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.

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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  🙂

Toilet Guide: Nepal

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We love Nepal. We know, we say that about every country, but the people in Nepal are seriously amazing. Every person we had the privilege of speaking to in Nepal was incredibly kind and welcoming, and just unbelievably generous. But enough about the people, let’s talk about the toilets.

Quick guide:

  • Pretty much all guesthouses in Nepal aimed at a western audience will have clean sit-down toilets, as will more upmarket cafes and restaurants.
  • Squat toilets are commonly used by most locals, particularly in rural areas. This means you’re very likely to encounter a squat toilet during your stay. If you’re not sure how to use a squat toilet, check out our comprehensive guide.
  • Bring your own toilet paper with you everywhere, unless you’re cool with using the bucket in a bucket cleaning method.
  • Plumbing in Nepal cannot handle toilet paper being flushed down the toilet. This means you need to put all used toilet paper in the bins provided. Yes we know this seems gross.

Toilets in guest houses

We found that budget guest houses in Nepal have pretty reasonable toilet facilities. Aside from the cheapest of the cheap guest houses, western sit down toilets were very common, especially in any place marketed towards a western backpacker audience. You could pay a little more for a private ensuite bathroom, or opt for a shared bathroom if your budget was a bit tighter. We stayed in a lovely guest house in Pokhara, for £3 each per night, which had a very clean ensuite toilet and shower with hot water. The sit down toilet was accompanied by a bum-gun, which seems quite typical for urban dwellings in Nepal. This price also seemed pretty typical, with many backpackers actually commenting that it was a little expensive. Nepal is a very cheap country to travel in!
Note: We were there just prior to to the devastating 2015 earthquake, but we know plenty of people who have visited post-earthquake and they assure us Nepal is still awesome.


Toilets out and about

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When out and about exploring Nepal, you can’t guarantee where your next toilet is coming from. We didn’t encounter a single public toilet in Nepal. Nor can you expect that restaurants and cafes will have toilets, especially if you plan to try the street food. That said, any slightly more upmarket place, or anywhere aimed at backpackers will likely have a sit-down toilet. If you’re very lucky, they might also have the fanciest tap you ever saw:

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So, you might only have great toilet experiences, but we do recommend you practice your squatting! It’s easy to get caught short in Nepal, and you may well have to duck into the nearest cafe to use their facilities. We found everyone was happy for us to use their toilets though, so don’t be afraid to ask.


On the road

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Travel days generally pose the most challenges for toilet access. A “travel day” is when you’ve checked out of your accommodation and are moving to the next town with all your luggage in tow. These days are when you have the least control over your access to toilets.

In our experience, overland buses in Nepal are generally great. With one notable exception (more on this later!) We found tourist buses on the main tourist routes, such as from Kathmandu to Pokhara or to Chitwan national park, to be comfortable and reliable. Tourist buses are slightly more expensive than local buses, don’t really stop to pick up passengers (except the driver’s friends!) and have larger, more comfortable seats. None of the buses we took in Nepal had toilets on board. However, these buses did tend to stop every 3 hours or so, to give you time to use the toilet and buy snacks/ drinks.

The toilets at rest stops were always basic squat toilets, but they were free, and they were private. There tended to be a few toilets available, so queuing wasn’t too bad. Running water was generally available for hand washing, but no soap or toilet roll was provided, so make sure you have your own supply readily available.

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Provided by Nick Rogen, author of the excellent travel blog A Life Unfiltered.

Some toilet stops were yet more basic; we distinctly remember one wooden shack perched precariously on the side of a cliff on the road between Kathmandu and Pokhara. These more basic toilets were again, squat toilets, and they generally didn’t have running water available for hand washing. But they did tend to have bins for used toilet paper, which avoids that sticky situation of “I used this piece of toilet paper before I realised there is NOWHERE to put it…”


Go Go Guano top tips for overland travel in Nepal:

As when travelling in any developing country, we would always recommend you carry toilet paper and antibacterial hand gel with you at all times. That is, 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 Nepal, because sometimes you just need a proper hand wash and there’s no guarantee anywhere will provide soap. 

