Stories from Cambodia: How Not to Use the Loo

The Loo. The Privy. The “Facilities.”

They are essential, universal, a fundamental architecture that binds us all. Yet their design and methodology can vary widely across the nations. The private (and therefore mysterious) nature of said functionality can leave rookie travelers feeling bewildered and anxious…and can lead to some serious and extremely comical errors. (Where is the paper? What do I do with this chain? Where do my feet go? WHAT IS THAT FETID LIQUID POOLING ON THE FLOOR?)

I have relieved myself in slimy mudholes in Central Asia and in a s**t-strewn alley in (then) Soviet Georgia. I once had a lengthy, profound discussion about the Siege of Leningrad with an elderly Russian bathroom attendant. So I felt somewhat prepared for whatever Cambodia might offer in the way of toiletdom—architecturally and socially.

There were, however, a few surprises. And critical mistakes.

Case in point: Chantha and I were staying in a basic guesthouse in this rather remote village:

I had possibly had a beer or two by the riverside that evening, so things seemed especially eerie and magical to me just then. So when our host gestured towards the facilities, behind the guest house, my main focus was a certain concern, shall we say, about passing in close proximity to the rear of a couple of oxen to reach the special showering zone. Despite the late hour, the oxen were feeling a bit playful, and I kept imagining those big clocking hooves landing on my chest as I eased by.

Fortunately, our host (the famed noodle maker) found me cowering under his house and escorted me safely past the livestock. Behind the house, I found this:

<flummoxed silence>

What to do?

Chantha laughed, then schooled me in the art of showering via large clay pot: dip and pour, dip and pour. It was quite peaceful there: cows abided, a piglet squeaked, constellations glittered. The cool shower was delightful after a hot, dusty village day, and I toweled off with my trusty checkered krama. And then I wondered how to approach my next…task.

Was I expected to leave my small gift right there, on the slab next to the clay pot? Should I step gingerly into the mud first? This is, after all, a barnyard, I reminded myself. Who will notice a little more? Still, I felt a bit edgy about doing the deed right there in the noodle maker’s back yard.

I felt even weirder about it later that night, when the beer called me from beneath my mosquito net to empty my bladder again. In the yawning blackness. In the company of large animals.

I’ll admit to being a bit alarmed, and to wondering whether I was supposed to be urinating in this man’s yard, in a small village, in a country of modestly-clad souls. But it was not an optional affair.

At 3am, the roosters started their rehearsal, and the noodle maker set to work. A little after five, the dawn joined them. I stretched and headed back to the barnyard behind the house for morning ablutions.

There by the clay pot, shining in the morning light , was a door hanging ajar. And just behind it, there stood a gleaming porcelain toilet.

<pause for laugh track>

This was a comic, if understandable error: there I was, crouching at midnight in a thicket, wishing the moon would shine a little less brightly, and wondering what may have crawled or slithered there. It was a time of reflection—on mosquitoes, exposed bums, and dengue fever. On my ridiculous fear of darkness and livestock. On how to respectfully dispose of toilet paper in remote Cambodian villages. We’d faced these questions earlier, in the nearby home where we shared dinner with a family. No toilet existed there; in fact, this shining monument to civilization before me may have been one of the few in all the village. There wasn’t much reason to expect a toilet, and so in not expecting one, I found none.

We so often get what we expect; which is why travelers should try to expect anything, and nothing. (Insert Spanish Inquisition joke here.)

Here’s something else I didn’t expect: that Cambodian toilets would almost universally come equipped with a minor improvement so useful and logical that we in America should immediately adopt it. Please see the following photos, a roundup of privies I encountered in my travels. What is the common factor?

I ask you: Why do ALL toilets not have a kitchen sprayer wand installed next to them? Nearly every bathroom I found, in hotels, homes, and restaurants, had one. I don’t think I need to go into detail about the perfect utility of this simple innovation, which I assert that we should adopt immediately, in bathrooms across America.

Sometimes, admittedly, the “facilities” we encounter while traveling can be a bit intimidating. (As are, we must admit, some of them right here in country.) Sometimes they’re downright scary. Occasionally, they may even be life-threatening. But every once in a while, the unwitting traveler may actually discover something new in the Wider Lavatory World that surprises pleasantly, and not horrifically.

For me, the Sprayer Wand Innovation was that lovely surprise, worthy of my very own Home Throne. #CallAPlumberNow

Magic wand!

Related post: On PooMy friend Claire’s extraordinary excretory experience…in China

Related post: Images of Cambodia: The Noodle Maker

14 thoughts on “Stories from Cambodia: How Not to Use the Loo

  1. Awesome post. In india, traditionally one does not use toilet paper, but rather uses a hose to wash (or rather a bucket of water and 1 hand in the less plumbed areas). Thus the tradition of the clean hand to eat with and the unclean hand for bathroom business. Nowadays in most somewhat citified areas one finds both hose and tp–although I always carry tp with me just in case.

  2. Once thought of writing a book about the world’s lavatories (subset, methods of flushing). Don’t know why I didn’t. You tale took me straight back to the Camargue and a BIG DECISION – bare feet or ruined espadrilles. Thank goodness the Med was near by.

  3. When traveling through France, I sometimes took pictures of toilets. I used to joke (sort of) that I would write a book and call it *50 Ways to Flush a Toilet.*

    I love your cultural observations, Kim.

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