Foreign Toilets Are Nothing to be Afraid of

Me with ancient Roman toilets (in Herculaneum, Italy)

The first time my husband Michael and I were considering traveling to Southeast Asia, I made the mistake of watching some of those scary YouTube videos showing how “primitive” the public toilets there can be.

I’ll admit it: I was traumatized. I’m pretty finicky when it comes to toilets. TMI alert, but I may be the world’s only travel writer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

But three and a half years later, having lived in Southeast Asia, and many other non-Western countries, I now know that those YouTube videos don’t tell the whole story.

First, if you’re an American, here’s what you’re likely to find in other countries:

What fresh hell is this?! A squat toilet

Okay, that’s the bad news. And it sounds pretty grim, right? Especially to a would-be traveler who is used to a completely different kind of toilet experience.

But I’m here to tell to the rest of the story — the “good news” — which will hopefully put your mind at ease.

Look, here’s the real takeaway. Going to bathroom is the most natural thing in the world. The most truthful words ever written might be the title to that children’s book, Everyone Poops.

And come on, there is absolutely nothing truly strange or embarrassing about the way any culture on Earth goes to the bathroom. Understanding and accepting this is called “being an adult.”

But part of being an adult is also understanding and being sympathetic to people’s embarrassments and feelings of discomfort. When it comes to toilets, the only villains are people who are deliberately cruel toward others. Honestly, that might be in true of everything in life.

The point is, most people are surprisingly understanding about other people’s discomfort.

And the bigger picture? What seems strange in a YouTube video won’t seem that strange in that time and place.

Yes, there may be a couple days of trepidation, and maybe a moment or two of embarrassment. But then you’ll make a mental leap, much the way you did when you learned to use chopsticks.

You’ll think: Oh! This is just another way of doing something I’ve always done.

Context matters. Indeed, context is almost everything. It will all feel much less strange when you’re actually there. Just act like everyone else.

Play it cool and go with the flow.

And I say this as someone who is not an especially play-it-cool and go-with-the-flow kinda guy. The fact that I’m writing this article at all hopefully proves that.

Whatever you do, don’t let your fear of or anxiety about foreign toilets keep you from exploring the rest of the world. Because these places with “strange” toilets? They’re some of the most interesting on Earth. And they’re inhabited by some of the nicest people.

Trust me, the guy with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. You’ll be just fine.

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Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author, and one half of a gay digital nomad couple. Free newsletter:

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Brent Hartinger

Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author, and one half of a gay digital nomad couple. Free newsletter: