As a seasoned backpacker, I’m fascinated by the stories that I’m hearing on social media about foreigners like myself ‘begpacking’ their way around Asia. I’m currently travelling in Asia so I wanted to look out for it myself, to see how prevalent this phenomenon actually is, and how should we feel about it?
Begpacking is essentially backpacking without money by ‘begging’ so for example, giving out free hugs, selling nick nacks or busking, all without a work visa, making it basically illegal.
I’ve seen pictures going around, but this is a photograph that I took myself at Da Nang night market in Vietnam, near the dragon bridge that breathes fire. It was 9 months into my trip and the first time I’d come across it.
I have no desire to shame anyone so I’ve anonymised the man that I saw selling photographs at the Vietnamese market. He got quite a few intrigued looks which is not surprising as you don’t expect to see a white guy with a market stall.
He had a sign saying ‘pay what you feel’ but is this a legitimate business when smartphone photography and postcard sellers abound? Aren’t you really just relying on people feeling sorry for you? Perhaps I’m being unfair on him, maybe he was having a bad time but I’m still not sure how prevalent it is to begpack your way around the world.
How many begpackers are there?
I’ve been travelling in Asia for 11 months in South and Southeast Asia and I’ve still only seen this ‘begpacking’ practise in Vietnam. So as well as this guy in Da Nang, I saw three foreigners busking at the walking street in Hanoi. One of them was eating fire and the other two were a couple who were stilt walking. Vietnam is a fantastic country to travel in so bringing your circus stuff to make money there is obviously something they all planned to do.
I have over 15 years of backpacking experiences under my belt, which means I’ve managed to precede Facebook, Instagram and travel blogging, so I am intrigued by the begpacker phenomenon.
While begpacking has drawn a lot of ire online and governments are understandably kicking these people out of their respective countries, I’m not sure it’s entirely new.
I think people have always scrounged their way around the world, but we just didn’t know about it. I remember watching a woman in Costa Rica making bracelets to sell on the beach over ten years ago. Another reason is that it’s a small sliver of the backpacking population that is spoiling it for the rest of us. While the percentage is probably the same, the volume of world travellers has increased tenfold.
Travellers have always got themselves into issues abroad and I’ve heard and seen much of it. Rampant cocaine use, a steady stream of muggings and the occasional kidnapping. All of which are still much more prevalent issues than begpacking.
The real frustration of this spotlight on begpacking, regardless of how popular it is, is the sense of entitlement. If you live in a rich country, why should other people pay you to travel in their country?
Begpacking in Cambodia
A recent story I came across in Cambodia was a couple with a young child, who were claiming that they had been robbed and no passports. Long story short, their story was a lie and they were using the money they begged for travelling. They were begging from foreigners and local people alike but were found after being shared multiple times online and kicked out. It’s the kid we all felt sorry for as he didn’t ask for that.
I’ve also heard from a friend in Cambodia of foreigners asking local friends for money in times of need as there is a big ex-pat community there. It doesn’t make sense and it is unfair, if you’re out of money and then why wouldn’t you ask a fellow foreigner or relative instead of exploiting people’s kindness.
It is selfish and it feels exploitative at times to use people that way. This is my opinion as a white British person, so here is the story from a local perspective.
Apart from a few Western folk bringing down the neighbourhood, there are real benefits to being a backpacker that I’ve noticed on my travels. I’m travelling around Asia with my partner and we’re on a budget of around £15-20 per day, but it’s not too strict so sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less.
This means that we stay in homestays, we take trips with the friends of families we stay with, we use public transport, eat at street stalls and we rent bikes from local shops. We’re not perfect, sometimes we’ll eat a takeaway and occasionally buy a flight, but the majority of our money goes straight into the pockets of the people that live there.
It also means that we have a better idea of local life and have great experiences with people. We befriend kids instead of photographing them, we try food, we ask questions and we attempt new languages. If you stay in a resort or go on package yours, can you say the same? Backpacking is a really ethical way to travel, so long as you don’t haggle excessively, play games with people, beg or lie.
What are authorities doing about begpacking?
Let’s hope that as we strive for a more ethical world, that travel follows suite. I’ve heard numerous reports of begpackers being kicked out of Hong Kong, Bali and Thailand so Asia is certainly sending a message that this illegal practise will not be tolerated.
But we’re not all like that and it’s certainly not on every corner. I doubt it ever will be as most travellers wouldn’t have the audacity to do it. We can be ethical, use our money wisely and connect with people so we can hopefully put a stop to this embarrassing practice once and for all.
Have you seen begpackers while out and about in Asia and beyond? Share you stories in the comments below!
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