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And finally…

Here’s a story about an interesting toilet and bus related experience Rosie had in Nepal. It explains the exception to the “buses are generally great” rule mentioned earlier… 

After Morgan went home to England, I decided to travel overland from Kathmandu to Varanasi, India by myself. This was, quite frankly a terrible idea. This 340-mile journey involved over 20 hours on buses with extremely limited toilet facilities. To put this in perspective, you could feasibly travel 340 miles in about 5 hours on good roads. It was slow going. Without Morgan to tell me what a terrible idea this was, I went into massive optimist mode, thinking things along the lines of:

Overland travel is such an enriching experience! I love overland travel. It’s so cheap and you meet fascinating people…”

So off I went.

Phase 1 of this 340-mile road trip took me to Lumbini, the fabled birthplace of Buddha in the deep South of Nepal:

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It sounded like an incredible place. But first I had to get there.

I could tell I was in for interesting journey as soon as I arrived at the bus station. As a testament to this wonderful country, my rickshaw driver helped me sort my ticket out, insisted on carrying my backpack and personally walked me to the right bus, without even expecting a tip.

The bus looked fine from the outside, but on closer inspection several things started to worry me. The seats were much smaller than an average size adult human. There was no luggage storage, so a “pile” system was created whereby everyone chucked their luggage haphazardly in the region of the gear stick. And, the journey took far longer than expected. But despite all this, I loved this bus ride for one simple reason; the people. My fellow passengers looked after me, as the only backpacker on the bus, far more than I deserved. They insisted I move seat twice, to make sure I was in the most comfortable seat on the bus. At one of the comfort breaks, I tried to buy some chai, only to find I had no change. This being Nepal, of course the vendor didn’t have change for a big note, so I smiled and said no thank you; I would get by without my chai fix. A few minutes later a local woman approached me carrying 2 steaming cups of sweet, spicy, chai. She didn’t speak English, but smiling broadly she indicated she had seen my earlier exchange and bought me a drink. We didn’t share any of the same language, but we sat and enjoyed our chai together smiling and gesturing to communicate. Nepal humbled me.

The downside of drinking chai in the middle of an all day bus ride? You need to pee.

A few hours later, my bladder painfully full, the bus pulled over for a break. But there were no toilets in sight this time. I felt fairly let down. One thing I had to learn to love about Nepal was the comfortable rest stops every few hours, with access to drinks, snacks, and squat toilets, and this more basic, local bus was not delivering.

I asked the driver, and he looked genuinely sad to tell me there were no toilets here; we had only stopped as some people needed to change bus. The bus driver took me under his wing, talked to some people, and within a few minutes, I was being shepherded into what I now realise was someone’s house, to use their toilet. I walked through their living room and kitchen, said a brief, confused hello to the family, promptly disappeared out through their back door, and into their back garden. From there I was ushered over to the family outhouse. I found a lovely clean squat toilet, and after thanking the family profusely I got back on the bus. That was it. No one asked for money. No scary situations arose involving a solo female traveller following a stranger into his house. It was just a great experience, which taught me that if in doubt, just ask for help. If you’re in Nepal, you can pretty much guarantee people will help you out.

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Unfortunately, things weren’t so fluffy and nice on Phase 2 of this trip. My final destination was Varanasi, India, and this required yet another long bus journey. Go ahead and read all about my comparatively horrifying experience here.


Planning on going trekking in Nepal?
Check back soon for our guide to using toilets while trekking!
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Wild camping in Botswana: the most scared I’ve ever been to do a wee

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Rosie and Morgan had a most excellent adventure in Southern Africa in 2016. Their main criticism of this trip was the toilet facilities were just too damn good! There were clean sit down toilets available at Victoria Falls, both on the Zambia and Zimbabwe sides. Toilet paper was always provided. The toilets in Cape Town yielded no unpleasant surprises.

We’ll have nothing to write about!” we muttered, as we encountered yet another excellent toilet.

Then we spent 7 days overland travelling and wild camping in Botswana.

We were essentially living in a big jeep, towing a trailer full of tents and food. Starting in Kasane (North East Botswana), we cut an epic route through the Chobe national park down to the Okavango Delta, pitching our tents and lighting a campfire wherever we landed each night. For the most part, there was no access to plumbing or electricity.


The camping set up

Our first night, we left the road and parked in a seemingly random spot, identifiable as a camp site only by a small sign nailed to a tree stating “private campsite”. We were surrounded by wrecked tree trunks, which the guide explained was the result of elephants pulling down the trees to reach the best leaves. This did not fill us with confidence. As we pitched our simple two man tents, our guide busied himself digging a hole a few metres outside the main camp:

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Yep, this was our toilet for the night.

