Toilet Guide: Myanmar (Burma)

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Mingalaba!

First off, Myanmar is a magical country, and we highly recommend travelling there. Yes it’s safe, and yes it’s wonderful. Myanmar sings with mystery and grace, and the Myanmar people blew us away with their kindness and hospitality. At this point, some of you are probably wondering where in the world Myanmar is. It’s not a small or insignificant country, but the name still confuses people (and for good reason, to be fair). Let us explain!

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Before we travelled to Myanmar, we referred to this land as Burma. People knew what we meant when we said Burma. Then we started our travels, and we continued referring to Burma the country, to Burmese the language, and to Burmese food and culture. We were swiftly corrected, multiple times by multiple people.

You mean the Myanmar food. It’s Myanmar food, made by the Myanmar people”

Friendly locals eager to educate us explained that the word Burma refers to a specific ethnic group within Burma: the Burmese. As there are well over a hundred ethnic groups in Myanmar, many locals object to the adjective “Burmese” being used generally, preferring to include the full range of different local peoples and cultures in their language. We’d previously associated the name Myanmar with the widely criticised military government,  who abruptly changed the name of the county back in the 1980s, and had assumed Burma was the preferred name. But as we so have so often found in our travels, the story the local people had to tell us was very different from the story constructed in the media.

So now we’ve established the names, let’s think about the toilets!


Overview

  • Myanmar is a BYOTP country. Be sure to bring your own toilet paper, soap and antibacterial hand gel with you when you’re out and about.
  • Always dispose of used toilet paper in the bin rather than the toilet, when a bin is provided.
  • Locals tend to use squat toilets and wash afterwards, using either the bucket in a bucket or a bum gun. Toilet paper is not widely used.
  • All guest houses had western style good quality toilets, except in the small villages we trekked through. In the cities, you shouldn’t need to worry about guesthouse toilets.
  • We didn’t see any public toilets when out and about. Some cafes will have basic toilet facilities, which may be a squat toilet or western toilet depending on the target audience and price range of the cafe. Basic cafes and street food stalls will not have toilets available.

Out and About

Cities

Street food is wonderful in Myanmar. You can barely walk down the streets of Yangon for the sizzling woks and grills, spilling off the pavements right into the roads. Street food vendors do not, however, have toilets. They might have adorable tiny plastic tables and chairs, they might even have table service and a menu. But they will not have toilets. Make sure you go before you leave the guesthouse. And bring antibacterial gel with you, in case you want to freshen up before you eat.

Inle Lake

On Inle Lake, all buildings stand on stilts above the water, and the only mode of transport is by boat. Like so:

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One little restaurant we visited surprised us with a sit-down toilet in a tiny shack above the lake. As you can see, instead of toilet paper, they provided the bucket in a bucket system for cleaning yourself with water.
Fancy a guess at where the waste ends up?

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Ngapali Beach

Although we stuck to street-food, or very basic cafes in the cities, Ngapali beach was different. Instead of wandering down the street for dinner, we wandered along the beach, being seduced by the string of seafood restaurants along the sand. Despite the friendly competition between restaurants, when we enquired about the toilet facilities the waiter directed us to walk through several neighbouring restaurants to the shared squat toilet behind the kitchens. Top tip: don’t forget your flip-flops. Seriously, I forgot to bring my flip flops to the restaurant one evening and had to beg and borrow sandals from Morgan so I could use the toilet.


Transport

We used a mixture of boats, planes, minivans, motorbikes, taxis, electric scooters, hiking and hot air balloon to travel around Myanmar. Let’s consider how these modes of transport compare in terms of toilet access: 

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Boats

Floating down the Irrawaddy River is a genuinely great way to get between the city of Mandalay and the temples of Bagan. The journey takes about 7 hours by “fast boat”, and you’ll have a fine selection of wicker chairs on board and lunch provided. There is also a good condition sit-down toilet on the boat, so you have no worries on that front.


Buses & Minivans

There is a fairly well-established tourist route through Myanmar, taking in the temples of Bagan, the bustling streets of Yangon and the quiet beauty of Inle Lake. A reasonable network of buses and minivans connects the main traveller destinations, and in our experience these vehicles do stop at places with toilets at appropriate intervals. Some of these toilets have a box allowing you to tip the cleaning staff, and more often than not are accompanied by amusing signs:

We never needed to ask the driver to stop for a toilet break, but the Myanmar people were so unfailingly polite, kind and helpful, we have no doubt they would have stopped and found a toilet if needed. And if they didn’t understand the request in English, they would have found someone to translate. And if there wasn’t a public toilet, they would have found a private toilet for us. We were constantly humbled by how friendly and kind the Myanmar people were.


