porcelain and have a drain in one end. There’s also a round porcelain dome over the drain to stop splashback. These are very civilized squatters.

But if you head to south-east Asia or parts of China, the squatters become decidedly more rustic. Often you’ll see a porcelain sink simply buried in the ground. In the worst case you might find a bare hole dug into the floor with a pipe opening at the bottom. 

In all cases, you’ll need to squat to use them. Hence the name “squatter.”

But here’s the thing...

Most Americans have no idea how to squat like this. 

In Asia, you see people squatting all the time at the side of the road or while working. For us westerners it’s foreign. So follow these pointers to keep yourself from falling into the squatter.

  • Take your pants and underwear off completely
  • Stand over the toilet facing towards the domed hood (if it’s there)
  • Place one foot on each side of the toilet
  • Position yourself as close to the hood as possible but not directly over the drain
  • Squat down by bending at the knee, lowering your bottom to ankle level
  • Place your arms on your knees for support
  • Do your business

Do that a few more times and you’ll be a pro.

We promise: It does get better.

Because in many Asian countries there’s no toilet paper. Instead, you’ll be presented with a hose. 

You can guess what that’s for.

The Water Closet

Next we’ll head across the pond to Europe. 

Sir Thomas Crapper is often credited with inventing the toilet, but this isn’t true. Crapper simply made the toilet ubiquitous across England, France, the Netherlands, and Germany. 

Regardless of who created the modern toilet, when you’re in Europe and it’s time to go, you’ll be faced with a dilemma. Which door do you open?

You read that right.

When you use the loo in Europe, you need to go into the Water Closet (or WC) first, and then the washroom. That’s because the toilet is often in its own little room. Meanwhile the place where you wash your hands, brush your teeth, shower, etc is in its own room. These are the water closet and washroom.

It kind of makes sense.

After all, who wants all that fecal matter and urine splash in the washroom?

We’re All In This Together

First impressions count. Which makes meeting a romantic partner a little awkward in China, where washrooms are unisex and often have no doors. 

It’s true!

Although the major cities like Beijing and Shanghai have moved into the 21st Century, the rural regions of China remain primitive. We’re talking about a row of men and women, side by side, squatting over a hole. 

So the next time you’re in a small Chinese town, keep your eyes open in the toilet. You might just meet the love of your life.

Yokoso!

This is the point where you start to consider staying home in boring old America. But don’t despair! Because our friends in northeast Asia have pushed the toilet into the future. 

We’re talking about high-tech talking toilets in Japan and South Korea. 

Get this:

Not everyone uses squatters. Many homes and businesses have smart toilets. They’ll welcome you in a cheery woman’s voice when you sit down. And if you press the right button, they’ll tell you jokes while you do your business. 

You see, these toilets come with different settings. Press a button and the toilet will flush. Press another and it will turn into a bidet. That’s fun when you can’t read the language and hit the wrong button. 

You Shall Not Pass

Be warned: if you need to tinkle while you’re out in public in Europe,  prepare to pay. That’s because most public washrooms charge a fee. But guess what? That doesn’t include toilet paper.

You see, toilets are a business in Europe. And if you want toilet paper, that’s going to cost extra. Also, if you need a lot of toilet paper, be prepared to spend good money. In fact, you might just be better off using the money as toilet paper.

Ground Control to Major John

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to visit space? Well if you’re ever lucky enough to end up in orbit around earth, you’ll need to use the aptly-named “space toilet (5).” Unlike squatters, water closets, and Japanese robo-toilets, these contraptions are intimidating. 

First you need to squeeze yourself into a tin box that has straps on it to hold you in place. Then you have to choose one of two ways to use it.

For urination, use a yellow cup attached to a long vacuum hose. It sucks the urine down so it won’t float back up. But for Number Two, you’ll need to carefully aim your derriere over a small plate attached to a metalic canister. 

That plate opens up where a fan then sucks everything down into small plastic bags. As the bags get full, astronauts put on plastic gloves, reach in, and pack them down tighter. As the new astronaut on board, guess who’s doing that job?

It’s a Beautiful World

By now you’re probably thinking that the good ‘ol American toilet is the way to go. And you’re not completely wrong. After all, it’s efficient, friendly, and comfortable. Also, there’s a reason cultures around the world have adapted it.

Here’s the thing...

Almost everywhere in the world uses North American-style toilets. They’re considered upper class in places such as Asia. Even in Europe most restaurants and stores feature normal US-style restrooms. Of course, a lot of that adaptation comes from the domineering prevalence of Western influence and the sheer number of Westerners who travel abroad. 

But if you veer off the beaten path a little, you’ll find yourself using toilets you couldn’t imagine. And that’s why it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you leave. Hopefully this helped!

References

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