The Squat Toilets and I

A typical squat toilet. Photo credit: Vinny Owen.

A typical squat toilet. Photo credit: Vinny Owen.

— By Katerina Barton —

I’ve used squat toilets before. I’m not a newb to the concept. I used many of them three years ago when I was traveling through Southeast Asia and I even used one when I was traveling through Eastern Europe this past summer. They’re not what I would call the ideal toilet situation, but when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.

The quality of public toilets in Indonesia leaves something to be desired. Some people won’t touch public restrooms in the US, although most restrooms there have a toilet seat, toilet paper, soap, towels/hand dryer, a trash, a door, you know, the essentials. So the differences can sometimes be great, but the cultural differences between bathrooms are what really take some time getting used to. For example, in the US you might question why everything is wet. In Indonesia you know why everything is wet; Indonesians like to keep their bathrooms doused in water to make it feel “clean”.

This is sometimes an uncomfortable concept when you are required to take off your shoes and step in who knows what, or who knows who’s what. Restrooms are usually small and sparsely decorated. Most bathrooms, if they have a squat toilet or a manual-flush toilet, have a bak mandi (a receptacle that usually holds water to flush the toilet). Some places have a western toilet, or a toilet that you sit on and it flushes with a handle.

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Two examples of toilets at my church in Kendari. This one is a typical squat toilet with a built in tile bak mandi.

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This is a typical no-flush toilet, in which you have to use the little bucket to scoop water into the toilet bowl to flush. Two to three scoops usually does it!

Using a squat toilet can be a sort of precarious balancing act. If you have a backpack or purse, forget about it. Even worse, if you’re on your period, God help you. If you’re lucky you can hang your purse or backpack on a hook or the doorknob, otherwise you can hold your bag or try to find the least wet corner to toss your things.

For the most part toilet paper is not provided in the bathrooms, and even if you bring your own, most Indonesian squat toilets are unable to handle tissue in their plumbing. So your next option is to find a trash bin, which is only provided about half the time. Some bathrooms, especially ones out in rural areas just have a small hole in the floor of a small closet-sized room — or sometimes there’s no hole at all and you are expected to pee on the cement floor. Number twos are a strict no-no.

Yes, I dread using the squat toilet at school, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. I put on my fighting face and head for the dark, dank bathroom in the corner of our teacher’s room. There’s no light bulb so if it’s a particularly overcast day it’s sometimes hard to see. But there’s always the perpetually wet floor below my bare feet to look forward to.

Maybe I’m still stuck in the stages of denial. I sometimes bargain with myself: “If you make it home today, you can have another one of those coffees that you love.” Or pleading: “Please make it home, please do not drink any more water today!” But maybe I should start looking at it as an extra opportunity for exercising my glutes and thighs…

Being the graceful person that I am, I fell into a squat toilet a few weeks ago.

What prompted me to write this post was a particular day that caused me a mixture of embarrassment, pain, and a bruised ego, among other bruised things. Being the graceful person that I am, I fell into a squat toilet a few weeks ago. Now it didn’t happen the way you’re probably picturing — it wasn’t completely and utterly disgusting, just a teeny-tiny bit.

I was in a newly remodeled bathroom, so everything was quite clean, and extra slippery when wet (why is everything made of slick tile here??). And this particular squat toilet was elevated above the rest of the bathroom floor, which I argue made it even slipperier, you know, because of aerodynamics… Anyway, I was just about to squat down when my feet slipped from under me and I fell backward, semi-into the porcelain mini-throne with a crash. I had also knocked over a soap holder on the nearby bak mandi.

I could hear my teachers in the next room giggling and exclaiming, “Hati-hati!” (be careful!). I silently prayed they didn’t know that I had slipped and fallen while using the toilet. With a bruised ass I got up and tried again. This time I was careful to place my feet on the grooved foot holds provided. Normally I would have given up, but I really had to pee! When the mission was accomplished, I replaced the soap holder and I tried to casually walk out of the bathroom like I hadn’t had my rear-end stuck in a hole in the ground.  

Not too awful of an experience really, but it’s made me doubt my squatty potty technique. I’ve used a squat toilet probably a few dozen times by now and I really thought I had it down: feet shoulder length apart, squat low, try not to pee all over yourself. Simple.

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My toilet in my home in Kendari. I’m pretty happy with it! I don’t need a bak mandi to flush so I just use the bucket to catch water since I don’t have a sink.

I’m actually pretty jealous of the boys here in Indonesia. They have an easier life in many ways, but by far the most important is that they only have to squat for half of their bathroom time.

Sometimes in my yoga pose from hell I think about how this cannot be sanitary — but then is any bathroom really all that sanitary? It’s funny to think of the differences in culture, especially ones like this. Squat toilets are actually the preferred type of toilet here, people are used to them and enjoy them. I’ve had a fellow teacher want to go home early from an event because she didn’t want to use the western toilet provided. Even the public restrooms that have western toilets have directions with pictures so that people don’t try and climb up on them like a squatty potty.

It’s supposed to be a more natural way to pass your number ones and twos, in addition to preventing certain colon cancers in men. But despite all that, I am still very very very happy and thankful to have a normal (western) toilet in my bathroom at home. But hey, at least I’m getting some squats in every other time. 


Katerina Barton is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMAN 4 in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi and a Co-Editor for Indonesiaful. She grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico and recently graduated from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas in 2015. Ayam Pangsit is the only thing that has rivaled her obsession with breakfast tacos. You can follow more of her graceful adventures on her blog at katelivingabroad.wordpress.com.

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2 thoughts on “The Squat Toilets and I

  1. I can understand why western who never have to use squat toilet cringe when they do have to, but that’s not the reason why I’m writing..
    When I lived in US, I found out the reason why Americans ‘suffer’ when they have to use squat toilet, hence the yoga pose. That’s because Americans (at least the ones I know), don’t know how to squat properly for toilet purposes. Squatting for toilet purposes is different from squatting in sports. The key is to put all your soles of the feet firmly on the ground, don’t squat on your toes. if you feel like falling back, keep your balance by leaning forward. I usually put my elbow or lower arm on my knees. This way, it’ll be easier to squatting for longer time…

  2. Thanks for sharing Katerina. How spoiled we are in the US to not have to use the ‘squatty potty’; but each culture is different, and there is a norm in each country. We can all learn from your experiences, and maybe get some stronger quads?

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