Aeroplanes

Planes on domestic flights have toilets on board. Also a lovely poster about the work some domestic airlines are doing to gain international aviation safety accreditation. So… no worries on that front.

The internal airport we visited was also quite fascinating. It was small and only made incredibly laid back attempts at “security”. They had a metal detector and an x-ray machine for bags, and only after we cleared security did we realise the one toilet in the building was back on the “non-secure” side. The security guys apparently saw no issues with us running back and forth through the security gates to use the toilets by the entrance of the airport, and just shrugged and waved us through each time the metal detectors beeped at us again.


Trekking

Some of Myanmar’s more interesting toilets can be found along the delightful 60km trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Heading east out of Kalaw, the entire 3-day hike is spent cutting through woodland, hills, farmland and villages. Hundreds of bright red chillies sat drying amongst the fields, and crowds of children came to greet us as we passed through, shouting “Mingalaba!” (Hello!) with beaming smiles.

The accommodation along this route is basic. Wonderful, but basic. Both nights we stayed in wooden farmhouses, 6 of us huddling together in a single room with thin mattresses on the floor. There was no glass in the windows, so after sunset we pulled the wooden shutters closed, shutting out the cold mountain air and lighting candles in our wooden house.

The toilet was a simple squatter, in a roughly constructed wooden shack. It was also really, really far away, across the fields and out of sight of the main building. Getting there involved traversing a field of cabbages, walking away from the lights until even the sounds of the talking and laughter had faded away. The next part was tricky; the battery on my head torch was running low, and finding a dark shack in a dark field proved difficult. First time around, I failed at finding the fabled shack and went back to get Morgan.

I need directions to the shack… again.”

Well, Morgan mused. “It’s not that far… Did you walk diagonally through the cabbage patch?”

Yes!”

Did you turn sharp right after the big tree?”

Yes!”

Did you scramble through the ditch behind the tree before you turned left?”

Ah-ha! I had at no point gone into a ditch on my explorations.

We set off again, together this time, our twin beams of light bouncing off the white cabbages. By 9pm, all the lights were out in the village. The night was silent, the darkness absolute.

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I didn’t see the shack until right before I walked into it. Stopping abruptly, I shined my torch through the gaps in the walls. A basic hole had been dug into the soft ground. A bucket of water sat to the right of the hole, filled with fresh water for cleaning yourself. On the left, a small bin had been half filled with used toilet paper, relics of the backpackers that trod this route every day.

I jiggled the wooden door, lifting it over the threshold when it refused to open smoothly. Once inside, I lifted the door inwards again, scrapping it over the threshold to close it. A gaping hole remained where the thin wood had warped. Thankful for the cover of darkness, and that I had a head torch which allowed me to keep both hands free, I squatted down with my roll of toilet paper, arranging my clothing so nothing touched the dirt floor. I felt rather than heard the insects buzzing around my head, attracted by the feeble light of my torch.

Heading back to the main building, Morgan and I heard a rustling in the cabbage patch.

Is that an animal?!” I whispered, alarmed.

I don’t think so…” Morgan replied.

Suddenly, a crouched figure stood up.

Oh… hi guys”

It was a fellow trekker, making use of the facilities. They had also gotten lost trying to find the toilet shack, and rather than venture out alone, they had found a corner of the cabbage field to make use of. When I woke at 3am with a full bladder, I very rapidly came round to their way of thinking, squatting at the edge of the field under the cover of night. I’m pretty sure everyone used the cabbage field at some point that night, rather than brave the darkness.

The next day we spotted this incredibly neatly-stacked cabbage truck, and couldn’t help but wonder if the poor vegetables smelt like wee.

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So overall, Myanmar’s toilet rating is quite high but planning ahead is required when exploring. And if you’re planning on going trekking, you should be prepared for some fairly basic toilet facilities. 

Myanmar is a truly wonderful place, made extremely special by the people who live there. We also need to give a shout-out to the city of Mandalay, which is often left off of people’s itineraries but has the most downright friendly atmosphere of any city we’ve ever visited. In Mandalay, strangers will treat you like a long-lost friend, going literally miles out of their way to help you out.


