Southeast Asia can be a culture shock for a number of reasons, but the one thing that rattled my chains was the squat toilet. It’s one thing to squat over a toilet at a gas station or the strip mall, but it’s an entirely different experience to squat over a hole in the ground. The Banterist summed up the experience in hilariously accurate detail in a 2006 blog post, and knowing I could not have explained the process better myself, you’ll find the post copied below.
Note: I had a few extra hurdles to jump – and my experience was at the train station in Suratthani which I unfortunately had to make use of more than once. It was that, or be guided down a dark alley to an empty spot by the wall by the guy at the food stand.
Rule One: Exhaust all other possibilities.
If you are truly in need and condemned to use the squat toilet, comfort yourself with the knowledge that you are several thousand miles from friends and family. No one has to know.
Proceed as follows:
Most stalls do not have toilet paper. This is the best time to realize this. Either take paper from the general dispenser in the bathroom area or preferably bring your own as it will be made of tissue and not plywood carpaccio.
Approach the squat toilet apprehensively and make sure it’s not covered in stool. If it is covered in stool, choose another stall. If another stall is not available, accept the cards that have been dealt you. This is a good time to come up with a title for your experience such as My Great B.M. Adventure or Disgusticon One.
Close the door to the stall, knowing full well the handle has more germs on it than the entire population of Botswana.
Place your feet on the appropriate foot grids, assuming they are not covered in stool. If they are covered in stool, place your feet on the least fouled space you can find, being careful to maintain balance.
Unfasten and drop your trousers and underpants, making sure that they do not make contact with the urine and stool covered surface area.
Grimace and ask yourself if a country with such a toilet can or should ever be a superpower.
Assume a squatting position like a competitive ski jumper. Stick your ass out like a whore in a 50 Cent video. This is a good time to pretend you’re not a miserable tourist with your pants around your ankles, squatting over a barbaric poo hole.
Use your right hand to prevent the soiling of your trousers and underpants by holding them off the ground and pushing them forward, away from any Danger Zone. This is perhaps the best time ever to be a kilt-wearing Scotsman.
In your left hand should be the assortment of paper/wipes/anti-bacterial sheets you intend to use after you are finished with your production.
You would think you would want your left hand to brace your squatting self against the stall wall. However, the stall wall is covered in nose nuggets and as such is not touchable. At any rate, if you have a penis you will need your left hand for guidance anyway.
For the penised: Use your left hand to aim it away from your trousers and underpants. Point it backwards between your legs – as if it were a rocket engine designed to propel you far away from this alien hellhole. At the same time be sure not to drop any of the objects in your left hand as they will be rendered horribly irretrievable should you do so.
If you do not have a penis, use the left arm to balance yourself – waving it around wildly rather than touching the snot covered stall wall or filthy support bars (if any).
If you are able to maintain balance for several seconds, you are ready to begin bowel evacuation. At this point the bulk of your focus should be towards the quick evacuation of your bowels without soiling your clothing, missing your mark or – God forbid – losing your balance and falling.
For aiming purposes keep your head tucked between your legs – like a bombardier on a very unpleasant mission assigned by General Squalor.
If your aim is true you will have the pleasure of watching poo (yours) drop down a deep, dark hole to a resounding ploot. If it’s not true, you will have the pleasure of watching poo (yours) come to rest on the floor between your legs.
After you have completed your bowel evacuation, DO NOT STAND UP. Remain squatting and miserable.
Continue using your right hand to prevent contact of your trousers/underpants with urine/stool. Place your tissues and wipes in your left hand on top of your underwear/trousers and select the items you need for wiping.
Wipe and curse culture simultaneously, all the while maintaining the squatting position.
Do not drop soiled tissues. That would be too easy. Sadly, the 16th century plumbing can only handle poo. Soiled tissues are to be placed in the bin behind you. Without leaving the squat position, twist your body in order to see the bin and make a good throw. Don’t worry if you miss, as it’s obvious from the poo-sheet pile on the floor that even the squat-tastic natives are no Michael Jordans.
Once sufficiently wiped, humiliated and traumatized, you may stand and re-underpant and re-trouser yourself. This is a good time to reflect on your life and also a good time to try blacking out these last ten minutes – like a freshly-sodomized felon might do.
The filth-covered flush button is behind you and may or may not work.
