First World Problems in the Third World

I really don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, but after a couple of months on the road, I begin to notice things that are sometimes just a bit annoying. Sure, things are different in other countries, and I get that. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s better (or worse), just different, and yet, it annoys me. Alright, maybe I am complaining, hence the title of my post.

Wash Cloths

I traveled through Asia about 15 years ago, and the last time I was in China was about 10 years ago. One thing still hasn’t changed in all that time. Hotels don’t believe in wash cloths. I know this because I have to bring my own. Now this would be fine if the soap they provided would actually lather, but it doesn’t. And it’s not a matter of the price level of the hotel, even the high-end resorts don’t provide wash cloths. Yes, it’s not a big deal, but I’m just wondering, why?


DSC_6534Since I’ve been in Asia, I have tripped and stubbed my toes dozens of times. That’s because sidewalks, when there are sidewalks, are uneven. Now I’m not saying our sidewalks back where I live are perfect—far from it. But I usually can walk a block or two without risk of injury. It’s not just because sidewalks in Asia have fallen into disrepair, it’s just that they’re designed and created with a lot of ups and downs, and then constructed with materials that shift and buckle on top of substrates that are unstable. The result: Westerners like me stumble a lot.

All of that is assuming that the sidewalks are even available. Sometimes, the sidewalks are used as parking lots, or extensions of a storefront, making walking on them impossible. Sometimes, they are just simply dangerous, because they aren’t actually sidewalks. In many countries, the sidewalk is actually the covering over the sewer system. I’m not talking storm sewers but sanitary sewers, or in this case, unsanitary sewers that smell and attract vermin. The covering is usually concrete slabs and sometimes, they break, exposing large sections of the sewer trench into which I can fall, especially at night. Given the medical facilities, I’d rather not think of the outcome.


In this case, the plumbing in Southeast Asia is definitely worse than Western standards. This has nothing to do Western toilets versus squat toilets. The actual fixtures and how the pipes are assembled are horrible. The reason I probably notice is because I have installed plumbing, and know how it should be done to prevent some of the issues I’ve noticed. The main issue is odors. Where I live, drain traps not only keep things like earrings from going completely down the drain, they also keep sewer odors from coming back up. But that only works when drains are properly vented allowing some water to remain in the trap. None of the drains I’ve come across are vented correctly and as a result, the bathrooms smell like shit. What’s more disconcerting, however, are the sewer gases, such as methane, that could accumulate in a room. With all the smokers in Asia, I’m just waiting to hear about a hotel exploding from a smoker lighting one up.

In some countries, there’s a sign next to the toilet asking to not flush our toilet paper, but rather put it in the trash can. However, the trash can doesn’t have a lid, and as much as I’d love to believe our shit doesn’t stink, it does. Leaving used toilet paper in an open container not only stinks, it’s unsanitary. Sheri simply pretended to not see the sign.

The other annoyance for me are sink stoppers, when there are stoppers. Pop-up stoppers never seem to work. Some places have this unusual rotating stopper that never seems to stay shut when you want it shut, or stay open when you want it open. Others have stoppers that are just too difficult to figure out, so we just end up removing them altogether and using our flat sink stoppers instead. Sometimes, it’s not the stopper, but the drains themselves. Slow drains make it hard to use the sink. At one hotel, we complained about the slow drain and they said that’s just how they are. Hello? Liquid Plumber or Drano.

And finally, there is the whole shower without a curtain or door thing that gets everything in the bathroom wet. The bathroom becomes the entire shower stall. There’s sometimes a small lip dividing the shower area from the rest of the bathroom, as if that’ll keep the water from splashing elsewhere. The entire bathroom floor gets wet and remains wet so that using the bathroom later means wet feet and wet floors throughout the room. For me, that’s just poor design.

Sheri's photo of a public women's restroom in Tibet. This wasn't the worst one, because she wouldn't go back into that one even for a photo.

Sheri’s photo of a public women’s restroom in Tibet. This wasn’t the worst one, because she wouldn’t go back into that one even for a photo.


