This past spring, Sara and I traveled to Thailand for fun. On our sixth day, we stayed in Koh Phi Phi, an island in southern Thailand known for its pristine waters, lots of tourists, and Monkey Beach. Sara and I decided we wanted to snorkel while here, so on our last day we set out.
I used the bathroom before we left our hotel, but on our commute to snorkeling, I realized I needed to go again. I didn’t panic because I figured there would be a restroom at the pickup location. Of course, this was Thailand; American customs like public restrooms are not the norm. However, many tourist ventures catered toward typical Anglo-Saxon luxuries, so why wouldn’t there be a toilet?
After we checked in, I asked the tour leader if they had a bathroom. “No bathroom,” she replied.
In a flash, I envisioned the next six hours: a handful of basic strangers isolated on a tiny boat in the Indian Ocean, my pounding intestines and stricken body, sweating and in misery and not enjoying a singular second. I could not get on that boat without using the bathroom again; there was no hesitation in my resolution. I would rather just not go than be threatened by the future I saw.
Now I wouldn’t normally be so graphic, but I need readers to understand my mental state and the stakes that hung in the balance as I told Sara, “I will be right back. I have to find a bathroom.”
“Where are you going to go?” Sara asked, fully aware that bathrooms were not a dime a dozen here, especially at 8 AM on a Monday morning on a tourist island in the off-tourist season.
“I don’t know, I’ll figure it out.”
“Figuring it out” somewhat meant finding a banana tree and using some leaves if I had to, but I figured I could find some other solution before that.
In my youth, I worked front desk at a hotel and knew anyone can use a hotel lobby restroom without the staff questioning you. That would be discriminatory. Well, at least in America. I also figured restaurants around the island had to have restrooms. Where were the locals using the bathroom?! I just needed to offer money. Of course, this was my first mistake: Because we were going snorkeling, I packed away most of my belongings in a plastic bag in Sara’s purse—and left those items with Sara when I wandered away.
The situation appeared dire. Most restaurants and stalls seemed closed. Even if they had been open, I did not see the necessary plumbing for my predicament. I hurried down the street. I didn’t know how long our tour would wait for my return. Would they even wait? Again, I flashed to myself on a boat on the wide sea holding my insides together. I’d rather miss the tour altogether!
I spotted a courtyard lined with some empty cafes and an open door to a hostel. Several women loitered nearby. I darted into the hostel. I searched for a receptionist, but saw an empty seat and the hallway to the dormitories. I strode down the hallway. In hotels, there’s normally a lobby restroom (trust me, I frequent hotel restrooms when traveling), but here there seemed to be…just open doors to dormitories where beds had been stripped—and an open bathroom. I looked around. I saw no one. I entered. I conducted my business.
While on the toilet, a woman called out, “Hello?”
She continued calling.
“Hi. Hi! I’m in here. I’m almost out.”
I hastily finished. They didn’t even have toilet paper. I used the empty toilet paper roll to clean up. The point is, this was not an ideal situation for anyone!
I emerged into the dormitory expecting to be greeted by someone. No one was there. I crept back into the hallway, I saw the exit, I prepared to return to the courtyard and to my tour group.
I spun around. The woman flew onto me. “Ay!” she repeated and wagged her finger. “What are you doing?”
I spoke fast: “I’m sorry, I had to really use the restroom and I was looking for someone and I didn’t see anyone—”
“I was in the courtyard,” she interrupted me. “You walked right past me.”
“Oh, I didn’t notice you.” This was a half-lie. I mentioned I saw them, but I assumed they were associated with the cafés and/or beggars. However, I didn’t think saying I confused her for a vagrant would improve the situation. “I’m sorry, I just really—I had to, you know, go.”
“Are you a tourist?” she demanded.
She maneuvered herself between me and the exit. This did not seem good.
“Yes, I am.”
“Are you American?”
“Why are you using my hostel?”
“I—I am sorry. Really, I know I should have asked, and I tried,” I indicated the empty receptionist desk, “but I had to…” How did I express my intestinal burn, mortal panic when faced with six hours on a boat stranded in the Indian Ocean, and impulsive decision-making when I saw an open toilet in a hostel? “I have money. I can pay.”
