29Nov2011

The Unspeakable Horror of Chinese Bathrooms

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Before we came to China, I thought we had bathroom chops enough to cope with anything the world had to offer. And then…

Well, then we came to China.



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Sign in a Kunming bar advising people not to poo in the toilet or face a fine.

DON’T POO IN THIS TOILET

This is the sign that greeted me in my first Chinese toilet.

I’m not joking. And nor were they.

In fact, they had even placed a grill over the hole in their squat to prevent anyone attempting to, umm, pass solids. (Not that that stops folk in changing room showers, believe you me.)

Anywise, I went down the road to the public toilet. No grilles there. Also, no paper.

But plenty of used sanitary towels, scattered confetti style. Something of a theme in Chinese ladies rooms.

Pottery toilet cum pig sty from the Xi'an museum.

SO WHAT IF THERE’S AN ARMANI IN THIS MALL?

Now, Chinese bathrooms have improved a little over the last couple of thousand years — they’re not placed over pig pens, for starters.

But not much. In serene yet urban Kunming, we explored the toilets in various local malls.

All of them squats. All of them stinking.

Many of them with a flush so under-powered that any deposit that didn’t hit the hole just stayed there, waiting for you.

Even in a really expensive mall.

Where folk continued to do their business, trousers round their ankles, while chatting loudly with the door wide open. Why?

Chinese row of toilets with no doors.

BECAUSE PLENTY OF BATHROOMS DON’T HAVE DOORS

This was what greeted me when heading for a pee in a small Chinese railway station.

The most obvious confounding factor was the absence of doors. Now, I can deal with that. I’m not shy.

On closer inspection, however, matters became considerably worse. What lies behind the non-doors is a long, communal trench, over which you hover to do your business.

How do you flush? Well, some have a flush in the cubicle at the top of the trench that sweeps all leavings down — UNDERNEATH anyone who’s unfortunate enough to be using one of the lower positions.

Others have a bucket that the attendant chucks down there occasionally.

Others, as one I used in Beijing, go for a REALLY long drop and let it all mound up.

Toilet paper sign in Chinese hostel.

AND, APPARENTLY IT GETS WORSE

I liked the passive-aggressive nature of this sign in a hostel bathroom.

But Chinese bathrooms get a hell of a lot worse than these.

There are the ones with no partitions at all. Just the communal trench.

The ones with a partition for every two squats, so that you and a friend can defecate together. (These are particularly unnerving in Beijing, where every sentence seems to end with a piratical “arrr”.)

The ones with what appears to be a flush mechanism that actually floods the floor through a tube on the other side of the room.

But the most mystifying thing of all?

Chinese cities are at least as clean as European cities. And you could eat your dinner off the bathroom floor in the average family home…

Go figure.

Where are the worst bathrooms you’ve ever seen?



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74 Comments

  1. Toni says:

    Dear god – how on Earth are you coping?! lol. They all sound truly horrific…I would have had to leave the continent =D
    Good for you haha

  2. Yvette says:

    Damn- thanks for letting me relive memories from a few months ago in China that I had no urge whatsoever to relive. :p

    The only thing your post is missing is mention of the little toddlers with slits in their pants so they can squat over and do their business on the side of the road. I guess it’s easier to just clean the streets in the morning than just tell kids not to do this?

    • Theodora says:

      Yes! I forgot how that charming rural custom had persisted in the new, modern, urban China — even in subzero temperatures, which always surprises me. We passed a guy urinating al fresco (around lunchtime) outside the Shanghai expo centre. Wasn’t drunk, just fancied a pee.

    • Ruth says:

      Side of the road? You mean the corner of WalMart! It’s a great way to save on diapers and learn how to potty train. Then they get held over the toilet and mama whistles to make them tinkle…

      • Theodora says:

        I didn’t know about the whistling! But, yes, very few places are safe from a Chinese child in learning mode, although they do all seem to wear diapers on the buses and trains.

  3. Kristy says:

    You know, even after traveling in China over the last nearly 20 years… I still can’t handle Chinese toilets. There used to be a semi-organized word of mouth group that had a list of half bad toilets that you could visit. If you could only make it to the McDonalds at X place you were insured at least a non-trench… you know that old story. Living in Beijing how I longed for a “Western” potty even if they stood on the seats and toilet paper was all over the floor. It was always better than the trench.