For our own trip, we made extensive use of the Rough Guide to Myanmar and we’d highly recommend it! We always carry a guidebook with us on trips – We find it much nicer and more dependable than using your phone while abroad. This book was revised in 2015 and was super accurate as of our trip in November the same year. You can follow the link above to buy it on Amazon.co.uk. 

And if you found this post at all enlightening, don’t forget to follow us to get notified when the next one goes up! Just enter your email address in the box on the sidebar.

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Toilet Survival Guide: China

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Bathrooms in China are interesting in the same way that soups in China are interesting; each one is totally different and you never know what you might find in there. I’d been travelling around Asia for a couple of months before I went to China, so I thought I was pretty well prepared for any toilet situation. Nuh-uh. Nothing in South East Asia prepared me for rural China. I can still hear the confused bemusement in the diary entries I wrote in China:

“Another toilet without a door… just a line of women staring at you!”

Let’s jump into the details…


Quick guide:

  • Squat toilets are the norm in most parts of China, especially in more rural areas
  • Bring your own toilet roll and soap/ antibacterial hand gel with you everywhere, as these items will rarely be provided
  • Sit down toilets were available at every hostel and guest house I stayed at, except while trekking
  • In small, off the beaten track villages, toilets are a communal affair (doors optional)
  • Trains link most major cities, and they have squat toilets on board
  • Buses are useful when the trains are booked out; they do not have toilets on board, but they do stop at toilets during the journey
  • Learn which characters indicate male/ female toilet before your trip

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Welcome to China

I spent a month backpacking around China, and pretty much nothing reminded me of England. China was totally unrecognisable to me, and I found the culture, the people and the history endlessly fascinating. Outside of major cities, you might not meet another English speaker for days on end. I had a phrase book with me, and I spent a lot of time pointing at written characters and gesturing wildly. A particularly useful symbol to memorise is “men” and “women” in the context of toilets. Not all toilet signs have English translations, or those strangely proportioned stick figure pictures on the doors to help you out. Learning a few Chinese characters can prevent a seriously embarrassing misunderstanding.

Here are the most common toilet signs you’ll see:

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Accommodation

I stayed at hostels and guest houses throughout China, and they all had western style sit down toilets. This even included one guesthouse in Shangri-La, Yunnan, run by a local couple who didn’t speak a word of English. I haggled for a room entirely by finger counting. They raised 4 fingers, asking for 40 yuan, or about £4.

“No way!” I communicated, by making a shocked face and shaking my head.

I raised 2 fingers to counter offer (without swearing at them!) and now it was their turn to play the haggling game. Shaking their heads and exchanging dismayed looks, I imagined what they were saying:

“20 yuan! For this delightful, high-quality room! No madame, that would be an insult, you must give us 30, that’s our very best price.”

Without actually saying a word they raised 3 fingers and we shook hands to seal the deal, all smiling again.

The toilets at this guesthouse were great, and they were clearly not used to accommodating English backpackers. As long as you BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper!) you shouldn’t have anything to worry about with guest house toilets. 


Trekking

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The only guesthouse I stayed at without a sit-down toilet was in the Himalayas, a simple trekking lodge in Tiger Leaping Gorge. This was a classic trekking squat-toilet situation, navigated thus:

  1. Check out our guide on how to use a squat toilet

  2. Find your head torch, soap, toilet paper and flip flops. It can be pitch black in the mountains after sunset, with no light pollution and very limited electric lights. Using a head-torch keeps both hands free for clothing rearrangement and toilet paper use. After a full day of hiking up the side of a mountain, the mere idea of putting hiking boots back on to walk to the toilet can be painful!

  3. Set off down the mountain, away from the small circle of buildings which make up the guesthouse.

  4. Find the outlaying hut which contains a toilet. It’ll probably smell a little, but not too much, because it’s cold in the mountains. This hut contains a small hole in the ground, which is where you’ll do your business.

  5. Close the door as much as you’re able to. In this case you could achieve about 70% privacy, leaving a large enough gap that if someone stood in just the right place they could see everything. Be grateful for the dark! Or ask a friend to stand guard if the guesthouse is busy. 

