I usually stick to writing about travel and my research, but I’m so glad journalists finally jumped on this, because it’s bugged me ever since I saw “beg-packers” on Khao San Road in Bangkok back in 2015:
A week ago, a batch of articles came out from various news outlets chronicling the “beg-packer” phenomenon: white, Western “children” – honestly, no matter what their age (usually mid-late 20s) these folks are acting like petulant children – begging for money in various metropolitan areas of Southeast Asia. They’re either panhandling, playing Western music in the street as unskilled buskers, or selling trinkets (likely as part of a local ponzi scheme that they sunk their last $100 into) and postcards. In some cases they’re breaking employment laws, for example busking in Singapore, but in others they’re a nuisance – too irritating to keep there, but too expensive to deport.
For the West, the story seemed representative of bizarre, disturbing, ignorant, completely orientalist (say my progressive friends), and faux-desperate behaviour completely unfit for a holiday, and portrayed this brand of backpackers as entitled idiots humming to the tune of “I deserve to continue to travel in this place because I am ME.” I can imagine people thought the furthest a narcissism-laced God-complex could extend on vacation was bringing a selfie-stick, but nope! We’ve officially shattered the glass ceiling of “An Idiot Abroad” originally built by Darwin Award-winning zipline tourists!
But for me, this phenomenon isn’t a surprise – not in the slightest. I’ve both seen and heard of Western beggars in Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Siem Reap (I saw two busking down by the Night Market bridge about four weeks ago), and Penang long before Tuesday’s media burst. And you know what, they’ve continuously pissed me off enough that finally reading about the world’s collective disgust (especially towards the really douche-y folks holding “Support My Trip” signs like they’re a self-serving charity) makes me laugh a little inside. Reading those few articles was like a nice glass of Schadenfreude to end one of my more stressful survey days, a day where the vines wouldn’t stop getting tangled in my shoelaces and the spider-webs were a little excessive.
IMAGE CREDIT: http://www.gal-dem.com/why-asking-asian-people-to-fund-your-orientalist-fantasies-is-wrong/
Now, I can somewhat sympathize in the sense that I have been relatively poor traveling in Southeast Asia before. For example, in 2012 while doing my MA research I got around at Angkor riding a bicycle for 40km/day in monsoon season (so about 40 degrees + a 70% humidity level every day and always having to outsprint a giant rainstorm) and had a daily budget of $10 (excluding rooming – I’d be willing to sell my own kidney for air-con in Southeast Asia). I lost about ten pounds in two weeks and my MA research trip to Cambodia ended up being the most miserable experience abroad I’ve ever had, but now having had that experience I realize that the austerity I put myself through was unnecessary. I did not grow. I did not become a better person. I did not have a hashtag to share!
Because I felt like shit for thirteen days straight!!
And I’m never doing that again.
So, to the backpackers who straight-up miscalculated their finances going in and don’t have enough money to do basic things like eat but have the decency not to beg alongside the local poor, I somewhat sympathize. I truly sympathize with the unfortunate victims of bad luck who got robbed/pickpocketed/ scammed by a customs official…Cambodia…or the ones who got sick/injured and had to pay their medical bills out-of-pocket because their insurance sprung bullshit on them. I’ve been there, having recently lost 90% of the clothes I came to China with through an airline fuck-up (and thus do not have in Cambodia) – it sucks, but it’s life, and you try to deal with it with a level head. In honest-to-God emergencies, your country’s nearest national embassy will probably give you/loan you money for a ticket home and definitely get you a new passport if that’s what’s been stolen. In financial situations, your bank will usually give you a cash advance and some might even send you a new credit card (mine was skimmed at South Korean 7/11 so I had to call them up – thank you RBC!).
Friends and family are often a good resource in times like this, too, especially if you never ask for money in any other situation (because then they know you’re in trouble). For example, my roommate in London back in 2012 was late on paying his third of the rent during our last month living in our flat, and I came back from Cambodia flat-broke because the rent-money was direct-debited out of my account. My savings were suddenly sucked away down a tube to Foxtons’ Rental Properties, and thankfully I had a topped-up Oyster Card to get me back from the airport. Erin West (you remember Erin), no questions asked, loaned me £40 to get through the week even though I knew she was also struggling to keep afloat as a fellow Masters student in London. Because when your circumstances aren’t your fault, people of all walks of life tend to have some sympathy.
Life worked out just fine, he paid me as soon as he could, and I’m still great friends with that roommate to this day (he knows what he did :P), but if wasn’t for Erin I would’ve probably had to go begging to my parents or sell some things.