    • Theodora says:

      I’ve got better at it, Kristy. As in, if I need to go in a Beijing hutong I will follow the sign to the nearest public lavatory and brave it. One would think it’s the sort of thing they’d have sorted out in time for the Olympics, but it clearly wasn’t a priority. What really gets me is that in some places they’ll have really flash-looking public potties. A load of money spent on glazed tiles and woodwork. And then STILL a filthy squat inside. (But no trench.)

  4. Mary says:

    I love it, I cannot wait to see one of these trenches you speak of! That will be a fabulous day:) We are in Thailand and have seen some aweful spots, especially when you get a filthy squatter and you have a 4 year old who needs to poo and no paper on top of that. At least they have the butt sprayers everyplace here!

    • Theodora says:

      Once you get used to the butt sprays, they’re rather like bidets, I find. In that you realise how hygienic they are. Bizarrely, toilet paper is a Chinese invention. Which means they don’t have butt sprays. Or even buckets and scoops.

  5. Nikki says:

    Yuck! I though I’d seen some bad Vietnamese toilets but these sounds much worse. Scary:(

    • Theodora says:

      They make Vietnamese toilets look like the papal throne, Nikki. Infinitely worse than VN, and I do not say that lightly.

  6. Oh yeah. I have a fabulous collection of photos taken in HK and Chinese toilets circa 1997. The tram stop at the bottom of the mountain in HK had a great sign with detailed pictograms depicting the correct usage of western style toilets.

    Guangzhou zoo was The. Worst. Toilet. Ever.

    But even the best toilet in HK, at the Peninsula hotel, wasn’t really my cup of tea due to the attendant hovering outside to help me wash my hands and to clean the toilet after I used it. I found it a little off-putting.

    • Theodora says:

      THEY HAVE WESTERN TOILETS IN HK? Hallelujah!

      Not sure what my worst toilet in China is just yet. But on the public lavatory level, outside, in the snow, in subzero temperatures in Songpan was better than anything in any Chinese city. Outside Starbucks.

  7. The worst toilet I ever experienced was at the border station between Turkey and Syria about 12 years ago. I didn’t notice that the urinals weren’t actually hooked up to anything, so I basically ended up peeing on my feet. :(

    • Theodora says:

      My worst before China was one in a Moroccan guesthouse we did not end up staying in. It was a filthy squat (no surprises there). BUT they’d put the shower directly over it, so you had to stand on the foot pedals of the squat to perform your other ablutions.

  8. YIKES. what do you do if you are disabled and can’t pop a squat?

    those signs are truly priceless. and gross.

    • Theodora says:

      Disabled access in China is in its infancy. They do have ramps through the Forbidden City, eg, and I think there is one to the Temple of Heaven, but wheelchair friendly bathrooms are very few and far between. I think you would literally need to plot your day around accessible potties.

  9. Kelly says:

    I really don’t like using a CR that is very dirty and smells like Yuck! I can’t speak with it. I rather not to go to the CR for a day if this kind of CR are available.

  10. Dalene says:

    I’ve gotten awfully good at “holding it”, or dehydrating myself *just* enough so as I don’t have to “go” without causing discomfort. I hate bad bathrooms. Me and China might not get along.

    On the bright side, “We want to give you this convenience” is quite hilarious. :)

  11. Ashley says:

    Haha…the whole time we were in China I insisted on getting the private hostel rooms with a private bath. It was sooo worth it! I did start to appreciate the squat toilet after awhile though…a dirty hole in the floor is way better than a filthy Western toilet.

    • Theodora says:

      Oh god, I would never go for a shared bathroom in China. Never, never, never. I think the S-E Asian squat toilets are much nicer than China, because they have the bucket system…

  12. […] The Unspeakable Horror of Chinese Bathrooms. It’s all in the title… […]

  13. Trench toilets with friends? I don’t know if I could do that. Whether with someone I know or not! I had no idea about the bathrooms in China!

  14. Sweet baby Jesus, that’s both disgusting and hilarious! Personally, I’d rather crap in an outdoor latrine than in a restroom where me and my buddy have to sit shatting side by side.

  15. That is horrifying. Another reason that I dont want to go to China (and im half chinese). I couldn’t even pee in a public bathroom until a few years back, so I DEFINITELY could not go with no doors!

    • Theodora says:

      Most of the mall ones do have doors. But, yes, it’s not for the shy. (NOr are the changing rooms at public swimming places….)

