My Lonely Planet guide warned me about the lack of public toilets in Laos. When traveling (it said) Lao tour guides use the phrase ‘shooting rabbits’ for men and ‘picking flowers’ for women, to indicate relief stops by the side of the road.
I’m glad to say that this is no longer true. During our ten day road trip through Laos I had ample opportunity to experience toilet facilities and it was always in private. Mind you, it was always on the opposite end of our Tokyo experience but it was never so crude as to be unusable.
Access to public toilets is due to the preponderance of road building. Across northern Laos we were constant victims of roads under construction or repair. Roads beget automobiles, auto’s beget gas stations and gas stations beget public toilets. In Canada and the US there is nothing filthier or more vile than a gas station washroom. So when my guide originally suggested stopping at one, I seriously thought about ‘holding on’ for another four hours or ten. However, I was unexpectedly surprised.
Laotian toilets have:
1. A no contact squat design. The ceramic squat pans are either inserted into raised platforms or raised up high on low platforms. They are normally housed in cubicles behind gas stations and roadside noodle houses. The rooms are never lit, so the first order of business, before doing your business, is latching the door and adjusting to night vision. The second order of business is putting your camera, cell phone and loose change into a bag and hanging it on the nail hammered into the wall or door frame. This to avoid any unpleasant foraging for dislocated articles during your third, most important order of business.
2. A bucket and pail flush mechanism. It wouldn’t be fair to say there is no plumbing. It’s just that plumbing is for the faucet dispensing water into a large bucket beside the toilet. In the bucket there is a pail. Use the pail to bail water, clean yourself and ‘flush’. Don’t think too hard about where the effluence is being flushed, particularly if you’re on a mountainside beside a tributary to the Mekong river. Or worse, in a long boat on the Mekong river.
3. No toilet paper. It is necessary to bring your own toilet paper. For the toilets where there is a 2,000 kip charge you can usually expect a strip of toilet paper. In any case, be prepared to bring it with you and even more prepared to take it out with you. Do not deposit paper into the toilet. It won’t flush (Refer to #2) and even if it did, it will certainly bugger up the works for the next poor soul.
4. No Smell. This was the biggest surprise. Despite the crude and rustic appearance, despite the sometimes rough and tumble terrain to access, the rural toilets were always clean and odor free. I found this out on my first try, after gamely holding my breath through #1, 2 & 3.
Western tourists have an on-going fear and fascination with Eastern toilets. Maybe because of the diversity of options and the intricacies of use. On the Internet there is certainly a lot of information to explain away the mystery. For example see http://www.thailandclimbing.com/how-to-use-a-squat-toilet
On the flip side, consider the Eastern practitioner’s first encounter with ‘conventional’, western style toilets. “Where the water bucket?” they may ask or “Why the squat so high to climb?” and “Aiyo, couldn’t the steps be a bit more wide!”
Laos. March 2016