“Begpacking”: Backpackers Behaving Badly?

Over the past 24 hours a photo has been going viral on Facebook showing two backpackers in the street selling postcards to fund their travels. Two more travellers busking in the street are also shamed for their actions whilst backpacking in Asia. Newspapers such as the Telegraph, The Sun and the Daily Mail have had their say, labelling them ‘begpackers’… ‘Take a walk down Koh San Road in Bangkok and you’ll see people lining the streets asking for money. Only they’re not homeless locals struggling to feed their families; they’re gap yah backpackers who spent their week’s budget on too many drinks in the hostel bar #fail #YOLO.’ I can’t help but think that this story is being blown way out of proportion by the Western media and the image of these two young, naïve backpackers is being used as a scapegoat for the inequality of the world. Yes, it may be a misguided act, but these travellers are not to blame for the world’s problems, whilst the Western newspapers reporting the story, actually are partly to blame. Before you get angry with me, here are some thoughts I’d like you to consider…

First of all, there’s a difference between begging and busking

The backpackers that they are talking about are not actually begging. Begging is when you don’t offer something in return for the money you ask for. Busking (street performing) or selling knick-knacks on the street, (handmade jewellery or hand-painted postcards for example), can be seen in capital cities all over the world. If the passer-by doesn’t like the product or doesn’t enjoy the music, they don’t have to donate or buy anything.
Busking on the streets of Barcelona.
I also imagine, but I can’t be sure, that the travellers aren’t really doing it for the money. They are doing it for the “experience” (yes, I agree, this can be criticised), and in the case of busking or playing in bars for money, for connections. They could make money in other ways, but I doubt that’s their motivation.

It’s nothing new

The hippies of the 60s and 70s supported themselves by selling things and busking. A few years ago we interviewed vagabond, Barrie Scott, who backpacked in South East Asia in 1967-71. We didn’t receive one negative comment about this article, in terms of people complaining about shameful ‘busking’ Westerners. Why are these young people now seen as so revolting? Interview: Hitchhiking, Busking & Sleeping in Temples – What was Backpacking South East Asia like 50 Years Ago?

It’s a hippie thing

It happens all over Asia, in hippie markets and bohemian hubs, such as Arambol and Anjuna in Goa, India. Travellers often buy and sell cheap things to other travellers. It’s not seen as shameful and evil; it’s just viewed as an alternative lifestyle. Every sunset, in Arambol, there’s a hippie market where Westerners sell things on the beach. It’s the Indian tourists who are taking photos of them on their iPhones and warning their kids not to go to close to the strange dreadlocked hippie. If you’ve ever travelled through South America, which has its fair share of poverty, you will have come across lots of South American backpackers busking, selling home-made crafts and even cookies to fellow nomads to fund their travels.  And while I’m on my high horse, I imagine that even these ‘busking, shameful, scum’ who have earned a couple of dollars busking and then go and eat in a local restaurant, will be distributing more wealth by buying from local places rather than the person who earns their money in the West, only to go abroad and stay in a five-star hotel owned by Donald Trump!
The evening flea market on Arambol Beach, Goa.

It’s happening on the Khao San Road and in touristy areas

Everyone knows that the Khao San Road is the most ‘farang’ road in Bangkok, so it is likely that backpackers here are selling things to fellow backpackers, not trying to scam money from poor locals. I can’t believe that this is in anyway taking away custom from local sellers either. Having lived in Thailand, I’m sure many of my Thai friends would view this as a bizarre spectacle rather than an evil way to take money from poor people.

It is illegal, yes. And, don’t worry, the work permit police will be out soon

Clearly, this is illegal. I know that. As someone who ran a business in Thailand and paid for the work permit and visa every year, I know that it is illegal to earn money in Thailand without the proper documentation. These buskers will be moved on (probably fined) and dealt with, before they can even make a 100 baht ($3 USD). While I was living in Chiang Mai, a group of foreign musicians playing for tips at Northgate Jazz Bar were arrested. So, if you’re still angry at these foolish Westerners, never fear, I imagine they will be feeling very foolish and regretful about what they have done. As well as the legal ramifications, they’re now an outlet for the world’s scorn. However, the fact that it is illegal is not the point that the Western newspapers are making, and is not the reason why this story has gone viral. The reason is based on the following judgements…

White people are rich.

We see a photo of two white backpackers and immediately people say ‘go sell your iPad, and ask money from Mummy and Daddy, you disgusting creatures!’ We know that stereotyping and labelling is wrong yet it’s okay in this case. How do you know the back story of these people? How do you know what kind of upbringing they’ve had? Perhaps they are the privileged ‘gap yah’ travellers that you label them to be, but without talking to them and finding out, branding them as such, based on the colour of their skin is racist.

Asian people are poor.

On the other side of the fence, not everyone in Asia is struggling to feed their families. There are a lot of very wealthy people in Asia, such as Wang Jianlin, from China, the 18th richest person in the world in 2017 according to Forbes, or Mukesh Ambani from India, 33rd on this year’s rich list.

Who’s really to blame for the fact that poor people in Asia can’t feed their families? Let’s not get distracted here.

