The other day, while travelling by train in England, I visited the bathroom. On the lid of the bowl was the following sticker: “Please don’t flush nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet”.
Which I thought was absolutely fabulous. I mean, who knew that toilet’s could have a sense of humour?
Then a few days after that I went to check out the Shard, London’s newest iconic building, that looks like a piece of broken glass plonked down on the south bank of the Thames. At 306 metres high this is supposedly the tallest building in Western Europe, and the views from the top are quite magnificent. London’s world-famous attractions are neatly laid out in front of you, as far as the eye can see.
But the highlight for me was a visit to the Shard’s public conveniences on the 68th floor. Because for reasons known only to the designers of this building, these toilets occupy a prime corner of the floor, and thus have some of the best vistas in London. Each lavatory is located in a private cubicle with a full floor-to-ceiling window. From the comfort of my seat I enjoyed an uninterrupted panorama of the city, gazing out across a bend of the Thames, over the top of London Bridge, with the Tower of London on one side and St Paul’s Cathedral on the other. A poo with a view, if you will.
All of which led me to thinking: visits to the WC are something we all do, every day, including while travelling. Yet this is possibly the single most uncelebrated of all travel activities. But as I thought about this important subject a little bit more, I realised I have had my fair share of memorable toilet experiences on the road, many worthy of sharing. So here they are, my global Toilet Top Ten.
One: Great World City, Singapore
About twelve years ago, shortly after moving to Singapore, I visited an otherwise unremarkable suburban shopping mall known as Great World City for the first time. There, I was pleasantly surprised to find the men’s public toilet was decorated with an assortment of Da Vinci-esque murals and carvings and sculptures, with a bit of an African theme. You know, giraffes, zebras, lions – that sort of thing.
Subsequent visits revealed that the public restrooms on each level of the mall – men’s and women’s – had a different theme, in salute to a different part of the world. So at Basement Level, I found myself peeing in King Tutankhamen’s tomb, complete with hieroglyphs on the wall and carved columns alongside the urinals. The doors of the cubicles in the Wild West bathroom resembled saloon bar doors; there were clogs on the doors and tulips on the walls in the Dutch-themed toilet; cherry blossoms and kimono-clad Geisha’s decorated the Japanese style loos.
Even weirder than the toilets though were the associated rules, Singapore having a tendency to adopt slightly heavy-handed laws in the name of good civic order. Like a ban on chewing gum, and public caning of graffiti sprayers (see my previous post My Filipino Harem). And Singaporean public toilet etiquette is no exception, the long arm of the law reaching out to find you even in the privacy of a locked cubicle. Because if you make use of a public toilet in Singapore you are required by law to flush. Failure to do so could result in a hefty fine, imprisonment or a caning. Police are authorised to conduct random flush checks, and believe it or not, regularly do.
So next time you are in Singapore and hear an unexpected knock on your cubicle door, remember to be polite, as it might be the start of an impromptu flush inspection….
(Note: runner-up in the category of decorated conveniences, by the way, is found in a restaurant in Camden, London called Gilgamesh. It has gilded faux-gold toilets replete with sculptures and statues, reminiscent of what a lavish public bathroom in Ancient Babylon looked like. Assuming, of course, that anyone in Camden, England, circa 2014, has any idea whatsoever of what a lavish public bathroom in Ancient Babylon actually looked like.…)
Two: Kawakawa, New Zealand
I think it is safe to say that there are two toilet-related statements that you don’t often hear: one, “our public toilet is the top tourist attraction in town”; and two, “our public toilet is an internationally recognised work of art”.
But in the case of the small New Zealand town of Kawakawa, both of these slightly odd statements happen to be 100% true. This is because Hundertwasser, the most renowned Austrian artist and architect of the last century, chose to see out his old-age there. And as a thank-you to his adopted Kiwi home, he volunteered to design the local public facilities.
These bear all the hallmarks of his unique style – bold colourful tiles laid out in irregular mosaic patterns; crazy columns that look like strings of vertical beads; and a roof top made of living grass and plants. It is truly marvellous to see, even if it is slightly surreal when busloads of tourists descend en-masse simply to view the toilets. Even more surreal is when some of them (ahem ahem) feel the uncontrollable urge to leave their mark on the art. But c’mon, seriously, how often do you get the chance to pee all over the exhibits in a museum?
Three: Melbourne, Australia
If the idea of usable toilet art appeals to you, then Melbourne’s Horse Bazaar Pub will be well worth a twinkle. Concerned with ensuring that the pub’s patrons never miss any of the action, this innovative sports bar has invented what they claim is the world’s first RPU, or Rear-Projection Urinal. Which is, basically, a 20 metre long water-proof TV screen that makes up the wall of the urinal, and onto which your favourite rugby, cricket or soccer game is projected. So that taking a bathroom break does not necessarily mean having to take a viewing break.