It got better:

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And better:

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And better!

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They even provided toilet roll. And there were hand washing facilities:

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The ground was very sandy and loose in most places we camped, so after you’d used the makeshift toilet you simply had to kick some dirt into the hole to cover things over. There were only 5 guests in our group, and we asked if they did anything different for the bigger groups.

It’s the same setup”, our guide told us.

But if there are more people we dig a deeper hole.”

One night, we even set up a makeshift shower, using the same canvas and poles system as the toilet tent.

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The dangling bucket was filled with water, which flowed out of small holes when you turned the tap. This created a low water pressure but overall genius bush shower.

Every morning we were up at 5.30, ready to dismantle the entire camp before heading off on an early morning game drive. The canvas and metal frame came down from around the toilet tent, the seat was packed up, and the hole was filled in. When we left it was as if we were never there. 

In the evenings we set up our makeshift toilet again… and again and again. It came with us throughout Botswana, even ending up in the Makgadikgadi salt pans:

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Without the tent, privacy would have been extremely limited…

We were very impressed with this makeshift toilet, which served us well all week. But that’s not to say going to the toilet was always easy…



Wild cries and glowing eyes

The thing with wild camping in Botswana is you are full-on wild camping. You’re still in the safari parks. The exact same safari parks you saw those lions in a few hours ago, except now it’s pitch black and the night is full of noises. Botswana doesn’t agree with fencing in safari parks, and there really was nothing between us and the wild animals at night. Our guide assured us we were totally safe when we were in our tents:

To a lion, a tent is the same as a house. You’re as safe as if you were indoors. Animals will respect the tents and walk around them.”

We were dubious, but willing to trust him. Going to the toilet however, was a different story. Waking up for a wee at 3am in the middle of the African bush is frankly, terrifying. Our guide assured us we could wake him up if we needed to leave the tent at night, but being English I was more concerned about being a nuisance than I was about being eaten by a lion on my way to the toilet tent.

We were given a safety briefing our first night, and it mainly centred around what to do when you visited the toilet tent after dark.

Before you step out of the main camp area, shine your torch all around. You need to look out for glowing eyes. If you see blue or green eyes it might be a deer or a hyena. Animals are much more active at night, and also more fearless. If you see orange eyes it’s a big cat and you should NOT proceed”.

We didn’t see any glowing eyes that first night, but the sounds were incredible.

A herd of elephants walked right through our camp. As the guide had promised, they were very respectful of the tents and didn’t trample anything. Thankfully, neither of us needed to leave our tent, so we lay awake in silent awe at the multitude of noises around us. Elephants trampling, branches cracking, insects buzzing, fruit bats chirping and an indistinct haze of distant roars and cackles filled the dark night.

The strange cry at 4 seconds is a hippo, which strolled past our tent on its way to find some tasty grass. The beeping type noise is a fruit bat using its sonar.

The second night I woke up in the dark and I really had to pee. As I made to scramble out of my sleeping bag and put on my head torch, Morgan stopped me:

You can’t go out there! Didn’t you hear the hyenas?!”

I had not heard the hyenas.

We listened in silence for a few minutes, and sure enough, the sounds of whooping and cackling carried across the dark night. I had heard the calls, but I hadn’t recognised the strange noises as hyenas.

We opened the tent flap a crack and shined our torches out into the night. A pair of green eyes was staring right back at us. We even saw the hyena’s distinctive sloped back as it strolled through our camp, followed by another one a few minutes later. They proceeded to drink noisily out of our washing up bowl. 

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We stayed like that for a long time, silently listening to the African night and peering out into the unfamiliar darkness. Eventually, we decided it was safe (ish) and I crept out the tent and squatted to pee, whilst Morgan shined his torch all around in search of glowing eyes. There was no way I was doing the dark trek to the toilet tent! Leaping back into the tent and zipping it closed fast, I felt like I’d achieved something huge.


The third night lions circled our camp.

Another camper had headed out to use the toilet fairly early in the evening. We were still washing up the dinner plates when a hesitant voice floated out the darkness:

Umm guys? Lion….”

Everyone else moved towards her voice in a tight-knit group, shining our torches all around. When we reached her we saw not one but two pairs of glowing orange eyes, watching us curiously in the darkness. The guide shined his powerful torch towards the eyes, revealing two lionesses, staring at us.

