Begpacking: Why I refuse to judge westerners busking to fund gap year travels

The increasingly familiar sight of white tourists begging for money on the streets of Thailand to support their travels is drawing some serious criticism – but should we be so quick to judge?

Helen Coffey
Wednesday 12 April 2017 18:23 BST
Westerners have come under fire for "begpacking"
Westerners have come under fire for "begpacking"

The trend of western backpackers busking or begging to fund their travels, dubbed “begpacking”, has been getting a lot of attention – and not in a good way. Seen mainly in South East Asian countries such as Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, the practice has come under scrutiny of late, with detractors branding it “lazy” and “disgusting” on social media.

Pictures have circulated online of white travellers selling postcards and playing the guitar with signs saying: “I am travelling around Asia without money. Please support my trip,” and locals and commentators alike have shared their anger at the increase in western people begging.

It’s easy to see why. The “gap yah” stereotype of a wealthy, middle-class idiot, made famous by comedian Matt Lacey’s viral sketches, makes most people’s skin crawl. The idea of this ludicrously pampered, privileged westerner actually begging locals for money in a country where many struggle to get by is maddening.

And yet I refuse to judge so-called begpackers. Or, at least, I refuse to judge them out of context.

The inference made by most onlookers and the media is that this is the very definition of white privilege – wealthy westerners going on a year-long jolly and ending up strapped for cash after spending their monthly allowance on booze. However, as we’ve seen time and time again with swift and merciless Twitter witch hunts, photos are stripped of context, with no reference to or knowledge of the personal circumstances of the people currently being trashed by all and sundry.

There has been an increase in westerners begging to fund trips around Asia

In the various media slatings, there’s an uncomfortable assumption that every white person in Asia has independent means and a rich family back home to call upon should they run out of money – that every traveller is straight out of the Gap Yah sketch. And while this is doubtless the case for many, it certainly isn’t true of everyone.

Ask anyone for a travelling horror story and I bet they’ll have at least one. In many cases it will be nothing more than a vaguely amusing anecdote – “We got locked out of the hotel!” “We got a flat tyre and didn’t have a spare!” – but in others, the consequences are more severe. A friend tells me of getting mugged in Cuba, and being stranded for four days without a penny. Naval officer Kristian shares his story of arriving at the airport only to find his flight had left at 8am, not 8pm, and the ensuing embarrassment of having to beg for money from passers by to afford another flight home. Not every person, though they may come from an affluent country, has the readies to support themselves if the worst should happen in a foreign land – and judging someone for asking for money with no notion of their individual circumstances doesn’t sit right with me.

Of course, begging in a casual way as a long-term strategy to fund your fun trip around Asia is a different story, and one I heartily disapprove of. But there’s a distinction to be made too between begging and busking. Will Hatton, founder of the Broke Backpacker blog, shares these sentiments. “Whilst it is not OK to beg whilst travelling there really is nothing wrong (or new) with busking or selling hand-made jewellery on the side of the road,” he told me.

“This isn’t a conventional career choice but it is how some people opt to travel the world and if you are sharing a skill or selling a product I really don’t see the harm. I think a lot of people are threatened by backpackers living so hand to mouth as it’s a lifestyle which many people just can’t get to grips with – ultimately though, for many, it’s far more fun to travel the world on $10 a day than to be chained to a desk.”

While many on Twitter have roundly detracted the idea of backpackers busking when there are people living in real poverty in these countries – “#begpackers are an absolute shame. seriously can’t believe people are doing this,” was one tweet, the sentiments of which were echoed by many – for me it raises questions about why the unwritten rules are so different to those in the UK.

Westerners have been criticised for busking in South East Asia

In London, someone busking in the underground is not viewed as a beggar, but a performer – whether they are home-grown or simply travelling through. It adds a richness and a vibrancy to the city, and no one would disparage a passer-by for relinquishing a few coins for the pleasure of hearing someone play. No one would chastise that they should be reserving their cash for the truly needy – and we aren’t short of those – rather than someone who can obviously afford an instrument and an amplifier. Yet the idea of someone doing the same in Thailand is somehow abhorrent – it just doesn’t add up.

Yes, there is something truly galling about a young western person, with all the privileges of wealth, education and status in the world, trying to cadge money in a poor country to ensure they have enough to hit the next beach party. But, as in all things, I am loath to cast judgement too sweepingly. For some, things go awry while travelling and they have little choice but to throw themselves on the kindness of strangers. For others, being an entertainer and playing their way around the world is arguably a legitimate livelihood. And if someone has a rare talent for creating exquisite handmade jewellery out of shells, who are we to deny their entrepreneurial nous?

But know this – if someone attempts to talk to me seriously about “finding themselves” at a Full Moon Party, I will make free to boot their handmade bracelets across the street.

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