Open the door to the stall, again knowing the handle has more germs on it than a decade of scrapings from Paris Hilton’s tongue.
Exit the stall and never, ever, ever get yourself into a situation where you have to do that again. But first, wash your hands until they bleed.
Now, I know it’s a “no-no” to travel within a country seeking cuisine that is not their own i.e. Chinese in Italy or French in Thailand, but hey, food is food. And so long as you’re not jumping for joy outside of every KFC, Subway, or (insert dinky pizza chain here), then I say go for it. Maybe once a week during travels I’ll take a break from the local gastronomy. After all, you wouldn’t eat fried noodles every day at home, right?
On Yao Noi a few of us took a break from Thai for a night at La Luna Pizzeria. Ironically on the boat there from Krabi I’d met an Italian couple whose friends owned the restaurant. I had a prosciutto pizza that was better than any pizza I’ve had outside Italy. Yum.
And now, after walking around Phnom Penh for much of the day, I stumble across Nature by AsiaBio. “Organic food and grocery” it says on the sign out front, and without skipping a beat I’m there. It’s totally chic, and while the prices are above average for Phnom Penh, it’s still a fraction of the price I’d pay for lunch in the States, especially at an organic café.
I’ll admit my eyes were a bit larger than my stomach, but I regret nothing. While my fried snapper and veggie entrée sadly had a bit too much going on, my mango-coconut smoothie was spot on, as was my “Fresh and Light” salad with watercress, feta cheese, and watermelon.
Once I was full from that, I ordered a passion fruit panna cotta and a fresh limejuice for dessert. Biting into the panna cotta I let out an audible “holy crap”. A nice change from the “holy hell fire” I’d been silently cursing to myself all morning in the city heat.
Confident that after my midnight train experience from Parma to Rome I could handle any travel arrangement, I booked myself on the 11:30pm train to Bangkok. Actually, it involved a 3:30 boat to Krabi, a mini bus 20 minutes to a larger bus taking us 2 hours to Suratthani where I would wait about four hours for the train.
Along the way to Suratthani you start to notice other travelers going in your direction, and you start to share some laughs at the efficient but confusing system by which the Thai shuffle and corral their travelers.
Lots of stickers in use…
By the time we reached the train station in Suratthani there were four of us. A Swedish couple, Daniel and Sofia, and a Norwegian, Wilhelm, who is currently living in Shanghai. With our trains already delayed we stashed our luggage at the station and ventured off to find some food.
Finding the entire city shut down, we settle for a small food stant on the side of the road with a few tables set on the sidewalk. Over fried rice, some cokes, and four Changs we shared our travels and Wilhelm told us all about living in Shanghai. It was a wonderful way to pass the 3+ hours.
D, S, and W were on a train scheduled to leave 30 minutes after mine (at midnight), but ended up leaving at 12:40 while I waited on the platform patiently and with heavy lids until 2:30 in the morning for mine.
The ride was surprisingly very comfortable. I was in an air-conditioned cabin with about twelve other travelers (some local, some foreign). We were provided with a clean blanket and pillow, and each bed had a little curtain for privacy. Catch 22 – they left the lights on all night. Good for safety, bad for sleeping. However, being the wicked smaht traveler I am, I had a sleeping mask, and soon drifted off to sleep with the whimpers of others as white noise.
Between eight and ten in the morning, a train operator transformed the two levels of beds into two wide cushioned seats as we were ready. Seated comfortably with my kindle for the final few hours, I slurped on some noodles and dumpling being sold by locals who shuffled on and off at every stop.
Reaching Bangkok at 1:30 in the afternoon marked 22 hours of travel, and sadly, I had not yet reached my destination. By 3pm I was at Suvarnabhumi International Airport arranging my ticket on Thai Airways’ 6:30 flight to Phnom Penh. After wiping well over 24 hours of dirt, sand, salt, sweat, and probably my own pee (you’ll soon find out why) off my body with my handy-dandy baby wipes (another smart traveler essential), I changed into the necessary attire for non-rev travel and boarded my plane. After 36 hours of boats, trains, and planes, I was in Cambodia, and instantly in love.
Koh Phi Phi Lesson 1 – Always pack toilet paper. Always.
