I’ve talked about various aspects of travel in this blog but I’d like, if I may, to discuss a rather indelicate topic that I have so far avoided - toilets. Travelling around the world you encounter all sorts of facilities, from those best described as basic to those which are positively palatial. Some years ago a friend, who - as I’d like him to remain a friend - had better remain nameless, introduced me to someone in a pub as, “This is Bob. He likes shitting in a hole in the ground.” In his defence (or maybe not) he was already pretty drunk when he got there but he was also completely wrong. I had just returned from trekking in Nepal where for the entire duration of the six day trek I had suffered chronic constipation. The simple fact is that I find the hole-in-the-ground squat toilet almost impossible to use unless I have something to hold onto or lean against. In all my travels I don’t think I have ever managed the trick no matter how desperate the situation has become. Mind you, the extreme reaction at the end of the trek when I was again in a hotel with a western toilet made both me and the management very happy that the design of the bathroom meant the toilet and shower could be used simultaneously. Sometimes I suffer for my travel.
The worst facilities I ever came across - and the squeamish should stop reading now - were in a tiny village in Southern China. We were on our way to Laos and when we came across a village with a little café we stopped for lunch. The food was fine. The café was overwhelmed by the simultaneous arrival of fifteen or so hungry lao wai. The villagers were bemused by our presence among them.
Enquiries revealed that the only toilet was the three-walled, roofless stone structure about a hundred yards away. Exploration revealed that none of us would have been capable of using it. The toilet consisted of a hole about a foot square that was overflowing with a hideous, writhing mass of inch-long, thumb-thick maggots. I managed to get out without being sick. Others failed the trick.
You shouldn’t, however, get the idea that this is true of all Chinese facilities. I recall a very odd incident on a previous visit, in a nice hotel near Guilin where we went for dinner and a musical show. In the interval I went to the toilets which were modern, clean and decorated with lots of glass and marble. I only wanted the urinal and I was standing there going about my business when I realised that something strange was happening at my feet. I looked down to find a little old man in a blue uniform polishing my shoes. I was completely at a loss as to what to do, so I did what any Englishman would do and pretended that he wasn’t there, finished, zipped up my trousers and went to wash my hands. We had been cautioned by all our guides that tipping was illegal so I didn’t but I couldn’t help wondering which petty official he had annoyed so badly that he had been given such a demeaning job.
Mentioning the décor of that toilet has reminded me of another, this time on one of the islands off Thailand. I was on a day tour of the islands and went to a pretty good one for lunch. Lunch was served al fresco on the beach and afterwards I went for a wander along the sand. There was a sizeable tourist village there and it had lots of facilities including a number of toilet blocks. When the need occurred there was one handy. I went in and was startled by the murals painted all over the walls. They depicted scenes that, if better executed, could have come from the brushes of Bosch or Bruegel. Naked women cavorted with hideous demons in frenzied sexual activity. It’s the only occasion in my life when I have been prepared to risk people misunderstanding my intent by taking pictures inside a toilet!