Plus, as a collateral side-benefit, should your team be losing, this wonderful contraption provides a unique way of expressing just how you feel about their performance…..
Four: Everywhere, Germany
Question: what do you do post-poo? Answer (if anywhere in the world): finish your business, flush, wash your hands, and move on. Answer (if in Germany): stand up and inspect your handiwork.
You see, in the land that brought us beer, bread, sauerkraut and sausage, the typical German apres-poo pastime is to rise up and admire your latest creation. This is made possible because, as I once discovered to my utter horror in Munich, toilets in Germany tend to have an inbuilt inspection shelf in the bowl. Kind of like a tray into which you can lovingly drop your stool, allowing it to float in a little puddle of water so it can be closely inspected.
And which, I am told, is something that those ever conscientious Germans will routinely do, noting down things like colour, shape, and consistency for the sake of maintaining their inner health. Presumably the advent of cell-phone cameras means anything questionable can now also be instantly sent off via email for further medical consideration. Remember that next time you feel inclined to ask your German friends: “how are you feeling today?”
Five: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Amsterdam is a city that really comes to life at night, what with its famed coffee shops, red light district, and dance clubs. Consequently, in Amsterdam the need for public conveniences seems to increase with the lateness of the hour. Wouldn’t it therefore be a great idea to have a public urinal that is buried underground during the day, but then pops up to street level at night, when it is most needed?
Hey presto – the $75,000 Urilift is born. This two-metre high stainless steel cylinder, divided into three door-free urinal compartments, lives below ground by day, so that all you can see of it is a circular plate that looks a lot like a manhole cover. But then at night an operator hits a switch, and a super-duper set of hydraulics slowly raises the whole contraption out from the earth, like an alien creature rising from its subterranean burrow. Once fully erect it will then stand guard all through the night, ready to serve Amsterdam’s party crowd, before disappearing at first light back from whence it came.
Basically, if you saw fit to crossbreed a public toilet with a vampire with a James Bond gadget, these magical disappearing urinals is what you’d get. The best thing to come out of Holland since tulips, Edam cheese and Rudd Gullit, if you ask me.
Six: Paris, France
Finally, completing our round-up of odd Euro-toilets, who could overlook the French, bien sur. We all know that the Frogs tend to take a slightly more pragmatic approach to many things in life (consumption of fat; drinking of wine; ménage-a-trois, etc), and urination is no exception. Thus for decades the public pissoir was a common feature all over Paris – a contraption whereby men could duck behind a small metal screen to quickly take care of business. Never mind that in all other respects this was no different to taking a leak on a public sidewalk, in full view of anyone who just happened to be passing by. Grandmas and young children included.
Sadly there are no pissoirs left in Paris these days, as they have been slowly replaced over the last twenty years by high-tech enclosed toilet pods that miraculously clean themselves after you’re done. But when I visited Paris for the first time in 1990 there were still plenty, and I remember how bizarre I thought it was to wander around town and see men’s heads poking up above the wall of a pissoir, as they happily chatted away to friends on the other side while they relieved themselves. And I remember just as clearly how bizarre it felt when I finally worked up the courage to try it for myself. A unique sensation of excitement and embarrassment and liberation, all at the same time…
Seven: The Edge, Nepal
Also in the category of “letting it all hang out” was the amazing pissoir I encountered when on the road in India, where I got to enjoy the entirely uncomfortable experience of peeing on a wall while watching my lunch being killed and prepared on the other side of it (see my previous post The Dead Chicken Restaurant). Not to mention the odd little public toilets scattered all around rural New Zealand, for use by hikers and cyclists. They look a lot like Hobbit Huts, which I’d say is a case of people taking the whole “New Zealand is Middle Earth” thing a little bit too far (see my previous post On Sheep and Hobbits).
But the clear winner in this category is the small outhouse I used one afternoon while trekking in Nepal, about twenty years ago. It consisted of two rickety wooden boards, side by side, surrounded by a flimsy corrugated metal screen. To do my business, I had to slowly inch my way out onto the boards, like a pirate walking the gangplank. Then, using every ounce of flexibility and balance I possessed, I had to squat down, one foot on each board. Offending matter was thus free to plummet into a big open pit, swarming with flies, about ten metres below. But one small misstep, and so would I. This therefore being the only time that visiting the bathroom gave me an instant case of not just nausea, but fear and vertigo as well.
Eight: The Golden Throne, Hong Kong
At the very opposite end of the spectrum is the world’s most expensive toilet, being a bathroom where everything – taps, sinks, toilet bowl, bidet, etc – is made entirely of solid 24-carat gold. It is to be found in a high-end jewelry shop in Hong Kong, although like the Parisienne pissoir this one may have now gone the way of the dodo. Apparently in the last few years, as the price of gold has steadily risen, the owner has dismantled much of the bathroom and sold the gold, netting a profit of around $20m.