She locked the door. I really don’t know how to write this other than we were in the middle of this conversation about my, yes, admitted trespassing in the hostel lobby in order to do my bodily business, but this short Thai woman turned and dead-bolted the lobby door so I had no way out of the hostel even though she had already been bodily blocking my exit. What was happening? I felt the stakes had elevated from pooping in the Indian Ocean to being kidnapped on a small Thai island.
“I can pay,” I repeated. “I can pay for a room. I’m so sorry.”
“You come into my hostel without asking, you use the bathroom, you waste my water, you do not ask,” the woman lectured me.
These were all very good, honest, admitted points, and I really did have much regret in my decision from five minutes ago, but I also weighed this with the future I faced had I not sought a toilet. Unfortunately, my agreeableness and repentance offered minimal hope for this current quandary—imprisoned in a hostel where no one knew where I was. My alarm fled from I would not make it back to the tour group to the tour group aka Sara had no idea where I disappeared to. I remembered when we researched this trip, we heard that Thailand is relatively safe, and the worst thing that could happen is that you are pickpocketed or you insult the king, which heaven forbid, we had not insulted the king. However, I also could not deny in these rattled moments that I had trespassed into a hostel where I had not paid or asked permission and now was locked in this lobby with this offended woman. Was I going to jail? I imagined explaining this whole situation to my parents and then to the U.S. Embassy. I also remembered the kid in North Korea who got imprisoned. What was happening? What did I do?
The woman pulled her cell phone out.
“Y-yes, I know, I know,” I blabbered as I tried to better wield my American agreeableness and seek compassion. “I should have asked, I didn’t know you worked here, and I really, I am so sorry, I would not do it, I would not, I-I have money. Can I pay for a night’s stay? How many bahts? I—”
The woman raised her cell phone up and took my photo.
“What are you doing? Are you taking my photo? For who?”
“Are you from America?” she asked. “Where are you staying?”
Did she just take my fugitive photo?
“I’m staying here on the island in this hotel fifteen minutes away. Really, I’ll pay. My friend has my wallet. I promise I’ll come back with—”
The woman tried taking a second photo. This had spiraled too far. I felt the adrenaline that cornered animals must feel and rushed around her to seize the door. Of course, she had dead bolted it, and I had no idea how to undo it. I considered fleeing down the hallway. Surely there was another exit? Would this make me an actual fugitive?
“Can you let me out? Please? I will bring you money.”
She took another photo of me.
“Do you want my name?” I attempted bartering. “Are you calling the police? I promise, I am so sorry, I will bring you money, how much do you—”
“You enter my hostel, you do not ask, you waste my water, I was saving that water—”
“I am so sorry, I really did not know, and I really should have asked,” I said while also wondering how bad one toilet flush could be and what type of hostel was this? “I am so sorry. Will you let me go? Please? My friend is—”
I rattled on the locked door again. Someone, help. Help! SARA!
We tit for tatted for several moments further, circular reminders of my transgressions parried by my earnest apologies, before abruptly she released me. Without explanation, she unlocked the door. I believe I gave a final, “I am so sorry” before I burst from the hostel and fled back to Sara who had the most “Where have you been?” look.
“You won’t believe,” I said, but unprepared to say it aloud in front of the tour group in case they joined in the manhunt for this trespassing tourist. “But I need my money—to pay for the toilet.”
Yes, everyone, I went back and offered the woman 1,000 bahts! That’s approximately $33! A fortune in Thailand! Instead of accepting my money, she shook her head and repeated her admonishments like any good guilting matriarch: “No, you come in, you do not ask, I do not want your money.”
I wouldn’t want my money either after the expression she gave me. Thankfully, this was Sara’s and my last day in Koh Phi Phi. When we returned to the island after snorkeling, I prepared for my arrest after the woman hypothetically circulated my mugshot to all her other hostel owners. I felt such relief when we sailed away that evening—and used the bathroom on the ferry.