  16. Phoenix says:

    Rural Nepal had about what you’d expect: outhouses. So while these were probably bad in their own way, you weren’t sharing it with other people, which is a plus. However, I happen to be quite tall – roughly a foot over the average Sherpa – so there were interesting problems there. Scrunching into a little ball while going to the bathroom can be hard, especially when only given a small target.

  17. Akila says:

    Yep, the worst toilets in the world. I didn’t think that Indian toilets could be topped but they were in China. It makes me totally understand why you always see the guys peeing on the street.

    • Theodora says:

      YES!!! Even when they’re, like, 50 metres from a bathroom. And, of course, the kids with their butt-flap trousers too…

  18. Justin says:

    Worst bathroom. Tijuana. And China.

    Worst bathroom in China? Pitch dark outhouse at night. Standing on two wooden slats over a giant pit. And then, in the dark, I heard movement and the bellow of a giant bull. I did my business quick!

  19. Tracy says:

    OK I’m feeling slightly less ill now about the bus station toilets in Serbia. Which apart from the communal trench sound very similar. Most don’t have working lights and we’ve discovered that’s a very good thing.

  20. This is the funniest thing I have seen so far in 2012 ;-)

  21. Laura says:

    Oh good Lord. I don’t think I could deal. So the trench sounds like what they use in dairy barns to clean up the cow crap. I can’t imagine crapping next to someone! And the toilets that don’t even LET you crap? WTF?

    • Theodora says:

      In the cities, you can always go to Starbucks. Small towns or long bus journeys? You will spend a lot of time holding it…

  22. Sarita says:

    HAHAHA my life. Every day.

    I am with NYU and we share a center with ECNU and all the toilets are squatters without toilet paper. I have classes in the same hallway as the bathroom and I hold my breath until I am safely inside. It’s horrifying. But my thighs are really strong now after all these months of supporting myself. ;)

    • Theodora says:

      YES! China is good for the thighs — you said it!

      Also for the breath holding. Though, on the plus side, I guess you can always tell where the public loos are by following your nose…

  23. Tiffany says:

    Ugh, that sounds absolutely awful… I don’t think I’m looking forward to China any more – not that I was before, it’s more of a connecting point between Vietnam and the Trans-Siberian for me!

    • Theodora says:

      China is amazing, absolutely awe-inspiring and wonderful and fascinating, Tiffany. The bathrooms, however, suck badly. There are also lovely trains in China…

  24. i can super relate to this… when we were in china, i often told my son to make sure he’s done enough pee at our hotel before we went out for a tour.

  25. I will never forget my first time in Mexico. I went with my father and I needed to use the little girls room. I went into the bathroom by myself, there was about a 2 foot gap between the stall wall and the back wall of the room.

    Totally shocking to me!

    • Theodora says:

      We had a very special one in Indonesia. One where you just pee onto the floor and then sluice it away with water. I don’t know what you do if you need to pass solids. But China definitely the worst.

  26. Lindsey says:

    I had a similar experience when I was in China last summer, but the trick is, carry toilet paper with you (charmin makes travel friendly rolls) and try to snag the handicapped bathroom! those are almost alwayssssss western style.

    • Theodora says:

      I am, personally, a fan of wet wipes. Which, given we’re now in Egypt, I may well have to invest in again.

  27. Allyson says:

    Your article gave me a good chuckle. After spending a month in China, I totally agree they are the worst! I took photos of a few of them, but some were so bad, I knew they should be never seen again, in a photo or otherwise. Thank goodness for Starbucks and their clean washrooms!

  28. Jack says:

    Sadly, Chinese restaurant staff never wash their hands after using the paperless toilets. Which is why two week diarhea is so common for Eoropean visitors.

    • Theodora says:

      Really?! We had not so much as a single tummy upset over almost three months in China. Which could just mean that our immune systems are adapted to Asia, I guess…

  29. John says:

    Worse toilet experience was in Huangshan. Squat toilet filled to the brim with bright red blood and a turd floating on the top. Subsequent users had not wanted to shit in the hole for fear of AIDS-ridden splash back so had shat all around the footplates. 4 star hotel too. Oh, and yes, they still do the plank over the pig sty thing. Or they did in ’99. A german fellow student fell into one near Yangshuo. She actually left China because she was so traumatised by the experience. Did anyone try to sell you trinkets while on the trench? Has happened to Kate a couple of times. Doesn’t happen in the men’s loos. Homophobia perhaps.

    • Theodora says:

      No!!! Not in a four-star hotel, tell me no… That is beyond horrific.

