Young, drunk, disheveled Westerners are a familiar sight in Southeast Asia. The region’s low rates of violent crime, well-trod tourist trails, and advantageous exchange rate means it has become a favorite destination for backpackers seeking their first solo travel experience. Formerly war-ravaged countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam provide tourists with dirt-cheap accommodations, delicious street food, and a relaxed attitude. In exchange, these cash-rich tourists pump money into developing economies. In 2016, Thailand welcomed more than 32 million visitors, with $71.4 billion generated from the tourism sector alone.
But recently, locals have been shocked to discover backpackers begging on the streets in a new trend that has been coined ‘beg-packing.’ From Hong Kong to Bangkok’s Khao San Road, photos have been snapped of young, white travelers busking, selling trinkets, or simply begging for money to fund their travels. They often carry some variation of the same sign: “Support my trip.” Many choose to set up shop in crowded metropolitan areas, usually alongside impoverished local vendors.
“It was the first time I’ve seen something like that and it stopped me in my tracks,” says Singaporean Maisarah Abu Samah, who first posted two pictures of begging tourists to Twitter. She added: “We find it extremely strange to ask other people for money to help you travel … People who do so are really in need; they beg in order to buy food, pay their children’s school fees, or pay off debts, but not in order to do something seen as a luxury.”
On my own backpacking adventures, I’ve often witnessed frugality turned into a competitive sport. Backpackers, anxious to stretch their finances to the limit, catch slow-moving sleeper trains and and obsessively compare hostel prices. I’ve been that person—first as a wide-eyed teenager in Indonesia, desperate to stay forever; then later, in my 20s, traveling around India for months at a time with only a small bag and a furry blanket I’d nestle into on public transport. There’s a sense of exhilaration that comes from living without routine or fixed direction, dependent on a dwindling pot of money and surrounded by others doing the same. Once you get a taste of that existence, it’s hard not to want more—especially when the alternative is an office job, crippling rent, and all the other shackles of life back home.
I’ve met all sorts of entrepreneurial types who have figured out a way to remain on the Asia backpacking circuit, sometimes for years at a time. One man launched an online business selling herbal remedies he picked up in India. Another woman with an eye for design collected jewelry on her travels and sold it on her annual trip home at a huge markup. There are volunteer schemes, opportunities to teach English as a foreign language, digital nomad gigs. Or, if money runs out, there’s always the option of simply flying home.
Long-term foreign travel is not a god-given right, no matter how good it feels. It’s an experience granted only to those who can afford it—one that involves money, and favorable exchange rates, and spare time. Asking other people to fund that privilege—especially the locals whose country you’ve decided to visit and whose salaries are a fraction of what you’d earn back home—isn’t the sign of a free spirit. Instead, it signifies a deep sense of entitlement, neatly wrapped in youthful obliviousness and written across a ratty cardboard sign.
On travel forum Squat the Planet, which describes itself as an online community for misfit travelers, a recent thread discussed the ethics of busking and begging in Asia. While many users roundly condemned the idea, others considered busking and selling trinkets to be a legitimate means of generating income because it’s an exchange of services. One woman from Montreal, who says she finds busking useful in supporting her international travels, was openly conflicted by the discussion. “I wouldn’t busk in really poor countries for example,” she writes, “but I mean, if you have zero money, it remains zero money no matter where you are.”
Ryn Jirenuwat, a Thai news producer based in Bangkok, sees a double standard in Western travelers arriving in Asia and expecting handouts. “Begging for living and begging for leisure is completely different,” she says. “When us Southeast Asians travel to countries in the EU and America, we have to show full financial statements and even proof of having jobs.”
“It’s not even white privilege,” she adds. “It’s more like Western privilege.”