We’ll be fine as long as no one leaves the group”, instructed the guide.

No one is to visit the toilet tent, it’s too dangerous.”

We were the impala herd, huddled together in a state of high alert. The lions watched us. We crowded closer together, no one wanting to appear a solitary target. Shit had just got real.

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We crept away from the lions as one, relinquishing control of the toilet tent over to them.

Cleaning our teeth meant going over to the jeep, to use the integrated water tank. Taking it in turns to stand guard while the other rinsed their toothbrush, we saw yet another pair of glowing orange eyes behind us, watching.

I don’t like this”, muttered our cook.

It’s not good when lions come to the camp like this.”

You don’t say.

So the tents are totally lion proof?” we doubled checked, as we rushed to zip ourselves away for the night.

you’ll be fine as long as you don’t leave the tent” we were assured.

Of course I needed to pee before I could sleep. Groaning, I got out of my sleeping bag and shone my torch out through a crack in the tent door, half excepting a lion to be standing right in front of me. The guide was still up, so this time, we got his attention and he swept the area before I stepped out. Like the night before, I squatted right by the tent whilst Morgan stood guard. I leapt inside as soon as I finished, my heart pounding in my chest. Morgan then confessed that he’d been needing to poop for a while, but since the lions still had control of our toilet, he had no option but to hold it until morning.

I didn’t wake up at all that night, staying firmly inside our lion-proof tent until dawn. That was definitely enough excitement for one night.


There’s nothing like the African bush to make you feel small, and between the milky way glowing above our heads and the lions prowling around us, it felt very insignificant to be a human in a tent.

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A guide to cleaning yourself without toilet paper

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So, this is awkward:

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For the average western traveller, fully accustomed to a toilet paper lifestyle, an empty toilet roll can be a major cause for alarm. But what about visiting an entire country which doesn’t use toilet paper?

“What do you mean they don’t use toilet paper?!”

You may be surprised to learn that most people on this planet do not use toilet paper at all. In fact, a whole bunch of people on this planet think you’re weird and unhygienic for using toilet paper. This is especially true across Asia, a continent which has largely eschewed paper in favour of water-based cleaning methods. For the first-time traveller, stepping off the plane in India without so much as a scrap of toilet paper in their backpack, this can be a little daunting, confusing and potentially messy.

There are lots of different methods for cleaning yourself with water, and of course they all vary across different places, cultures and religions. You can find more detail in our individual country guides, but we wanted to give an overview of the different water methods here. GoGo Guano like to divide these methods into 3(ish) groups, or what we call the 3 tier water-based system.

So what exactly is the 3 tier water-based system?

– Tier 1: the “bucket in a bucket”
– Tier 2: the bum-gun
– Tier 3: the wash-dry-toilet

Lets get into the details..


Tier 1: the bucket in a bucket

Things are pretty basic here on tier 1. There is a hole in the ground. It might be a very fancy hole, with porcelain and tread showing you where to put your feet, like this:

Or it might be, well, just a hole in the ground inside a corrugated iron shack. Like this:

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When it comes down to business, it doesn’t really matter how fancy the hole is. You use all squat toilets in basically the same way:

  1. Loosen clothing on the lower half of the body. As you squat down, you want to bunch your clothes around your knees, so your clothes don’t touch the floor.

  2. When you squat, splay your feet slightly, so your toes are wider than your heels. Have your feet fairly wide apart, to reduce the risk of weeing on your own feet. If you’re flexible enough you want full contact between your thighs and calves. This will be easier to maintain than if you’re hovering and doing a half squat.

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    GoGo-Girl demonstrates using a squat toilet

  3. Do your business. You may even find that, like most people around the world, the squatting position actually makes it easier to empty your bowels.

  4. Clean up time! Here’s where things get fun. See that large bucket of water in the corner?

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    The “bucket in a bucket” – Provided by Nick Rogen, author of the excellent travel blog A Life Unfiltered.

    It might be a cut in half plastic container, or part of a barrel. It probably has a smaller plastic container, such as a little jug floating in it. You want to use that jug to pour water where necessary, then use your left hand to wipe away any residue. Between each wipe, clean your hand again by pouring on some water. Never contaminate the jug or bucket by touching it with the same hand you used to wipe yourself with. You can also use the water jug to thoroughly ‘flush’ your deposit down the toilet hole if needed.