There seems to be a hanger shortage in some places. In one room, we had two mangled wire hangers. We use hangers mostly for our laundry. It’s a good thing we have inflatable hangers or we would be draping wet clothes everywhere in our room. I know that some people steal hangers, now I understand why: in case the next place has none, because someone stole them. It’s a vicious cycle.


In Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, there must be a paper shortage. Or maybe they’re just too cheap. Restaurants in these places don’t have paper napkins, just toilet paper on the table. Which is fine if I’m eating phở with chopsticks, but when I’m eating something messy or greasy with my fingers, toilet paper just won’t cut it. We’ve started carrying our own packages of tissues which are basically paper napkins.

Even worse are the public restrooms without towels or hand dryers; just toilet paper by the sinks. Trying to use it only results in pieces getting stuck to my hands. Whose brilliant idea was that? It’s especially annoying when I have to pay to use the facilities.


Throughout Asia, we’ve noticed that standards of cleanliness are far lower than our own standards. Of course, there are many places in the U.S. that are below our standards too. We noticed a person handling food after feeding a fire with yak dung. A cook in a Vietnamese phở noodle shop had a lit cigarette hanging from her lips as she cooked, ashes falling into who-knows-what. Street food sitting at room temperature with flies swarming. Restaurants don’t change tablecloths and simply sweep them off with a brush. Chairs are stained and dirty. Even the placemats, which should be easy to wipe down, are filthy. Hotels are often dusty, floors dirty and bathrooms smelly and poorly maintained. The only places that aren’t this way are those operated and managed by Western companies, such as Hyatt, Marriott and Sheraton, but then you end up with the sanitized version of the country you’re visiting, and that’s not why we travel.

It begins to makes sense after you actually visit a home of one of the local workers. It’s often just four walls and a dirt floor with a hole in the ground for a toilet. When their home lives are spent in squalor, their standards are very low to begin with. Working in a hotel or restaurant, what would appear to be dirty to us, is quite clean and tidy for them. It’s all a matter of perspective.


We could choose to travel with tour groups and stay at 5 star hotels. It would be a strain on our budget, but we could do it if necessary. We wouldn’t have to worry about meals, where we stayed, or how we would get there. We would never have to figure out a train timetable in another language, negotiate the cost of a taxi ride, or try and order a meal without an English menu. Someone would spoon feed our entire experience to us. However, that kind of experience is the Reader’s Digest version of travel; condensed and easy to understand without taking us out of our comfort zone; allowing us to simply look at the world guilt-free and return to our excessive posh lives afterward.

If that’s the case, what’s the point in us traveling to other countries and simply being an observer? To better understand our world and others that share it with us, we prefer to immerse ourselves in the experience, spend time with locals, and see the world from their eyes. Only then can we better understand other cultures and begin to better appreciate our own lives. And believe me, I already have a deeper appreciation for all we have.

2 thoughts on “First World Problems in the Third World

  1. Welcome to the joys of visiting (or living) in Asia. You must leave your Western standards at home when you get on that plane! While some places may smell, be dirty and dusty and have toilet paper in a container on your table instead of napkins, this is part of the whole Asian experience. I guess if you wanted to travel with Western standards, then you need to pay for the Sheratons/Hiltons etc. and become a captive audience.
    I lived in Asia on and off for the best part of 18 years and I absolutely love it. I only notice the smelly drains when I get a decent whiff but the Asian cuisine delights me enough that I forget about grubby tablecloths/chairs/tables and learn to sanitise my hands before eating.
    You learn to improvise without even thinking – and that’s a good thing.
    Enjoy the rest of your travels. We are now home and enjoying our little piece of paradise.

  2. The lack of wash cloths also is true for Europe, though less so now than 30 years ago. We always carry out own when traveling. Soap not lathering has to do with hard water.

    We too mostly avoid large chain hotels and stay in local places. However, we have not traveled in third world countries and bought a tour package for our China trip. We did wander about on our own a lot though.

    I most primitive bathroom I have used, other than the woods when hiking, was the trench in a goat stall in the Swiss mountains.

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