However, to the folks who are not stuck dealing with extenuating circumstances, to the not-so-bright people who drank their money away at a Full Moon Party, or were robbed by a local drug dealer, or had to pay a bribe to make bail for something dumb like possession, or were robbed after passing out on Khao San Road (I’ve personally seen this happen), or, more disgustingly, see their “struggle” abroad as part of some self-growth adventure they’ll talk about for years to come, GROW UP.
I’ve met a few of you ass-hats. I’ve seen you in three countries, and according to the article above you’re also begging in Hong Kong and Singapore. On Khao San Road or in the Night Market you have busker parties playing mediocre versions of whatever crowd-pleaser you think will fill your guitar cases full of Baht (Wonderwall) while spending said hard-earned guitar case money on the beer you’re concurrently pouring back. You walk by Thais, Lao, Vietnamese, and Khmers living in awful states of urban poverty with your heads bent over your still-functioning cellphones trying to mooch wifi off the local cafe (again, seen this) so you can update your Twitter status or your GoFundMe page. Your creature comforts are still intact but your wallet is empty and immediately prioritize your privilege as a #wanderlust traveler by mindlessly taking away Baht, Riel, Kip, Dong, or Ringgits that could go to the poor woman with three starving children sitting three blocks away from you in a gutter.
And why do locals give to you and not to their own needy? Well, because of the culture of politeness/hospitality shown to guests and visitors in many of these countries, local people, regardless of whether they want to, have to serve you first! And I bet some of you are even well-aware of that…
My bias against and irateness towards “beg-packers” comes from being a foreigner working in Southeast Asia, researching in Southeast Asia, interacting with Cambodian people on a daily basis in their language or mine (or French), and asking questions. Like the Malaysian and Singaporean women quoted in the article, the young Cambodian woman who works in the shop I buy my ice coffees from every morning has seen “beg-packing” a little bit in Siem Reap, but she just calls it “begging”. Her opinions echo my own: it’s bizarre, and she’s confused why they don’t just go home or get money from their parents.
I asked her where she saw them – it was the same place I saw those buskers: the bridge across the river to the Siem Reap night market just south of Pub Street. It’s also the same bridge that begging homeless women with young children usually gather around to hit up the Chinese and Korean tour-groups as they cross the Siem Reap River from dinner on Pub Street back to their tour-buses.
Seriously, trying to play over a begging mother holding a baby to finance your First-World-Third-World Odyssey is low.
Now, what pisses me off equally as much (though definitely doesn’t carry the same weight), beyond the complete and utter disrespect towards the people of whichever host country they’ve decided to baffle, is that their behaviour makes us all look bad. By “all” I mean all foreigners in Southeast Asia, long- or short-term. Those of us, especially young people, who work here, teach here, study here, volunteer with NGOs or otherwise here, live here as expats for whatever reason, or even simply want to keep a low profile while traveling here (with or without a backpack) are suddenly pigeonholed through behaviour displayed by the people deemed to be the most ignorant and/or offensive. Sexpats (middle-aged men who come for the cheap prostitutes) and deathpats (middle-age men who come for the YOLO) aren’t much of a glowing example either, but attempting to scold 55-year-old white trash alcoholics on their life choices is how Hillary managed to get Trump elected; it’s wasted breath that only results in more antisocial, contrarian behaviour.
It also makes the interactions that some of us need and want to have with people living in Southeast Asian countries all the more difficult. Trust between cultures is hard to both attain and maintain, and meetings (with Cambodians in my case) are often short, forced, curt, take weeks to schedule, and usually accomplish less than is ideal for either party.
A bad apple spoils the bunch, as is the expression.
But I think the main difference between middle-aged horn-dogs/junkies and guitar-playing twentysomethings begging in Bangkok is deluded, self-focused positivity. A sexpat/deathpat comes to Southeast Asia to do things of ill-intent he knows he (sometimes she/they but rarely) can’t do back home – he is weak, powerless to his urges, and attempts to solve various personal issues on a bar-stool or a underneath a bar-girl that are better suited for a psychologist’s office. A backpacker/beg-packer has come for an idealistic experience full of dreams and excitement, but the focus is still “ME“.
And that’s where I think that the “white privilege” claim by Radhika Sanghani rings true with this behaviour. With some exceptions, the majority of backpackers are white from Western countries, and have been told since birth that “you can do anything”. Now, out on their own in the world, they’re doing anything they want on their terms for their benefit because no one has ever told them, and continues not to tell them otherwise. This is their self-finding journey through Southeast Asia, and the cultural experience is lived through their senses. So no local law or social stigma is going to make them stop busking or begging to continue their odyssey if they have to – they have dreams so big, too big for any local to fathom!
