Bathrooms in SE Asia

(Nota Bene: This post will not be particularly gross or anything, but it will discuss toilets.  So, avert your eyes if you sensitive.)

The traditional toilet in Southeast Asia is not the kind that Americans are used to.  Rather, the traditional toilet (at least in Indonesia and Malaysia) is a hole in the floor with two footprints next to it.  The idea is that you put your feet on the footprints, squat, and do your business.  For us as Americans, it’s really not our favorite experience.  It’s really the squatting part–unless you are very flexible, it’s not really that easy.  Very hard on the knees, you know.  And it’s also kind of difficult if you are wearing pants.  Just try it, you’ll see what we mean.  In fact, we have not really figured how to make sure that you don’t get a little messy without just taking off your pants entirely and hanging them somewhere.  Maybe that’s the explanation for the breeziness of local clothes, sarongs and stuff.

We should note that such toilets are not particularly Southeast Asian.  I (TP) have seen them in Turkey and even in Greece.

Interestingly, for all of our discomfort at using them, many people in Malaysia and Indonesia are uncomfortable using the Western style of toilet.  We had never given this much thought before we came here, but it is kind of gross to let your legs rest on a toilet seat.  I’m sure that all of us have felt the need, some time or another, to lay down a little toilet paper liner.  So we’ve had some silly experiences.  For example, most bathrooms in Malaysia have one of each kind of toilet: one Western, one local.  When the Western one is occupied, we have a dilemma, because we’d normally just prefer to wait until it’s free rather than use the local kind.  So unless it’s an emergency, we normally end up just hanging out in the bathroom looking like fools while locals come and go.  What is really silly is when Malays do not want to use the Western style.  JM, being a woman, has more experience at this than I do…you’re more likely to get a line in a ladies’ room, you know.  It ends up that both she and a Malay woman will be waiting for a toilet, neither one wanting to use the one that the other one wants to use.  (Also complicating matters is the fact that here women line up for the particular stall, and don’t have a general line like we are used to in the States.  So it becomes quite a guessing game because the different stalls are not labelled.  If you get in the wrong line, you lose!  -jm)

OK, but here’s the funniest part.  Sometimes a local will use a Western toilet like a local toilet, squatting while perched precariously on the seat.  This leads to very very dirty, and scuffed, toilet seats.  In the bathroom at UM, there’s a funny sign.  (Can’t take a picture, no cameras allowed in the library.)  It says, "Please do not stand on the toilet when using, you might fall and break the seat and your head."  That’s classic.

Comment 1

  1. James June 13, 2005

    Haha! You toilet story is funny. It reminds me of old times. I think the squat seats are better, since as you pointed out with the standard-seated variety, you don’t know what the last person stepped in before he stood on your seat. At least with the squatters, you all stepped in it and nobody’s sitting on that thing. All my Western friends in HK complained about the discomfort of using the squatters–especially on the ankles. I think a lot of people ended up squatting on the balls of their feet, rather than setting their heels down. Frankly, I’d prefer not to fall over, so I always opted for the more stable position. But I think a lot of Westerners people who aren’t used to the position can’t put their heels down (some weird balance/flexibility thing, I guess). Is that what you were complaining about re: the discomfort?). I think there’s a pretty direct correlation between putting your heels down and making a clean getaway, since a squat with you heels up does leave you poised to “get a little messy,” as you put it.
    The weirdest thing, though, is switching back to Western toilets after using squatters. The latter line up you insides in a way that makes the whole process seem easier. When I got back to the U.S. and had to use seats (after using only squatters for months) it was harder to get the job done.

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