Cultures Differences Concerning Toilets

This information is for the purpose of educating tourists

and guests prior to their visit to Indonesia.

Do you really use toilet paper?”

This is a typical Indonesian toilet with a bak positioned at the left. The plastic scoop (payung) on the ledge of the bak is used for flushing the toilet, washing down the floor, and for bathing.

Yes, that question has been asked several times, and it shows that many Indonesians are curious about how westerners do business in restrooms. We must admit, we’re also curious about their process! Wouldn’t that be an interesting topic for a “Cross-Cultural Exchange Program”?

In the Asian mind it’s not sanitary to merely wipe. In their mind it’s much cleaner to wash with water, and for them the bare left hand works quite well for that task. The bare left hand is also a lot more economical, since you don’t have to buy toilet paper. Other benefits are that there’s a reduction in pollution caused by toilet paper, and using the bare hand is also eco-friendly (Save the Trees…Use Your Hand!).

Different Toilet Designs

Toilets in Indonesia, and throughout Asia, are quite different than “western style toilets.” If you haven’t seen them, they are nothing more than a hole in the floor with a well designed place to position your feet. It’s challenging for westerners to use them because their leg muscles and knees are not limber enough to squat properly. Asians, however, squat like that from birth, and they have no trouble navigating these toilets. In fact, you can go into stores as well as see people along the streets squatting down while they talk or work. Westerners may get down on a knee or squat like a catcher in the game of baseball, but they cannot squat like Asians.

Sign showing how to properly use a toilet. Many Indonesians never sit on a toilet, and feel it's very contaminating to do so.

Sign showing how to properly use a toilet. Many Indonesians never sit on a toilet, and feel it’s very contaminating to do so.

Toilet seat with scratches on both sides made by people standing on the seat and squatting down.

Standing on Toilet Seats

This is directions on how to use a western style toilet. It was located on the bottom of the toilet lid. There are still many who have never used one, and they feel uncomfortable sitting so they will stand on the seat and squat.

Though western style toilets are becoming more popular in Asia, Asians are not accepting them outright. You will at times find western style toilets with directions on the wall behind them telling people not to stand on the seat. But customs are hard to break, and most toilet seats are scratched up and dirty from being stood (squatted) on. The prevailing thought is that it’s not hygienic to place yourself on a toilet seat someone else just got off. For that reason it’s common to see toiled seats drenched with water, because the person before you cleaned it up real well!

This sign was in a bathroom stall in one of Jambi’s most modern hotel. It displays directions on how to use a western style toilet. It shows people that they shouldn’t squat on the toilet seat.
The sign wasn’t translated too well. It should say: “Don’t dribble urine on the floor,” or, “Don’t urinate on the floor.”

Islam and Toilet Etiquette

Being the country with the highest population of Muslims in the world, Indonesian restroom procedures are heavily influenced by Islamic beliefs. The Al Quran and hadiths list many regulations on how Muslims are to relieve themselves. Not being Muslims, we aren’t going to try to explain their beliefs in that regard. For those interested, you can do a few Google searches and get all the information you desire. You can commence by clicking this link.

Toilet Signs

There are a variety of abbreviations used to give directions to toilets, and the word toilet is very common. Signs leading to toilets and words above the male and female doors are as follows:

  • W.C.—(way say) water closet
  • W.C. Umum—public water closet
  • Kamar Mandi—bath room
  • Kamar Kecil—small room
  • Pria—male
  • Wanita—female
  • Gents—(gentlemen)
  • Ladies
  • Laki-laki—male
  • Perempuan--female

No Toilet Paper

It’s common for there not to be any toilet paper or trashcans in restrooms. That’s also common in airports and hotels. If there’s a toilet paper holder it’s usually empty because people will “borrow” whatever is remaining for later use. Due to that, it’s advised that you always carry supplies with you.  And, in the event you have an emergency and you find you forgot your toilet supplies, you can always rely on the old saying: When in Rome…

Bottom right side of this paper towel had a toilet printed on it, with clear directions for people not to throw it into the toilet after using it.

