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10 International Toilets

A toilet is a toilet, right? If you don't get around much, you might be surprised to know how different they can be.
A toilet is a toilet, right? If you don't get around much, you might be surprised to know how different they can be.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

It's the one spot in every home that all members of the family use on a regular basis, from California to Dubai. Culture, custom, habit and convenience all dictate a society's notion of what defines a "toilet," even though this humble household item is often taken for granted. We do what we do where we do it, with little ado, due to the toilet's unassuming quality in our lives. It's hardly any wonder, then, that so many folks are startled when encountering their first foreign toilet. Chances are, you might be surprised at some of the international toilets, both public and privately maintained, that the world has to offer a weary traveler.

Across the globe, the toilet has evolved within sets of specific cultural traditions. Since each country has a different concept of hygiene, access to disposable paper and water availability, our body's most natural functions have been dealt with in a variety of ways.

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Despite complaints about airline bathrooms, plan an international excursion and you may find that the airplane toilet was the last vestige of your hometown bathroom expectations. But you'll also find that the world offers a myriad of ways for one to "get down to business." Forewarned is forearmed, and so, world travelers, brace yourselves for a tour of international toilets.

A standard-issue American toilet, freshly cleaned and disinfected, complete with a fresh roll of toilet paper.
A standard-issue American toilet, freshly cleaned and disinfected, complete with a fresh roll of toilet paper.
Photos.com/Getty Images/Thinkstock

Despite being a country known for bravado and volume, Americans are pretty persnickety about their potties. Despite a bewildering array of nicknames for their toilets, Americans tend to expect just one image when they enter a bathroom on that primal errand, the call of nature: a white, porcelain commode about 16 inches (40.6 centimeters) off the ground, complete with rim, seat and easily located flusher, accompanied by a nice fresh roll of fluffy toilet paper.

Indoor plumbing and the basic commode have been in style throughout most of the Western world since Thomas Crapper helped popularize the water closet in the late 1800s. Perhaps that's why even a rural outhouse in the United States tends to have a raised seat and a handy magazine or two. Also, portable toilets, always popular at construction and other work sites, may be chemical toilets and contain odors that should not be described in polite company, but they're still pretty familiar to the Western eye.

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Hygienically, however, some travelers object to placing their bare behinds on an unknown (however shiny and porcelain) rim or seat. The bowl is filled with water (though Americans are decreasing water consumption with increased use of the more "green" dual-flush commodes) until the flush, so splash-back can and will happen from time to time.

Prevalent throughout the world, the squat toilet is a likely stop if you sight-see anywhere without a McDonald's on the horizon. The pit you're squatting over might be different, but the concept is pretty basic. From a sanitary perspective, only your feet, on either side of the hole, are going to do the dirty work. Your tush touches nothing, though in Peru it would be wise to keep an eye out for sloths. For the last 25 years, they've been camping out in local squat spots, feasting on nature's leftovers [source: Walker].

Toilet paper is an issue with squatters based on what the squat drop falls into:

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  • train tracks
  • a pigpen
  • the ocean
  • sewage pipes
  • pressurized flush system
  • a hopefully very deep hole

Sometimes there will be toilet tissue, though outside Europe and the United States, it can be sandpapery in quality and often comes with a price tag [source: Style]. If none seems available, you should start looking around for a hose, spigot or little red bucket [source: Whitehorn]. Be brave and don't complain, because medically, the squat toilet is just as good for your intestines, if not ideal for completing the Sunday crossword puzzle [source: Rane and Corstiaans].

Bidets may sit next to toilets, or the functionality can be built into the toilet itself.
Bidets may sit next to toilets, or the functionality can be built into the toilet itself.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Don't be startled by water faucets appearing in unusual places while abroad -- many International toilets have bidets units built into the otherwise humble commode. From Europe to the Middle East, many countries favor bidet toilets due to cleanliness values and scarcity of disposable paper products. It's important not to use toilet paper if none is offered -- plumbing and waste management are handled differently across the globe, and you don't want to back up a sewer or irritate the locals. The three bidet toilets you're most likely to encounter are these:

  • Standard bidet toilet -- Like modern, Western toilets, and found from Europe to Japan in urban areas. They feature a little nozzle or button literally right behind you, built into the bowl, requiring you to just lean forward. Flush as usual.
  • Shower/toilet combos -- In many Eastern parts of the world, this is a smart way for folks to save water -- the water nozzle (a shower head or hose) will be built into the wall above the actual toilet, which is often a squatter. Just aim for the drain-like hole in the floor and don't get fancy.
  • Spigot and bucket -- Found mostly in rural and under-developed areas from Egypt to Taiwan, these work similarly to shower/toilet combos, but sans hose. Instead, you get a red bucket to be filled from a spigot and then poured over your unmentionables .

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Bring change if you aren't hitting your hotel for a while in Paris and other metropolitan European cities. Using the sansinette is going to cost you (usually less than $1, or equivalent). Also, bring your cell phone -- in Finland you must send a text message to the National Road Service to remotely open a pay toilet [source: Cellular-News].

These pay toilets are usually clean, most being sanitized automatically as soon as the door shuts upon each exit. Many are on timers, so you shouldn't loiter or the door will unlock on you and cleanser sprays will emit from vents in the walls. Also don't try to toilet hop -- trying to save yourself a few extra coins by jumping into a pay stall that's just been vacated will only end in tears -- probably literally, since you'll get doused with disinfectant at the same time as la toilette.