  6. Squat to use the toilet, throwing used toilet paper in the bin provided.

  7. Locate the cold water tap, or bucket of water outside the toilet for a hand wash (if the water is outside the toilet, it’s for hand washing, not bum washing)

  8. Look up at the sky before you head back towards the lights. Odds are the stars will blow your mind.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is also notable for the “world’s best view toilet”. Sure, a lot of places claim this title, but this is a pretty spectacular place to use a toilet:

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Getting around

When I told a friend I was going to China for a month, he looked slightly bemused.

“What are you going to do in China for a whole month?”

Well, as I told him, China is massive, and a month is nowhere near long enough to see it all. China also contains pesky mountains and deserts which make getting around quite a challenge. If you’re planning to travel around you’re likely to experience some long journeys, which is when you’ll have the least control over your access to toilets.

China does have an excellent train network, with several different comfort levels available, including luxury sleeper carriages with pillows and blankets. All trains have squat toilets and running water on board, so you don’t need to worry about lack of toilet access overnight. (If your bladder is the size of mine, lack of toilet access at night can be a major concern!) It’s best to bring your own toilet roll and soap though, as these are unlikely to be provided. Train toilets do tend to get pretty dirty a few hours into a journey, but that’s a worldwide phenomenon.

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Typical toilet on a Chinese train. Source: Wrightbus

Further train considerations…

Remember those luxury sleeper carriages I mentioned? In August, high tourist season for the rising Chinese middle class, I came nowhere near those fabled luxury sleeper carriages. The best I could do was “hard seat” class. Imagine sitting on a wooden park bench, squashed between one man smoking and waving ash around indiscriminately and another man who periodically spits on the floor. Now imagine sitting there for 12 hours overnight, because it was the only ticket not sold out weeks in advance. That was my repeated experience of train travel in China.

Of course, the toilet experience is the same whether you’re in a luxury private sleeper or a hard seat. I just thought you should know.

Long distance buses

The train network in China gets more sparse the further west you travel, so if you head out to more rural areas you’ll probably find yourself on a bus. In my experience, long distance buses and coaches don’t have toilets on board, but they do make regular toilet stops. Of course, unless you understand Chinese you’ll have no idea when the toilet breaks are coming or how long the journey is going to be, which can lead you to hedge your bets and get up to pee every few hours. Long distance buses have a reclining seat or a sleeping pod option. If you get the pod you can lie totally flat, but it’s such as small space that I didn’t fit in on my side, and I needed to wiggle in flat like a worm, then out, then in again every time we made a toilet break.

One more thing…

Outside the main cities, very few people speak English. When catching a bus or a train, you’ll need to walk around looking at the written Chinese character for the place you want to go, comparing it to the characters you see on the front of buses or trains, so you can jump on when you find a match. No, this system is not foolproof. At one point I got off a train at entirely the wrong station and didn’t realise for an hour. Totally oblivious, I got off my train and into a taxi, having recognised part of the Chinese character displayed on the platform. A taxi driver who spoke as much English as I do Chinese happily agreed to give me a ride, then drove round in circles for a really long time, before eventually dropping me off in the middle of town with a vague gesture at a building that might have been a hostel. It was after he’d driven off with my money that I realised I had no idea what city I was in. China is an adventure.

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Public toilet adventures

China has public toilets! Public toilets are not a given in many parts of the world, so this is a very welcome situation, especially for women. However, the quality of public toilets does vary hugely, and you can run into troublesome lack of door situations….

While in China I took a day trip to a small but fascinating village just outside of Lijiang, in the Yunnan province. Prayer flags fluttered between buildings and the local Buddhist monasteries were surrounded with prayer wheels, filling the village with good karma as they spun. After a day of exploring, I was on the look out for a toilet. I’d had street food for lunch, chunks of tofu fried up in unfamiliar spices, eaten out of greasy paper while wondering the streets. This was such a spicy and delicious lunch that it was difficult to identify the main ingredient as tofu, which should be the aim of all tofu-based cooking.

The downside of eating street food? No restaurant means no toilet access. So when I came across a small building with a separate entrance for men and women, I didn’t hesitate to check it out. It was busy inside, a crowd of women standing around waiting to use the facilities. I joined the crowd inside and was immediately met with an alarming sight. 4 long troughs had been carved into the floor, narrow grooves with a walkway through the middle. The troughs had a slight gradient to them, and each one was filled with a stream of urine running down towards the far wall, where it was funnelled out of sight. It looked like about 20 people could do their business at once, with no barriers of any kind between each person. A woman pushed past me to an available space on one of the troughs. Facing the back of the women in front of her, she positioned herself with one foot on either side of the trough, pulled up her skirt and started peeing into the stream. Another woman squatted down behind her, leaving a metre or so of space between them. No one was acting like anything out of the ordinary was happening; they were just getting on with it. 

