This article deals with the issue of toilets specifically while travelling by bus; also check out our general guide to toilets in India here.
I’m going to preface this with a warning; some of what I’m about to describe might sound frickin’ terrible. Long distance buses in India are probably the single biggest toilet challenge I’ve come up against in all my years of travel. The places I travelled to by bus were definitely worth the visit, but reaching them could have been way easier. I hope that by sharing my experiences, including some advice I sorely wish I’d heard before I travelled to India, future travellers can avoid repeating some of my worst travel toilet experiences!
To start, because I’m an optimist, here are some good things about long distance buses in India:
- You can buy tickets last minute, which you can’t always do on trains.
- Some overnight buses have beds instead of seats! You lie down (providing your own blanket and pillow), draw the curtain around you, and sleep horizontally!
Now here are some of the not so good things about long distance buses in India:
- They drive around corners very fast. You’re not strapped in if you went for the bed option, so you fly back and forth, scrabbling for purchase.
- Some of the beds are designed for 2 people. You could end up next to someone, sliding back and forth and banging into each other in a small space for 10 hours. I think cultural considerations would not allow a strange man and woman to be partnered like this, but the bus company had no problem pairing me with another female backpacker I’d only just met. It was an awkward 10 hours.
- Many buses play very loud bollywood music and movies All. Night. Long.
- Temperature control is limited; it may be freezing in winter and boiling in summer. I was so cold on one bus I took all my clothes out my bag and attempted to put them all on at once, like a sleep-deprived hippy scarecrow.
- They do not have toilets on board.
- Even if the journey is 17 hours long, you may not stop at any toilets.
- That’s right, you might have to go 17 hours without access to a toilet.
The way this works is, the bus driver stops with no warning when he needs a toilet break or a cigarette. He happily pisses by the side of the road. Other men get off the bus and piss on the road. The women cross their legs and stay put. Except for me and my micro bladder, who can be found frantically squashing my feet into my hiking boots, jumping out my bed and asking random people:
“Toilet? Is there a toilet?”
Only to have people shrug at me, probably thinking:
“Yeah now you mention it there isn’t a toilet, huh as someone who can happily pee whilst standing up I’d never noticed”
So things like this would happen:
- I find a low wall a short distance away, and squat behind it. Remember I mentioned it’s freezing? So I’m also fumbling with the layers of leggings and hippy trousers I’m wearing without taking off my yak wool gloves if at all possible, whilst I convince myself this low wall provides total privacy.
- I find a ditch by the side of the road and squat into it so I’m hidden. Kinda. Somehow, when it’s 3am, dark and everyone is either asleep or also peeing in public it doesn’t seem as bad as it sounds. On one middle of the night bus stop there really was nothing to offer privacy, so a system of women round one side of the bus and men round the other side was hastily developed. The few Indian woman who got off the bus to pee solemnly squatted in the road, their saris preserving their modesty. It was too surreal to be embarrassing.
- Other times I’ve talked my way into a toilet at bus stops by asking absolutely everyone where the toilet is, until finally someone takes me to one. This only works if you stop in a busy place, and I would then have to run flat out back to the bus in total fear that they’ve left without me.
Some long distance buses don’t even call at bus stations, so you have to stand on a random street corner whilst waiting for the bus, which may arrive anytime between right now and in 3 hours time. There is no toilet to use whilst you wait, although sometimes they have the sort of street urinals that don’t have drains so all the piss runs right down the street. I was once in this situation for such a long time that I gave up and squatted to pee in a doorway whilst waiting for my night bus. It was dark and I was entirely alone, which was a fairly nerve-racking situation right up until I needed to pee, when suddenly it seemed way convenient. There was no way I was getting onto a night bus already needing to pee, and sure enough when this bus did turn up it was hours and hours before we made a middle of night stop (and of course it didn’t stop by a toilet.)
Also, when you finally do arrive at your destination, there probably won’t be a toilet available to use straight away. You generally have to wait until you check into your accommodation. I took the bus to Jaipur, and this only stopped once in the whole 17 hour journey. Seriously, once. I spent the whole morning desperately trying to think of anything except my full bladder, as we slowly drove through the city traffic. Then the hostel I wanted to stay at was all booked up, so I had to travel EVEN FURTHER before I could pee. I think you could just ask the bus driver to stop if you were really desperate; the only problem is, there probably wouldn’t be a toilet where you stopped because of the dire lack of public toilets in India. Lack of access to toilet facilities can be a huge issue for women in Indian society, affecting their independence and education.
So how can female backpackers prepare for this?
Firstly, remember that traveling India wouldn’t be nearly so enriching if it was easy!
Secondly, follow this practical advice:
- Consider bringing a She Wee (or similar) with you, so you can pee standing up without too much clothing rearrangement. I didn’t bring one to India, but think it would have been super helpful. You can buy reusable ones, or disposables. Reusable ones obviously need washing, but some come with a carry case for hygiene. And, if there’s no toilet, you can pretty much guarantee there’s no bin, so you’d have to carry the used product with you anyway.
- Another idea is to wear a long skirt/ sarong which you can pee under. Local women would squat down and pee under the privacy of their saris – the trick is to hike it up enough that the material doesn’t get covered in pee, but not so much that anything is on display.
- Have loo roll available in your pockets, for easy access. Finding loo roll buried in the bottom of your bag whilst hovering in a small, dark and dirty toilet is difficult.