On Tuesday I made my way to Koh Phi Phi Don with Barbara and J. By longboat we travelled to Krabi, then by speedboat to Phi Phi. What a difference. While Yao Noi was so calming, Phi Phi is party central much like Cancun or Ibiza (ironically there is a bar here named Ibiza), and I believe it was House of Pain’s “Jump Around” that I heard blaring from a nearby bar as we stepped onto the pier.
After goodbyes with B & J, I made my way through throngs of tourists and backpackers to Bamboo Mountain View. All of one hour later I was out that door and on to find accommodation that provided doors with locks on them.
Koh Phi Phi Lesson 2 – Inspect rooms prior to handing over payment.
JJ Bungalow proved to be run by people with brains, so I called it home for the night. By this time (3pm or so) I was feeling frustrated and starting to question if coming to Phi Phi was the right decision. I’m all for a good bar and a good party, but my idea of responsible (and successful) travelling does not involve drinking myself silly and walking around half naked and barefooted to Paddy’s Irish Bar or John’s Pizza.
Hi, you traveled halfway around the world, why?
It was like spring break. A never-ending spring break.
I had intended to spend two nights on Phi Phi, but was ready to leave the next morning. After a terrible experience at Bamboo Mountain (the name should have given it away, really), and such a great few days on Yao Noi, I needed to find something to make my visit positive, and fast.
I had toyed with the idea of scuba diving, but certainly wasn’t making it my mission. In steps Tessa with Island Divers. Tessa sweeps me off the street and into the shop to tell me all about diving with Island Divers. Sensing my hesitation she even took me into the equipment room to show me how everything is stored and about how I would use it in the water. Feeling more comfortable with the idea I tell her I’ll think about it. After a walk around and some questionable food, I found my way back to the dive shop where Simon provided all the encouragement I needed to sign the dotted line.
By nine the next morning we were out in Maya Bay (helloooo Leo ♥) on Koh Phi Phi Leh learning how to use our equipment, clear our masks of water, and learning all the signs we needed to know in order to communicate under water. Adam, the instructor, was the best I could have hoped for on my first dive. With two other first timers in the group Adam took time to make sure each of us were in control and “OK” every step of the way. It took a few minutes to properly equalize my ears and get use to breathing not only under water but through my mouth only…and to stop widening my eyes so much that I’d look as though I was drowning, but once I got the hang of it I never wanted to go back up.
The four of us swam along the reef at 12 meters (about 40 feet) observing the marine life. We saw so many colorful parrot and clown fish, Moray Eels, beautiful sea turtles, a Leopard Shark (“No, I will not die today”), lots of coral, and more. At times Adam would even take my hand and lead me to some interesting marine life.
After two dives and lunch in Maya Bay we were back on Phi Phi Don. I had half a mind to complete my scuba certification as I was already $x dollars in and Adam said I did exceedingly well for my first time (gloat gloat gloat), but unfortunately I hadn’t budgeted for it. I’m certainly looking forward to my next diving opportunity and to get certified. If you haven’t tried it, try it!
Feeling better about Phi Phi I extended my stay an additional two nights, moving to an air conditioned, windowless closet space at BaanThai Guest House closer into town. Okay, okay, there was a window, but it led out to the stairwell, so does that really count?
Koh Phi Phi Lesson 3 – Don’t count on a mattress purchased within this decade
After spending the next two days searching for a quiet shaded spot and a good, inexpensive meal to no avail, I was more than ready to leave. Koh Phi Phi is fine I guess – if you like that sort of thing. Everywhere I went someone was blowing cigarette smoke in my face, I was breathing suffocating fumes from the far too plentiful longboats along the shore, or was sweeping away trash on the sand for a clean place to sit. And I’m pretty sure I’m coming home with some sort of foot fungus. I was also heart broken when, while swimming along the reef, we saw a boat had dropped its anchor onto the reef and with each wave the anchor pulled at the coral, ripping it from the ocean floor. Although the area is technically a national park, it doesn’t seem to be protected, and those who visit don’t seem to have any consideration or respect for the land. Longboat operators flick their cigarette butts into the water and trash can be seen floating everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if all fauna and flora were bulldozed by 2020.
If you had good luck finding some serenity on Koh Phi Phi, let me know. I’d be willing to try again.
Until then, north by train to Bangkok. Cambodia awaits.