      Nobody has ever tried to sell me anything on the trench, thank god. I have that to look forward to, I guess.

      I think my worst was in the Kunming luxury mall, just because it was unexpected — I was new to China and therefore figured that anywhere with Louis Vuitton and the like would have functional potties. And every single one of the ladies was a) a squat and b) full of horrible, horrible leavings.

      Are you in Beijing over Xmas or heading back to civilisation? Would be great to catch up…

  30. I have only one word for this… AAAAhhhh!

  31. Alfred Ramirez says:

    Well, spending two months in Shang hai, and Shian. Nothing can prepare you for public restrooms. Carry tissues and just tell your self you will be home soon and really appreciate western bathroom culture. I’m lmao at all comments because they are all on the money. Squats are tolerable, the trenches with no doors with no privacy and collection of thousands of turds stench in the air make for a MasterCard priceless commercial. The kicker is due to the very nature of the restrooms THEY NEVER GET CLEANED. Just imagine . Welcome to china .

    • Theodora says:

      Yes! Mind you… You always think you’ve seen the world’s worst bathroom and then another comes along to surprise you. There’s one on the way up Mount Sinai in Egypt, where they’ve installed a Western throne but without any plumbing (because it’s up a mountain), in a kind of bamboo and palm lean-to. That was quite distressing, actually. Even in the dark. Especially in the dark…

  32. Tracy says:

    The public toilets located at Chinese borders are beyond description. They would require a high pressure, sustained blast from a fire engine to remove the build up. The absolute worst though was where a public toilet could not be used (even by the Chinese) as it was simply impossible to find a space to place your feet, so instead a nearby abandoned building was used. I can’t begin to describe what that experience was like…..

  33. After 14 months of living in Shanghai, I’m still not over the horrific smell. I can block out most everything else by now, but the smell emanating from the bins where all the dirty paper and sanitary pads are thrown – I still have to hold my breath. I haven’t come across any trenches yet, thank heavens. The Western hotels are usually my go-to choice – most have decent facilities in the lobby.

    • Theodora says:

      That is a VERY good tip, thank you. I remember the loos in Shanghai being infinitely better than those anywhere else we visited. Even the ones in post-Olympic Beijing.

  34. Aidan juop says:

    really i would wonder do men and ladies share a bathroom!!!!!!!!!!

  35. Aidan pooooooooopoli says:

    i like that

  36. bob says:

    no awnswers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  37. Phoebe says:

    Oh wow, this relived some memories for me. I travelled in China nearly 20 years ago and I’m amazed it hasn’t got any better. The 2 worst for me were a border crossing with Vietnam where it was just a concrete slab behind a wall about 1.5m high with no pumbing what-so-ever. Everybody just did their stuff on a spare part of the floor and left it (welcome to China! My first minutes in the country!!) and a trench in a hostel in Beijing. No doors like you said, but I hadn’t hoisted in just how foul it was until someone “upstream” from me was clearly having her period and blood came flowing down while I was doing my stuff! God, the memories! I’ll never forget and your post has brought them all rushing back. Should I say thanks??!!

    • Theodora says:

      I think it *has* got better, probably. I’ve never come across a trench in a hostel/hotel: even the dirt cheap place we landed up staying on our second night in Harbin had a squat and kept it clean. But it still can be really quite dismal. Definitely the single worst country for bathroom surprises I’ve ever visited, not least because the surroundings are often so posh.

  38. ChezzaAU says:

    omg, reading the comments here I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry lol The 2nd pic posted takes my first prize lol I also experienced squat toilets in Venice (well, they were so close to the ground users had to squat). Good idea when entering a squat toilet is to leave handbags, coats etc with someone so your hands are free ;)

  39. Shade64 says:

    Just disgusting – no words can describe how absolutely foul these people can be in this area of hygiene – an NO I am not racist.I’m a Caucasian Australian, and I live with 4 young Chinese people, and 1 Indian guy – and the Indian is by far the winner in the toilet hygiene & etiquette! I am 50 y/o and have lived with many races, in all types of social-strata, and yet in particular, Chinese urine/feces gets me every time. I have never smelled anything quite like it, and will often go to the mall to do my thing so that I don’t have to smell it. It really is the worst thing I have ever had to smell period. I can take the smell of dead bodies over it – it is THAT bad. I would never go to China – not in a million years, if it can be this bad in another country! Sheesh..

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