Thainess Part 8: Bathroom Basics

When I moved to Thailand some 18 years ago, many of the public toilets — even those in more touristy areas and shopping malls — were quite bad. I can vividly remember my first use of a squat toilet when an alternative was not possible. It was on the overnight train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Not only did I have to balance myself over the hole with the tracks racing by beneath but to do it on a swaying train was a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, I did my business without mishap (removing all of my clothes so as not to make a mess) and at this late date consider myself a squatter-pro.

While I have not seen a squat toilet in Phuket in quite some time, outside of large cities they remain quite common. Squatting does take some balancing skill. To use the toilet, step onto the foot pads. Stand with one foot on each foot pad and make sure your bottom is aligned with the hole in the toilet bowl. Pull down whatever you’re wearing below your waist and squat. Let nature take its course.

Afterwards, you need to clean yourself. There will rarely be any toilet paper in sight so you should carry your own for such occasions. Moist towelettes (wet-wipes) are highly recommended as well. Your toilet kit should also include a plastic bag to put these into as you should never put these into the toilet basin (just as you should never put toilet paper in flush toilets here either). In my experience, there is rarely trash bin within the squat toilet stall so you might need the plastic bag to carry your rubbish until you find one.

Adjacent to the squat toilet will be a basin of water with a plastic bowl or ladle floating on top. Do not use this to cleanse your nether regions but to flush and rinse the squat toilet itself. Use the bowl to scoop up some water. Then aim at the hole in the toilet bowl and pour water into it to flush. You might not succeed on your first try, but don’t stop until everything is gone. Be careful not to cause a “super splash” and make a mess. Also, please take a minute after scooping to use the faucet above the bucket and refill the water. The customer who follows you will appreciate that small act of kindness.

If you still are not sure, have a look at Wiki-How’s illustrated guide on using a squat toilet.

The other option found is your regular old flush toilet. Sometimes, you will have the option of both a squat toilet and a sit-down toilet. Amazingly enough, most public restrooms will have signs within the stall explaining that you use the latter by sitting on the ring, not standing and squatting on it! If you use toilet paper, remember that the used paper is never to be flushed. Most plumbing isn’t designed to handle paper; it will clog the toilet and things will get nasty fast. Most of the time, there will be a small trash bin in stalls with flush toilets and toilet paper.

Most accommodations such as houses, apartments, hotel rooms, etc. as well as an increasing number of public restrooms feature a spray hose sitting next to the toilet. We usually call this a “bum gun” and it’s used instead of toilet paper. Before using an unfamiliar sprayer, I recommend giving it a quick test to determine the velocity of the stream of water first. Just spray it into the toilet bowl before taking a seat. Once you are ready, lightly squeeze the trigger on the handle and the hose will spray water wherever you aim. Make sure your aim is true or you may soak more than your intended target. After you have finished your business, you can use a bit of toilet paper to dry yourself or just shake your bum like a dog if you forgot your toilet kit.

I’ll admit it. I am a big fan of the bum gun as they can be used for much more than just the intended use. Have a look at Chiang Mai Family Guide’s Top 8 Uses For Bum Guns (Toilet Hoses) if you don’t believe me. (I’ve done five out of the eight.)

These days, most of the bathrooms I’ve encountered here have been relatively clean. In the malls and other public areas, the cleaning ladies often will remain inside and clean up any accidents rather quickly. This does include the Men’s rooms so be forewarned. Many of these cleaning ladies are friendly and will greet you when you enter and cheerfully send you on your way after you’ve finished. Don’t feel that you need to give them a tip, however, but I have seen some customers do just that.

Speaking of money and toilets, those in certain areas such as long-distance bus stations and entertainment areas will have a little table outside of the toilets where an admission fee is charged for using the facilities. The cost is usually 5 baht or so which certainly isn’t much to pay for a clean restroom. In fact, about the only places I have seen in recent years with disgusting messes have been inside of local schools. In the vast majority of public restrooms you might encounter in Thailand, the worst may just be an overly wet floor.

Finally, be aware that there are rarely either wheelchair accessible bathroom stalls in anything outside of westernized shopping centers nor are you likely to find baby-changing stations in the vast majority of Thai restrooms other than in the fancier hotels.


Again, I distinctly remember my first encounter with a rural shower in Thailand. I had gone to Kamphaeng Phet (north and west of Bangkok) to spend a holiday with the family of my (now) ex-wife. They lived in a tin-roofed wooden ramshackle building, pieced together from salvaged materials over time, close to the river shore. The entire family slept in one room on wooden platforms raised above the sandy ground while chickens and all manner of other creatures scurried below and above.

I was okay with all of that but the bathroom was something else altogether, all precariously balanced on an ever-shifting sandy slope. The shower was just a huge water barrel (filled by a flue coming in from an exterior wall) with several small buckets floating around inside. There was no real door to the bathroom, just a sheet hanging across a large hole and different family members would enter without warning whenever I tried to shower (or sit upon the toilet). The first farang (non-Asian foreigner) many of the relatives had ever seen was quite the curiosity! I quickly got the hang of showering in a sarong.

Most foreign visitors will never experience such situations (which is a shame when you really think about it) but you will find that there is rarely a separate shower cubicle in any bathroom in Thailand. Instead, the bathroom in normal homes is tiny (usually just a wash basin and a toilet). The showerhead itself is on the wall right next to the toilet or washbasin. There is no curtain to close off the shower from the rest of the bathroom and, you’ll notice after you turn it on the shower drenches the entire bathroom, including the toilet and washbasin. Expats generally call this a “Thai style shower”.

When using such a shower, you quickly learn to make sure nothing is in the bathroom that will be harmed once you turn on the nozzle. Clothing and your towel should be hung up somewhere that will not get wet as well. More and more homes have a small water heater next to the showerhead; mine doesn’t but I have gotten used to cold showers over the years. When it isn’t rainy season, the sun heats up my water pipes on the outside of the building so I can experience a few seconds of hot water if I take a shower in the late afternoon or evening!

These are still much preferred to the water barrel showers as I mentioned above. Plumbing in many areas of Thailand is still not modern so you may encounter a water tank or basin in the bathroom along with a bucket or ladle floating at the top. The bucket is used to sluice water over the body. Don’t use too much soap or shampoo to lather up or it will take more effort in pouring water over your body numerous times to get it completely soap-free. Also, make sure that the suds are all washed down the drain so the next person to use the shower doesn’t slip on a soapy floor. Don’t forget to refill the large water basin for anyone wishing to take a shower after you.

In areas where outdoor bathing is the norm, women will don a cotton sarong or wraparound, and men will bathe in their underwear.

I have to say that “toilet adventures” remains a popular topic amongst Thai expats and tourists alike and there are even websites that list the locations of “decent” toilets around the country. At its worst, however, I never found anything in Thailand nearly as bad as some of the truly horrendous toilets I found in rural China. It makes my skin crawl just to think about those….

One thought on “Thainess Part 8: Bathroom Basics

  1. Pingback: Sunday Summary #9 | Mark Joseph Jochim

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