Plus, being “broke” or “poor” is only a temporary state, right? You’ll get over it when you fly back home to the Bank of Mom and Dad!
And the most amazing thing is they’ll try to justify it with their ridiculous sob-stories painted on their signs! Some will deludedly plead “Support My Trip Traveling the World”, others will cry “Please Help Me Book a Ticket Home”, one clean-shaven bro I saw on Khao San Road had literally written “Beer Money” on a piece of cardboard (at least he’s honest), but the most elaborate one, a sort of love story I heard through the grapevine a couple of years ago, comes from a place of both marginalization/victimhood and privilege: a young gay couple from the UK were begging together in Bangkok and held a sign describing the story of how they’d run away to Thailand together because neither of their families would accept their sexuality…but were now broke and needed more money to continue their love.
Uh…guys…ever heard of this magical place called Brighton?
I, of course, include myself in this system of privilege. I’ve been following my own dream of being an archaeologist since Middle School and no one ever told me “stop aiming so high, a (insert race/gender here) like you shouldn’t have unreasonable expectations” or “you can’t afford to do that – go get a real job!” or, in the case of a sizeable number of Cambodians, “you can’t go – we need your help for the harvest”. I thank my lucky stars whenever something goes my way that I put in my hard knocks early on (I was bullied all through school for whatever reason people could think of – I was one of those “target on the back of my head” kids because people knew they’d get a reaction out of me), so that when my life actually counted for something I was able to succeed, unhindered by emotional, cultural, or systematic obstacles. And I’ve been able to use that lack of obstacles to put myself exactly where I want to be: sitting in Cambodia in a clean, private room in a guesthouse compiling my data from a day of fieldwork.
I mean, I’m writing a blog post on a legit article published by a reputable news source and I have the gall to think my opinion actually matters!
Why? Because no one (except in some cases my mother, father, girlfriend, sisters, friends, colleagues, co-workers, extended family, acquaintances, pets…okay, everyone at some point but that’s just based on various sporadic delusions of grandeur) has ever told me my experiences, dreams, or goals were unattainable. And I figure the case rings true here as well with the ridiculous entitlement that comes with having the gall to “beg-pack” in countries where you can eat like a king for a fraction of what you’d pay back home. It’s frustrating to watch, and if we’re to embrace the identity politics tribalism that’s gripped the Left over the past half-decade, I’ll end my part of the privilege discussion by imploring these adult-children to get up off their $80 yoga/begging mats and go back home because you are making us other (yes, someone else but yourself, imagine that!) young white people in Southeast Asia look bad!
But they’ll learn their lesson in the end, if the punishment is doled out in a way that leaves more of a memory than a mark. Thailand recently posted the article to its visa website, so it may not see these folks as too expensive to deport. Khao San Road might get a clean-up, and after reading several “beg-packers are taking over and locals are pissed” articles I took a walk by the Night Market bridge yesterday evening and saw no one. But I’m thinking, after seeing something as deplorable as a photo of a begging sign propped up against a +/-$1000 DSLR camera, that you deport the kids on their dime. If they have to sell their cameras, iPads, cell phones, laptops, or even some more expensive items of clothing, then so be it. Make them treat their situation like they’ve really run out of money and they’re on a deadline, because in times of desperation people living in actual poverty in Thailand and Cambodia might sell their children into slavery to pay their bills, or send their teenage daughters down to Bangkok or Phnom Penh to prostitute themselves for some extra money to get through a lean harvest.
Because stuff is stuff, right? You’ll get home and be able to buy new stuff in no time, because you’re from the West! Your entire trip is a flash in the pan!
A travel experience is not somehow enhanced by pretending to be poor; believe me, there’s a difference between being a bohemian budgeter (and it is very possible to get by on $15/day in Southeast Asia even in 2017) and becoming the douchebag who kneels at a raised pedestrian crossing in Bangkok playing a violin for money. Don’t beg, just don’t come. Or save up for when you can travel with a bit of a cushion if that’s what you want. Ask any Southeast Asian anywhere and they’ll tell you that begging and poverty isn’t a badge of honour, it’s a desperate act of someone starving and in all other circumstances is considered dishonourable. In most cases the poor go to the local wat and are fed/given charity by the monks or nuns, so those who continue to beg seriously have no other choice.
Don’t trivialize poverty, beg-packers. Go home. And grow up.