  5. Wash your hands. If you’re going to use your hand for cleaning, you probably want to do as the locals do and stick rigidly to the “left hand for cleaning, right hand for eating” rule. If you’re not likely to remember to do that, we recommend you carry your own bar of soap in waterproof soap box with you everywhere. You generally won’t find soap at very basic toilets, so if you bring your own you at least can have a proper hand wash afterwards.

  6. If you did bring your own toilet paper to the squat toilet party, you’ll need to consider both how you’ll reach round to wipe yourself, and the very important question of what you’ll do with your used toilet paper. Some people tend to twist up onto the ball of one foot whilst squatting, so you can reach around to clean yourself, others have super long arms or just reach between their legs. Try out different methods. If the squat toilet has a flush, you definitely don’t want to put any toilet paper in it. If it’s literally just a pit in the ground then at least there’s no risk of toilet paper blocking up the plumbing, although it still seems more environmentally friendly to dispose of it in other ways. There’s often a bin for used toilet paper if enough backpackers pass through this toilet. These bins are generally uncovered and not necessarily emptied regularly. You can be a considerate toilet user by hiding the used side of the toilet paper as you put in in the bin.


Tier 2: the bum gun

You will likely encounter these across Asia, in guesthouses, cafes and restaurants. This is an average bum gun:

They usually accompany western style sit down toilets, as an alternative to toilet paper. Bum guns can be a very useful and effective method of cleaning yourself. When you squeeze the trigger, a high-pressure jet of water comes out which can be directed where you need it. Bum guns are pretty hygienic, as you’re not using your hands to clean (whether with toilet paper or without!) They also solve that tricky problem of where to put your used toilet paper.

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GoGo-Girl demonstrates using the bum gun

Bum guns don’t dry you, so some people dry themselves with toilet paper afterwards. Be sure to put your toilet paper in the bin, not the toilet. I would always assume you can’t flush your toilet paper if there’s a bum gun present; don’t be that guy that blocks up the plumbing because they assumed it would just be fine and no-one would know. One major advantage of learning to use the bum gun is that any toilet paper you put in the bin is clean. This can be pretty beneficial in a hot, humid climate. If there’s no toilet paper bin, you can air dry.


Bonus Tier 2.5: the integrated bidet

A surprise late entry to this list, the integrated bidet is commonly found in Turkey.

flossysbidettoiletturkey

This clever system combines the familiarity of a western style, sit-down flush toilet, with the hygienic benefits of the bum gun. GoGo Guano have not found one of these in Turkey yet, but we think the idea sounds fab. We conducted an in-depth interview with a fellow bathroom backpacker as he passed through Turkey:

GoGo Guano: [In response to being sent the above picture without any preamble or explanation] “How do you use it?”

Bathroom backpacker: “You sit down.”

GGG “Does it work!? Do you achieve bum cleanliness?”

BB: “the efficiency depends on the water pressure, there’s a value to control the force. You have to wiggle around a bit”

So there you go. Expect to hear more about the integrated bidet when GoGo Guano visit Turkey!


Tier 3: the wash dry toilet

These are commonly found in Japan, and scattered across affluent Asian cities such as the modern part of Bangkok. Wash dry toilets are, quite literally, toilets that wash and dry your bum after you use them. You just sit back and press a button. Some of these high-quality toilets even let you adjust the seat temperature before you sit down. They also have separate water jets set to different angles depending on what area needs cleaning, and the water pressure is adjustable. GoGo Guano haven’t been to Japan yet, but we’re pretty sure that after using Japanese toilet technology all western toilets will seem totally primitive and disappointing.

Something else to consider when toileting in Japan is that privacy is highly valued. Japanese public toilets often have background noise options (such as flushing noises or other water sounds) that you play whilst you do your business so no one can hear you. We’ve heard tales of public toilet embarrassment, when travellers have not pressed the “flushing noise” button before using the toilet, only to have locals go out of their way to turn on the background noise, least they hear someone else pee. 

We’ve also heard that hand washing after using the bathroom is not considered as mandatory in Japan. Think about it; when you use a wash dry toilet, at no point do you touch anything gross. You only touch buttons and door handles which have been touched by other people with equally clean hands. Using a bit of paper to clean yourself can seem pretty gross to someone who’s grown up with a wash-dry toilet.

Some of our GoGo guest experts are heading to Japan in Spring 2017, so expect updates, pictures and insider knowledge then! Remember to check out our individual country guides for more detailed information.