- Always have antibacterial hand gel handy.
- It’s not smart to dehydrate yourself, but if you know that certain drinks made you pee more (such as tea/coffee/alcohol), avoid these during and prior to a long bus journey.
- Have small change available for toilet fees; if you do manage to stop somewhere with an actual toilet, or you start your journey at a bus station with a toilet, you will have to pay for entry.
- If you’re really desperate to go, please do ask the driver to stop. You might sit suffering for hours otherwise.
The bus from Lumbini to Varanasi
One of my more questionable travel decisions was to travel overland from Kathmandu, Nepal to Varanasi, India. You can read about the much more pleasant Nepalese section of this journey here! In fact, if you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you do so now, so you get the full effect of the contrast between the two sections of this journey.
Done? Alright, you can continue:
After a flying visit to Lumbini, I crossed the border out of Nepal around 7am, and I instantly knew I was back in India. As I walked under a brick archway painted green, white and orange, I felt like everything had shifted around me. The energy was different. The streets looked different. India swallowed me up and drew me in so completely that even 100 metres down the road from the Nepalese border, I felt a million miles from Nepal.
I was going to be on the local bus for the next 14 hours, winding my way to Varanasi. No buses in India have toilets on board, but at least the bigger coaches have luggage storage. This bus had no storage space, so I had to hang onto my big backpack the whole journey, keeping it squashed in front of me. Fortunately I had nabbed the front seat, which had a little more leg room. This bus would make two poorly spaced-out toilet stops during the day, leaving everyone with hours and hours to think about their full bladders. Both stops did have public pay-to-use squat toilets though, and even food stalls. At the first stop I ate some samosas being sold outside the toilet. They were delicious. I threw them up as soon as I arrived in Varanasi, which taught me not to eat food that’s being sold right outside a toilet, even if I’m super hungry. Also, the lack of toilet access becomes even more of a pressing issue when you’ve got a bad stomach.
So I was feeling pretty queasy and also needing to pee (again) by mid-afternoon. The bus was designed so 3 seats were squashed into a space that would normally fit 2 adults, and I was in the middle. With this set-up, there physically wasn’t enough room for all 3 of us to lean back at once, so we had an unspoken rotation system going on. How it worked was, the 2 people on the edges would lean back whilst I would lean forwards, then after half an hour or so we’d all change positions so I could enjoy the backrest for a brief interval. Repeat for 14 hours.
I got on the bus with another backpacker who I’d only just met, and we sat next to each other.
What I was thinking:
“Cool! Someone to talk to and share this experience with! I’m going to ask lots of questions so we can have a great conversation and forget about how squashed and uncomfortable we are!”
What he was thinking:
“No fucking small talk.”
So I gave up with making conversation and we sat in silence for 13 hours. Which was kind of hilarious when the local guy sitting next to us asked if we were married. And it did mean we could watch each other’s bags whilst the other one went out to use the toilet, instead of dragging ALL our luggage with us because there was nothing to stop someone picking it up and wandering off with it.
Bringing your big pack into a squat toilet is massive pain. You don’t want to put your stuff on the floor of a public toilet, but holding it whilst squatting is quite a feat. Generally I would recommend keeping the backpack on your back whilst you use a squat toilet; it shouldn’t get in the way as long as there’s some space behind you.
In hour 14, out the blue, the other backpacker started talking to me. Then he asked where was good to stay in Varanasi and did we want to share a rickshaw? So we did, which was fine except there was only one good room available at my chosen guesthouse, which he happily took for himself, smiling like “well your problem for being way too polite all the time, you can have the expensive room with the mice problem kay thanks bye.”
So I checked into my worse quality, more expensive room, and spent a while throwing up my ill-judged samosas next to the mice. But once I’d got over all that, I realised I was in Varanasi, one of the most ancient and spiritual places on the entire planet. I spent four days just watching everything that goes on; watching bodies being cremated then scattered in the holy Ganges river, whilst pilgrims bathed among the fresh ashes. Watching shirtless men wash their herds of buffaloes in the murky river, and watching people do their laundry just downstream from the burning ghats, painstakingly laying crisp white sheets out to dry in the hot sun. Hindus believe that washing or being cremated in these sacred waters will help cleanse your spirit of any sins committed in previous lives, and people travel remarkably far for the experience. The buffaloes weren’t being cleansed of their sins, however. That’s just classic India; a mashup of holy ritual and pragmatic everyday chores. I was so totally enthralled by the delightful chaos of Varanasi, I forgot all about my terrible journey.
Here’s the thing: long bus journeys in India might be generally awful, but the country has an excellent rail network. And domestic flights are always an option too, if you have a slightly bigger budget. It is totally feasible to travel India without getting a long distance bus, and for a budget backpacker, I would definitely recommend the train over the bus for long journeys. Trains are more comfortable, you have toilets and running water on board, people sell food and drinks, and you can stretch your legs. You can read more about travelling by train in India here.
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to avoid bus travel.
Whilst in Varanasi, I learned the Dalai Lama was going to be teaching in Dharamsala in 3 days time, a town over a thousand kilometres away. I knew I had to to be there no matter what. The problem was, Dharamsala is deep in the Himalayas, inaccessible by train.
So I started planning my next bus journey, ready to do it all over again. More on that another time!