HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Potty Mouth

Disclaimer: If you don't like reading about bodily functions, this post isn't for you.

Southeast Asia is a region of incredible diversity: there are dozens of ethnic groups to meet, dozens of languages to hear, hundreds of unique dishes to try, and natural landscapes ranging from utterly perfect beaches to rugged mountains. Where else can you find diversity in Southeast Asia? Well, in the bathroom, of course. Blessed with a bewildering array of toilet designs, you can never be sure of what to expect when you first open a bathroom door. Fortunately, Vietnam has, by and large, caught onto the idea of Western-style toilets, much like you would use in a house in Europe or North America.

It can be relatively easy to find such toilets in certain parts of other countries in the region, but oftentimes you will get the classic "squat" toilet, where you, well, squat over a hole in the floor and hope nothing splatters too much. Amazingly, even in incredibly modern places, such Kuala Lumpur's sparkling international airport, you can find such "toilets".
Having to use one of these is a terrible experience; I recounted one of my worst encounters with a squat toilet in one of my posts about my trip to Malaysia back in December. I do, however, understand why such toilets are popular: they are very easy to make, and it's just what a lot of people here are used to.

Something I don't understand, though, is the omnipresent "butt gun". This is like a tiny super-soaker, attached to the plumbing system, that you are supposed to squirt up your butt after you pass a bowel movement. Not only is this unpleasant, it just doesn't work. A jet of water does not do as thorough a job of cleaning as toilet paper. I realize that most sewage systems in Southeast Asia aren't equipped to handle TP, but an easy solution (if not exactly the most environmentally-friendly) is to throw it in the trash can, something we've all gotten used to here. I've yet to figure out how an entire continent fell in love with something that leaves you dirty, dripping wet, and unhappy after you use it.
An evil contraption.
Just as important as the type of toilet you use, is how often you use it. Now, before I came to Southeast Asia, I was never a big fan of openly discussing my toilet creations. Oddly enough, I was surrounded by people who were, namely my roommate from the first two years of college, who frequently updated me on the size, color, and frequency of his turds. (Bill, I don't think you read this, but I'm looking at you.)

Today, however, I have, along with all of my friends, become a "poo person", to borrow an elegant phrase from my roommate Allison; willing to have lengthy conversations about everything from constipation to diarrhea. It's understood that we've all had the same problems, so there is no shame in talking about the toilet you ruined the previous night. In our house we even have a communal bag of flaxseed, which is loaded with fiber, so we all know someone is stopped up when we see them sprinkling a handful on a piece of toast, or maybe some fruit. I've been fortunate enough to not have any recent issues, but my friends that visited Saigon last week did, and that gave me a chance to reflect on some of my dearest bathroom memories from my time in Southeast Asia thus far.

Everyone has an "adjustment period" when they first arrive here; a time where your stomach gets used to the drastically different types of food and methods of preparation you encounter in Southeast Asia. The length of this period varies from person to person, mine basically ended when I left Cambodia. The entire group of trainees that I was in Cambodia with experienced problems. Some could barely eat for days at a time, while others, like me, would be miserable for a couple of hours, and then fine the rest of the day. Apparently, I developed a knack for having digestive problems at moments that, though horrible at the time, made for great stories later.

For example, one morning I was on a 6am run along the river with two of my friends when my stomach suddenly said, "Dude, you need to stop." So I did, and turned around to head back to the guesthouse. After a few more steps I realized I was stuck with two equally bad choices: I really had to go, but running back would probably have, to put this delicately, pushed the matter beyond my control; while walking back would be less rough on my stomach, but would also take longer. I decided to walk, and nearly ended up just crapping on some grass anyway. (In Phnom Penh, not something that would be looked at as strange, actually.) Luckily, I made it back to my bathroom just in time.

My most epic bathroom story, and one that will be hard to top, took place in Siem Reap, the day we toured Angkor. I had had pad thai for lunch, and all was going swimmingly. I was exploring Angkor Wat, one of the most incredible man-made structures on the planet; a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. The tour was just finishing, and as I started to walk across the magnificent entrance pathway leading into the temple complex, lunch hit me like a freight train. I had to go, NOW.
Running across this, about to crap myself: not one of my finer moments
So, I took off across the walkway towards our guide, who was standing under a tree to avoid the monsoon that was about to start. I asked where the nearest bathroom was, and he started to amble towards it to show me where it was. I begged for him to hurry, but my sense of urgency was not getting through. So, I asked him to point in the general direction of the building, and started sprinting. By now, it was simply raining buckets, and I ran up to every building, desperately yelling out "BATHROOM!!! TOILET!!!", much to the amusement of the locals, who kept pointing me to the next building. Finally, I found the place with the toilet, ran to the back, and threw open the door...only to find one of the most disgusting bathrooms I've ever seen; it looked as though someone had given a dozen monkeys a few bags of shit and let them go crazy. I had no choice, though, so I practically ripped off my pants and kind of hovered over the toilet. (A Western-style one, amazingly.) My business taken care of, I disposed of my underwear which had, ah, become a little dirty, and returned to the group feeling as free as Kramer. That story has become somewhat of a legend amongst some of my friends, so I don't have any intentions of topping it. Amazingly, I recovered so quickly from that disaster that I was able to eat crocodile for dinner the same night.

So, one lesson from my seven-odd months in Southeast Asia: When the mood hits, you just have to hope that you're in range of a bathroom with toilet paper, otherwise your next few hours are going to be miserable. This post wasn't meant to deter anyone from visiting Southeast Asia, so I really hope I didn't do that. This is a fabulous region, home to some incredible things. Bathrooms, however, aren't one of these incredible things. These countries still have a loooong way to go when it comes to the number of public restrooms and amount of toilet paper on hand. Until they catch up with the West, you'll just have to accept that, someday, you might have to sprint out of Angkor Wat, ready to blow. I just hope it doesn't happen to me again...


  1. I like a blogger who's not afraid to admit he POOED HIS PANTS. Great post.

  2. Hey, it happens even to the best of us.

  3. When I get back to the UK, I'm installing a 'bum gun'. There's certain, sticky situations where toilet paper just smears. Sorry mate, but I'm a convert.