“Just think of it like a urinal,” I told myself.

“A row of urinals like what men use all the time. But with more bums on display.”

Arranging my clothes for maximum privacy, I found a spot in the corner and squatted down to pee, keeping my eyes down in the hopes that if I couldn’t see anyone else, they couldn’t see me. Looking down, I saw small piles of turds along the trough, parting the urine that flowed around them. I quickly looked up again. A child was staring right at me. So was her mum. At least they weren’t pointing and laughing. I stood up and rearranged my clothing as quickly as possible, trying desperately not to show anyone my white bum.

As I got on the bus back towards Lijiang later that day, I thought about how embarrassment is culturally relative. If all those women use trough toilets every day without acting awkward or self-conscious, then that must mean it’s not actually embarrassing… right? And anyway, how embarrassed can you really be in front of people you’ll never see again? I just hope I’m not remembered as the only tourist crazy enough to use the trough.


Let’s end on a positive note:

China is currently in the process of upgrading its toilets and sit down toilets are becoming more common. In major cities like Beijing and Shanghai you might well not encounter any squat toilets at all, let alone a trough. And if you do encounter squat toilets or a trough… well, consider it a cultural experience.

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India: How to survive 17 hour bus journeys with a micro bladder

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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!

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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!

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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

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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.

Side note:
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.

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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!

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Dharamsala, adopted home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile.

Toilet Guide: India

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So, India is quite probably the most incredible country on our entire planet. Let’s hold that thought in our heads going forwards.

India is also quite an undertaking. India is huge. India is frustrating. India is modern and ancient, holy and profound, exhilarating and infuriating. And that’s all before you attempt the considerable feat of using the toilets there.

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In case there weren’t already enough conflicting messages in India… even the bins are holy!

Writing a guide to toilets in India is a bit like writing a guide to “toilets of the world”. It feels about as ambitious. You will likely experience the full range of toilets the world has to offer in India. You could be using an impossibly posh throne of a toilet one minute, then pooping in the gutter the next. Cos, you know, it’s India. You have to go a lot.

I think of India as a micro-world; every state is like a new country. You can travel a few hundred miles in India and find that the food, culture, people, laws and of course toilets are all suddenly completely different. And everywhere you go, you’ll encounter the same tangle of impenetrable paradoxes – a sea of totally contradictory ideas which are all equally true and important and somehow all work together.

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Quick guide:

  • 70% of households in India have no access to toilets. Defecating in the open is still fairly common in many parts of India, although as a traveller you will not necessarily see any of this. The towns on the “tourist trail” all have toilet facilities. 
  • But, these toilets vary hugely in quality. You will find very basic squat toilets and very fancy squat toilets. You will find buckets in buckets and also bum guns. Ideally, read up on all of these before you go.
  • Toilet paper will rarely be provided for free unless you’re staying somewhere upmarket. So bring your own toilet paper with you. Everywhere. You’ll find it for sale in many shops and some guesthouses, but it definitely pays to pack it before you go, in case of emergency. 
  • Some public toilets give you a wodge of toilet paper when you enter. You will be charged for entry to these toilets, so have small coins handy.
  • Accommodation aimed at a western audience will likely offer sit-down toilets, unless its super cheap. Hostels that charged £3 a night tended to have sit-down toilets. Hostels that charged £1 a night usually had squat toilets. Yes India is VERY cheap.
  • Not all cafes/ restaurants have toilets. There are a lot of great places to eat hovering in the space in between “street food” and “actual café”. These set-ups generally do not have toilet facilities.
  • Public toilet facilities in most towns range from limited to non-existent. In larger towns, shopping malls will likely have toilets you can use. 
  • You can’t flush your toilet paper down the toilets in India. Use the poopy paper bin. OR learn to use the bum gun and then you will only have to use toilet paper for drying your already clean bum.