(This, coincidentally, is roughly how much the most expensive toilet in human history cost to create – US$19 million for the commode on the International Space Station. It comes complete with a special fan system that sucks everything up into a processing unit, and then filters it thoroughly before returning it to the astronauts as drinking water. Waste not, want not, as they say…..)
Nine: Japan – one weird toilet loving place
So we eventually come to the Land of the Rising Sun, a nation so toilet obsessed it has sought to elevate the whole subject to a science. As evidenced by the prevalence of “smart toilets”, to be found in most high-end Japanese hotels and restaurants, not to mention on every level of Tokyo’s Daimaru Department Store. I mean, why limit a toilet to just being a doo-doo receptacle with a flushing mechanism. How about adding an automatic lid and paper dispenser? Maybe also a temperature controlled seat? And while you’re at it, throw in a nozzle that will wash your private bits, and a blower that will then gently dry them once done.
But wait, we’re not done yet – there is so much more you can do with a toilet! Like add in a console that allows you to select from a variety of musical tunes, bird chirps, or flushing sounds. Plus a device that sprays an assortment of customisable scents into the air, changing the olfactory experience from putrid to pine with the flick of a switch. Not to mention the added option of in-built medical sensors, in the seat, so you can measure your pulse, blood sugar and body fat levels while you do your business.
But the ultimate example of Japanese toilet insanity is the Toylet, a public urinal that has been installed at various spots around Tokyo by Sega, the same company that makes the Playstation. Here, the entire urinal has been turned into a gaming console of sorts, with a selection of different games that are especially designed so that they are pee operated. That is, the game is controlled by two things: where the gentleman directs his flow, and the force of said flow.
No, I am not frikking kidding. Take for example the game known as “Graffiti Eraser”, which as the name suggests, allows you to use your wee like a hose, to spray clean the urinal of graffiti. The more you erase before you run dry, the higher your points score. Or you could try “The North Wind”, where your pee creates a wind on the game console that blows up the skirt of a cute anime cartoon woman – the harder it flows, the harder it blows.
But if a bit of competition is more your thing, the game you want is “Milk from Nose”, where you wind up in a battle against all those who last used the urinal. The strength of your pee stream is measured, and then graphically represented as a flow of milk pouring out of someone’s nose (WTF?). This is then ranked against everyone else who has used that urinal, strongest stream wins. And if you wish to relive your glory some other time, before you leave you can instantly download the game data onto a USB stick.
I’ve said it many times before in this blog: the Japanese can be a seriously weird bunch of people.
Ten: China – the up and comers of the international toilet scene
Not to be outdone, the Chinese city of Chonqing has decided to snaffle the title of Most Fabulous Public Toilets in the World for itself. Why else would you have toilet-blocks shaped like a military tank, or decorated with giant zoo animal cut-outs, in the centre of town? Or nearby, in an area specialising in manufacture of high-end electronics, 22 public toilets designed to resemble the goods made there. Think toilets shaped like cameras, laptops, etc. In the words of a city official: “We really want people who come to the region to feel that they are living the digital world experience”.
Chonqing also happens to be home to the world’s largest public toilet – all 32,290 square feet of it, four stories high and with 1,000 individual toilet cubicles. I shit you not. Apart from the sheer enormity of it all, these commodes come with music and interactive TVs, arranged into themed halls, the most popular being the Egyptian one (what is it with public toilets and those Egyptians?). Even more bizarre, this whole city-sized toilet facility has been specifically designed in an effort to attract tourists to the region.
But in the category of Most Mental Toilet Insanity Anywhere in the World, the ultimate first prize has to go to the truly weird, borderline revolting, and entirely improbable “Toilet Restaurant” in Hangzhou, China. In this fine dining establishment, you actually sit on toilets. Your meal comes in mini-toilet bowls. The chocolate ice-cream, as served up, resembles – yep, you guessed it – a freshly laid turd. And once done, well, you don’t have to stray too far….
Although what really boggles the mind is that this place has apparently been a runaway success since opening, prompting other branches to be opened in other Chinese cities, and now also in Taiwan. So fear not: if you can’t make it to Hangzhou, a Toilet Restaurant might be heading your way soon.
So there you have them: my global Toilet Top Ten. And if you can’t remember this all, don’t panic. Just download the “Places I’ve Pooped” app onto your smartphone, entirely for free (no, seriously, I am not joking, this ridiculous app actually exists). Meaning that from now on wherever you may go and whatever you do, you can keep track of exactly when and where you did it. Enough said.