Let’s start talking about some real inequality, like this, the 8 richest people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50%. Let’s just say that again, centre it, and make it big…

The 8 richest people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50%

How do they feel when they are approached by beggars, knowing that they actually could change the structure of the entire world. The wealthy newspapers making the judgements, sure don’t have their hands clean either. Just have a read of the phone hacking scandal, in which The Daily Mail and The Sun were both involved and see if you think that these newspapers are worthy of making moral judgements about these few young people.

And finally. Young people do silly things!

I’d hate a photo of me whilst backpacking in my early 20s to be emblazoned across the front page of a newspaper. Imagine your mate saying, ‘hey shall we go and play our guitars on the Khao San Road just for fun and perhaps make a few baht?’. You don’t really consider all of the moral implications of this – you say ‘why not!’ The next morning your face is all over the newspapers with people calling you ‘pure scum’ and saying ‘those cunts should go back to where they came from’. Young people whilst travelling may do stupid things; they learn from their mistakes. They don’t need to be shamed and humiliated by a moral spouting media who by no means have their hands clean in this messed up world.  Let’s not get distracted here…

The 8 richest people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50%.

Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

Find me: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

10 thoughts on ““Begpacking”: Backpackers Behaving Badly?”

  1. If you are visiting SE Asia from a western country, the bottom line is you have access to something locals do not. Generous lines of credit. If you aren’t prepared to take out the funds for an extended period of instant gratification as a loan, and pay it back when you return to wherever you came from… what are you doing? Hippies are gross.

  2. It’s an interesting question. I agree with the author that it’s not an issue about scamming locals or weekly budgets blown – these are so minute that they’re not even worth addressing. But there is another issue that this response article seems to overlook.

    I recently posed a similar question in a Facebook SEA Backpackers group as to why so many choose to walk around public streets and places barefoot, despite the rather hazardous streets and local cultural sensitivities to dirty feet.

    Among the many responses people posted ranging from “It helps me feel closer to the earth” or those pointing out worms that can infect your foot by walking barefoot, there were some along the lines of,

    “I lose my sandals weekly. Lost/stolen.. often have to choose between buying a new pair or buying a meal.”

    I think this is the real reason for the original judgmental article this one is in response to. If someone has the means to travel around the world for either a gap year, or whatever reason, they may not be affluent within their own homeland, but they still have some financial means.

    To then go to a place like South East Asia and feign this sort of poverty amidst a land where there is true extreme poverty – this is worthy of some commentary.

    1. Nikki Backpacker

      Hi Ben,
      This is a great point and something that we’ll be writing about soon! In brief, wearing no shoes in Asia when you can afford a cheap pair of flips flops is very stupid. It is not “spiritual” or cool, it doesn’t make you spiritually closer to the earth, or God or whatever, it’s just likely to make you cut your feet. Stop getting drunk and losing your sandals! I say!

      1. Hi Nikki,

        Thanks for the response, however, it doesn’t quite get at the point I was trying to make. I was using the shoes/barefoot as a parallel, maybe not so successfully. My point was that people who travel to SEA obviously have some sort of financial means, even if not terribly much.

        But many backpackers show up in these countries where potentially millions of people live in true or near-extreme poverty and possibly DO need to choose between a meal or something else. When these backpackers then over-dramatize their own situation claiming they are in such a dire financial situation when they are, in fact, surrounded by people actually in that situation.

        This is the point that I think requires more commentary and what the original article was getting at. I don’t feel this response article quite addresses that part of the issue.

        1. Nikki Backpacker

          I understand what you mean and yes I agree with you that feigning poverty ‘because it’s cool’ or exaggerating a tight financial situation is not acceptable, not when there are genuinely people who cannot afford shoes. For the same reason, I often question backpackers when they fiercely haggle down the price of goods when they come to Asia and complain when they are ripped off by a few cents. Just by being from an English speaking Western country the traveller already has many advantages over many people born in Asia, in terms of language, education, visas etc. I think (I hope) that although they may start off unaware of such things, this is something that many young people have their eyes opened to when they come to Asia, which is why travel can be so life-changing.

          However, I don’t think that THIS was the original point of the articles. The articles that I read were specifically attacking people who try out busking or try selling knick knacks whilst they travel, saying that this VERY ACT is ‘shameful’ and ‘outrageous’. This is the argument and one that I responded to with my article. I’d have to write another article about people ‘feigning poverty’, as this is a different point which I have different views on!

  3. Nothing has anything against busking, but busking in a third world country like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, … is disgusting. The people there are so poor and those white kids take away the money you should give to really needy people. Get a job on a field in Australia or NZ or busk in a rich country but doing this in a poor country is just disrespectful. That the world isn’t equal is no news, but beeing as shameless as those people is… 10 years ago we would save all our money travel SEA AND do some social work for free…

    1. I do think this response article does have a point that those busking are doing it in in mainly tourist-populated areas and would impact the income of locals so much. It isn’t as if a man playing guitar is in competition with locals selling tshirts on Khao San. However, some small-time amateur jewellers might be. ?

  4. Do you really believe that only 8 people have half of the worlds wealth? Where do you get this figure?

  5. Justification and splitting hairs.
    There is a difference between the 70s and today call it globalization or even social media. If you want to travel the world and don’t have the money be inventive. Use the tools like Work Away. Be a volunteer (paid or free). Take an artist in residency program. Do something productive. Stop looking at Instagram travel porn and thinking let me quit my job and beg people for money so I can travel around.

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