Paper Towel
The bottom right side of this paper towel had a toilet printed on it, with clear directions for people not to throw it into the toilet after using it.

We met an Indonesian college student that had studied English at the University of Alabama for 3 months. While studying in Alabama, he also had to carry toilet supplies with him. His supplies consisted of a plastic bottle of water with which he could cleanse himself after using the toilet, because there was no water available in the toilet stalls.

Indonesia doesn’t have a well-developed sanitation system, so toilet paper shouldn’t be flushed down toilets. In modern hotels there will be a small trashcan in the restrooms where you can place your toilet paper after use. If you find there are no trashcans, you will have to take your used toilet paper out with you and dispose of it elsewhere (add plastic bags to your toiletry supplies).

Most toilets are installed on 3-6″ platforms.

The Bak

A bak is a tank of water commonly found in Indonesian bathrooms. The tank holds water which is scooped out with a payung (plastic scoop). The bak water is either used to bathe with, flush the toilet and wash down the floor after you are done, and to wash your left hand after cleaning yourself.

No Sink

It is only in the very modern Indonesian restrooms that you will find a sink in the room together with the bak and the toilet. Most Indonesian restrooms position the sink outside the door. It’s common for there not to be any soap at these sinks, so antibacterial wipes and antibacterial lotion is important if good hygiene is to be maintained.

Sprayer Next to the Toilet

Some restrooms will have a sprayer next to the toilet that will help facilitate the task of washing the hand and anus. A floor drain is conveniently located in these restrooms at the side or behind the toilets.

Wet Floors

Because of the large amount of water that gets splashed around in Indonesian restrooms, these floors are almost always wet. Since it is taboo to wear shoes into an Indonesia home, you will be barefoot when you use their toilet. This will make it necessary for you to take your socks off before you step on the wet restroom floors. There’s usually a towel or rag outside the bathroom door for you to wipe your feet on when you exit. Many people will completely remove their pants and undergarments when using Indonesian toilets to prevent their clothing from touching the wet floors—you don’t know if it’s just water or something else laying there!

Restrooms in Rural Areas

This toilet was in a small shed about 20’ above the river. Everything that goes through the opening goes straight into the river. It may be possible that there are sewage treatment facilities in Indonesia, but we’ve never seen or heard of them. All sewage goes straight into the creeks, canals, rivers, and finally the ocean.
In the picture above, the blue bucket on the left contains river water with which you can clean yourself after using the toilet.

As you travel in rural areas you will be required to use a restroom at a gas station or restaurant. These restrooms will either ask for or require payment of Rp1,000 ($0.11 USD). There also may be a restroom that will have a sign that reads, “Take your shoes off before entering.” You can disobey that sign, if you care about your health. Even though there may be a janitor sitting right next to the entry to the bathroom, politely enter with your shoes on, and if you want, give them Rp2,000 instead of the customary Rp1,000. Though the money is to be used for cleaning expenses, and though a janitor is almost always sitting at the entry, we’ve yet to see one of these toilets in rural areas clean and sanitary.

Sometimes there will be no toilets on the long drives. At those times you do like the tigers and monkeys. On one trip we had a driver tell us he saw a monkey and that he wanted to stop and get its picture…as an excuse for wandering back into the brush to relieve himself! Another excuse for them stopping is by saying their radiator is overheating!

No Water

We have found many rural toilets which had an empty bak and no means of obtaining water with which to flush. When that is encountered you just do what you have to do to survive. This also indicates that people don’t wash their hands after they use the restroom, unless they have sanitary wipes with them. Toilet paper, sanitary wipes, anti-bacteria hand cleaner, and plastic trash bags are vital for travelers—unless you want to go “native.”

Bidet (pronounced “bih-DAY”)

This is one style of the bidet which we saw in a hotel.

In some nicer hotels, and in a few homes, you may encounter the bidet. This appliance has a variety of styles. The bidet we’ve seen is a device added onto a western style toilet seat which can spray a stream of “cool” water to facilitate cleansing—it’s quite refreshing!