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The toilets themselves tend to be Western in style, though often the water tank is above your head or even built into the wall behind you. Further, the flusher can be difficult to locate, often nearer to the sink than the commode, so look around. Many of these toilets are descended from models where the entire toilet flipped back into the wall upon commencing of the cleaning cycle and then hosed out automatically before being flipped back in. Very James Bond, though it's hard to picture 007 on the can.

The golden throne at Hang Fung's is meant to be admired, not put to practical use.
The golden throne at Hang Fung's is meant to be admired, not put to practical use.
Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

Many Asian countries have a serious investment in toilet culture, as highlighted with the World's Most Expensive Toilet. Also, why else would Taiwan boast a very popular toilet-themed restaurant [source: Tso]?

No one beats Japan for sheer ingenuity and determination in the field of comfy cans. From the gentle Toto to models that feature body scans, warmed seats and remote-controlled seats, Japan is the place to head for luxury latrines [source: AFP]. They are mostly traditional Western designs, though, and all the bells and whistles are found in private homes, rather than in public areas. Fortunately, these charming chamber pots are available for sale online, so if you start feeling lonesome for the joys of a high-tech toilet, just click your mouse two times and repeat, "There's no place like Japan!"

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Public urinals like this one are popular in Europe.
Public urinals like this one are popular in Europe.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Nothing like the fresh breeze on your backside as you water the tulips, right? This next type of toilet really only applies to the fellows, but everyone should try to stay alert when a public pissoir is within shooting range. Open-air urinals are becoming more wide-spread throughout Europe, many quite modern and sensible in design, though there are some lovely antique designs to be found in larger cities. [source: The New York Times].

From a sanitation point of view, these accommodations really assist in keeping the streets clean ... and dry. Apparently they enjoy a great deal of patronage as well, and most are free. The trend has spread, too. An artist took the idea and ran with it, as seen in his two-way mirrored toilet creation outside the Tate Modern in London [source: BBC]. Additionally, the largest open-air toilet facility recently opened in Beijing, showcasing Chinese urinals, Eastern squatters and Western toilets all in one communal place [source: Associated Press]. Who says we all can't just get along?

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Sometimes you can't find a toilet when you need one. And other times you'll find them in places that are quite remote.
Sometimes you can't find a toilet when you need one. And other times you'll find them in places that are quite remote.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

There are toilets built for speed, for utility, for profit and for sheer comfort. And then there are toilets built for no discernible reason other than to keep tourists from urinating off mountain sides and into pristine water -- which is a pretty good reason. Or perhaps they're built to give everyone something to post on Facebook. Either way, these toilets are built in such remote locations that they serve to remind us all of the bodily harm that must be risked for some bodily functions.

The stilt toilets of San Bias, Panama, as well as the bamboo toilets in Papua, New Guinea, are rickety but make complete sense, what with the ocean sweeping away tides of tinkle. The port-o-john in the Swiss Alps seems like a practical joke rather than a practical facility. And Australia claims the highest toilet in the world [source: Hildebrand]. Also, due to uncalled-for calling cards all over the pristine mountainside, there's now a toilet topping Mont Blanc in France. Not for the faint of heart, and not for anyone traveling with jokesters, nor for anyone with a fear of heights -- these toilets could potentially scare the mess out of you!

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Airplane lavatories aren't necessarily luxurious, but they're there for you when you need to go.
Airplane lavatories aren't necessarily luxurious, but they're there for you when you need to go.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

You probably didn't travel halfway around the world to sit in your hotel room, so it's important to know what to expect when using the loo on the go. Trains, buses and airlines will usually be equipped with some kind of bathroom, though toilets differ depending on your location and how modern the mode of transportation is. For instance, most airplanes have a Western or American-style commode, built into the back wall of the restroom, and these flush using a vacuum rather than water.

Trains are still popular for transportation globally, and while most trains will certainly have facilities, the type of toilet you end up with on board will tend to reflect whatever the local toilet tradition is. So while travelling through India or parts of rural Thailand, it's likely you'll find a squat toilet, sometimes leading down to an exhilarating view of the tracks flying by, though some are quite nice, especially if you can afford a first-class ticket [source: O'Neill]. Subways aren't quite the same as traditional trains, so be prepared to use the toilet facilities normally available in the station. Reviews of the cleanliness regarding such facilities don't tend to be favorable, and in many parts of Europe and Asia, these stops will still cost you money. Try to think ahead. Finally, be aware that older trains may not have on-board toilets in every instance, so be prepared to do your business before a lengthy trip!

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Here, finally, is a way to help Americans stop consuming so much bacon: pig toilets. Throughout parts of Asia, toilets of the basic squat variety have an ingenious chute which leads to a pen of hungry pigs. Ecologically sound in principle, this toilet cuts down on wasted toilet tissue as well as water usage. Further, there's no messy clean-up (unless you're a pig), and it saves on having to buy or grow food for the pigs. No matter how adventurous you're feeling, though, don't order that ham sandwich.

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The great Austrian father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, said, "A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get into accord with them." He would likely approve of the toilet popular throughout Germany, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands: the shelf toilet. A tiny dry, porcelain shelf sits aloft in each toilet bowl, perched daintily above the water level, allowing everyone a chance to consider their elimination's complexities before flushing. This charming shelf exists for no other purpose than speculation of fecal production as the design doesn't save any water; the same amount of water is required for flushing as is needed for non-shelf toilets [source: Spiegel Online International].

While finding your offerings left high and dry might surprise you at first, the basic model is a Western commode and one firm flush will whisk all the evidence down the drain. And if you, like Dr. Freud, enjoy a thorough examination of the self, then certainly this toilet is for you.

For more on toilets, plumbing and related topics, take a look at the next page.

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