Personal Hygiene Tips from the Developing World

vitruvian_man-001One thing American’s dislike about traveling to developing countries is dealing with other, presumably lesser, standards of hygiene. After two weeks in Cambodia I not only got used to how this poor country deals with bodily functions, I came to believe that in many ways, their habits are superior to ours.

Toilets.  There are two kinds of toilets in Cambodia: ones that look like ours, and ones that look like an upside down rabbit face, otherwise known as squat toilets. Toilets that resemble ours are easy, we sit on them just like we do back home, do our business, and hear a satisfying swoosh when our waste slides into the water.

Squat toilets are less obvious. A ceramic rectangle sits flush with the floor. It has a single round hole and a pair of ovals defined by a raised ceramic bump.  We turn to face away from the wall and put our feet into the ovals that resemble the rabbit ears. Then we squat and deposit our stuff in the void. It’s a bit unnerving because you’re not sure how much flight your projectiles are going to enjoy.  Sometimes you hear them land with a definite thud and try not to picture what they landed on. Other times they descend without a sound, in free fall forever.  As I child in New Jersey I imagined things falling deep into the earth sprouting up in China, but in Cambodia, I envision myself fertilizing a Florida orange grove.

The biggest challenge with the squat toilets is what to do with the clothes that dropped from your waist. A conventional toilet bowl keeps them out of the way, but when you’re squatting, your clothes can drift back and catch, well, stuff that smells and stains. It’s ridiculous to take your pants and underwear off, there’s never anything so useful as a hook in a Cambodia toilet stall, if you’re lucky enough to even be in a stall. Instead I developed a new yoga pose.  Drop to a full squat, then place you hands between your thighs, grab the back of your belt and pull your clothes forward. It’s actually a cool balance, but I don’t recommend showing it off in public.

So far nothing I’ve described seems superior to the way we go to the bathroom in the good old U.S. of A. The improved sanitation occurs after release, when our custom is to grab a wad of thin paper and smear telltale remains all over ourselves. Without the luxury of toilet paper, Cambodian toilets come equipped with a small spray hose that you aim and shoot.  Instead of rubbing it in, you wash it out. Think about it; it’s a much better way to go. The first few times I did this I worried about wetting my clothes, since no one that can actually see where they’re spraying except maybe a contortionist from Cirque du Soleil. But the spray hoses are accurate and reliable and humans have a sixth sense for strategic body parts.  After a few successful hosings, I realized how much cleaner I felt after a spray than after a wipe.

One word of caution.  You can’t spray and go.  You must linger in your squat for a few moments to let things dry out. Otherwise you might make a telltale squeak as you walk away.

Once finished, and dry, you stand up straight, rebuckle your pants, and realize another nice thing about taking a dump in Cambodia.  Your hands remain relatively clean; they never get up inside of yourself. However, it’s still a good idea to wash them, and here again Cambodia has figured it out better than us.

Sinks. The American standard is to use the toilet, leave the stall, wash our hands in a sink that has either a reliable faucet or demonic sensor control, dry our hands, and then open the door to exit the public bathroom. What’s wrong with this picture, as anyone who’s ever witnessed the pile of paper towels right next to a public bathroom door can attest, is that we wash our hands and then immediately touch a door that thousands of others touch.

I never saw a public bathroom in Cambodia with a sink in it.  The sinks are outside the rooms. You do your business, fix your pants, open the stall door and the main door, and there’s a sink, maybe even a vanity and a mirror, in an alcove. Once you’ve washed your hands, there is nothing more to touch.

There are so many things to love about Cambodia. The country is beautiful, the food delicious, the prices cheap, the people delightful. They love Americans.  But I also applaud their sanitation habits. They may be unusual, but they’re hygienic.

140211 Restroom sign in Battambang, Cambodia

Cambodia also has cool restroom signs

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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2 Responses to Personal Hygiene Tips from the Developing World

  1. Gale says:

    In Paris, the delightful home of public urinals, that bathroom set up in cafes or restaurants is that you enter an alcove (not a room with a door), which is unisex, in which there are sinks and one or two urinals. Then you have two doors to enter stalls with toilets. So what’s really fun is men and women both get to walk past a man at the urinal on the way to the toilet. Toilette, whatever.

  2. Greg says:

    While visiting Paris in the 1970s, I experienced the “Turkish toilet,” as labeled by the French. It was simply a hole in the floor, without the helpful features you experienced. Perhaps the Cambodian toilet is French-inspired, and today we might even find examples of it in rural areas of their once-colonial European rulers. Your facility with words, Paul, makes your posts about Cambodia delightful; being someone aware of politics, I’d like to think you could paint a promising portrait of their human rights and governmental scene.

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