Accommodation

Toilet facilities in your accommodation will be directly linked to how expensive and fancy your guesthouse is. If you pay more for a nicer place you will very likely find only great toilets in your hotels. I paid an average of £3 a night in India, which bought me a private room with shared toilet. In this price range I often found guest houses had both squat toilets and sit-down toilets available, so you could take your pick.



Toilets on transport

India is big. If you are overland travelling in India, you will likely be in for some long journeys, either by bus or train. Domestic flights are the only way to maintain guaranteed good quality toilet access.

Travelling by train

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The train network is wonderful, expansive and just as delightfully mystifying as the rest of India.

Trains in India have toilets on board. This is very welcome news, especially if you’re planning on doing some serious train trips. I spent an enjoyable 40 hours on the train from Goa to Delhi, sipping cup after cup of chai safe in the knowledge I could pee whenever I wanted. The toilets are generally squat toilets, although you find some sit-down toilets on trains as well. That said, by the end of the journey the toilets are usually so gross you don’t want to touch anything with any part of your body or clothing. In those situations, I honestly find it easier to use the squat toilets than the sit-down toilets. Because seriously, what’s the point of a sit-down toilet if you can’t actually sit on it?

A word on balance. Trains in India are bumpy, so one issue with squatting to use the toilet is trying to not fall head over heels every time the train goes over a bump. I generally find a rail to hold onto with one hand, for balance. Like you do on the tube/ subway.

There are always sinks with running water on trains, so as long as you have a bar of soap handy you can have a proper hand wash afterwards.

Something else to note is traditionally, train tracks are a popular toilet spot in India. By squatting on the rails, you ensure a nice gap between your bum and the ground, a fact which has not gone unnoted by the Indian population…

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Buses

Buses do not have toilets on board. Nor do they make toilet stops. This is information I sorely wish I knew before I boarded the 17-hour bus to Jaipur. Lack of toilet access during bus journeys is such an important topic we have a whole post on it here!



Further considerations:

Toilets in Amritsar

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You can stay at Sikhism’s most holy place, The Golden Temple, for free. Free bed, free meals, free toilet and shower facilities. This is incredible and humbling, especially considering at night hundreds of pilgrims spread out blankets to sleep on the floor, and they still give up beds for western, non-Sikh travellers.

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The toilets are cleaned everyday by volunteers so they stay in excellent condition. Inexplicably, all the toilets have holes in the doors, just at a height where someone could comfortably stand and stare at you whilst you squat to use them. Which is just what happened to my friend Nick. So, that’s a thing.


Toilets during the monsoon

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During the monsoon, everything floods. See that street above? That was bone dry literally 20 minutes before I took that photo. I spent time in a rural village in India during the monsoon, and the infrastructure really struggled to cope with the rains. The toilets didn’t flush because the land was so waterlogged, which got really gross really quickly. Also, immediately prior to the monsoon, during the hottest and driest time of year, the wells dry up and the toilets stop flushing. So, if you will be spending time in rural areas do consider the weather. You might face a considerable period of time with a deceptively non-flushing toilet, panicking as the toilet bowl fills higher and higher instead of flushing


That’s one reason why travellers are usually advised to avoid the monsoon season!



Toilets in private houses

If you’re lucky enough to get invited for dinner at someone’s home, you might be surprised by the toilets you find. I was invited to a wonderful Diwali dinner with a local family in Southern India, and they had a very clean and lovely squat toilet in their huge house. This was a pretty well off family; they simply preferred their squat toilet to a sit-down toilet. It can be surprising for Western travellers to learn that many Indian people use squat toilets by choice, because they genuinely find them better than sit-down toilets. We also ate dinner on the floor; not because the family didn’t have a table, but because sitting on the floor is during meals is an important part of this  family’s culture. India is good at challenging your assumptions!



And lastly, don’t forget your toilet kit!

We would recommend you carry toilet paper and antibacterial hand gel with you at all times, unless you’re happy to use the bucket in a bucket to clean yourself and adopt the “left hand for cleaning, right hand for eating” system the locals use.

We also recommend bringing your own bar of soap in a soap box on your trip to India, because sometimes you just need a proper hand wash and there’s no guarantee anywhere will provide soap.

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So,  got all that? With a bit of planning and preparation, you can face the toilets in India with absolute confidence. Just remember, no matter how many plans you have for India, India will always surprise you with the unexpected. Which is why so many travellers fall completely in love with this amazing country  🙂