'Beg-packers': White tourists who beg in southeast Asia

Backpackers sell postcards in order to fund their travels.
Backpackers sell postcards in order to fund their travels.

Locals have been shocked to see white tourists begging in the streets of Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore to raise money for their travels. While some just see it as bizarre, others are outraged by it, calling it an "orientalist fantasy".

“Beg-packers” is the word sometimes used to describe young Western tourists who play music or sell knick-knacks in the streets of southeast Asia to pay for their trips or to purchase their ticket back home.

Photos of two couples doing just this have been widely circulated online. The first pair are sitting on the ground behind a cardboard sign that says "Support our trip around the world”, and are peddling postcards. Other photos show a different young man playing Pink Floyd and Guns ‘N’ Roses songs on the guitar and harmonica next to a cardboard sign with the same message.

This couple are selling postcards to finance their trip around the world.

A few metres away, another couple are singing with the same aim.

"We find it extremely strange to ask other people for money to help you travel"

These young people don’t seem to be in dire need, however — they own expensive equipment such as an amplifier. Maisarah Abu Samah, a young Singaporean, was startled by the strange scene and stopped to take these photos, which she published on her Twitter account.

It was the first time I’ve seen something like that and it stopped me in my tracks. First of all, you don’t see many people selling knick-knacks or playing music in the street in Singapore because there are strict rules governing these activities.

And, if you do happen to see street vendors or street performers, they are usually in the town centre and not near a bus stop in a relatively middle class neighbourbood like this. I’ve also never seen white people doing that.

We find it extremely strange to ask other people for money to help you travel. Selling things in the street or begging isn’t considered respectable. 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!

Other wannabe travellers go online to do their own version of “beg-packing” by starting crowdfunding projects in the hopes of raising money for big trips. This culture seems to go hand-in-hand with the explosion of so-called "travel porn", where social media accounts and travel blogs post endless images of faraway destinations, in the aim of inspiring wanderlust in readers.

This photo was taken in Hong Kong and posted by Rama Kulkarni on the website gal-dem.

Backpackers are often viewed as the antithesis of organised trips and mass tourism. But even the romantic image of adventurers on the hunt for new horizons has transformed in recent years. Now, many see backpackers as Westerners who want to travel on the cheap — to the point of exploiting the locals.

"Asia has been turned into this exotic place where this kind of behaviour is acceptable"

Louisa is a Malaysian woman who studied political economics and gender studies. She says behaviour like this shows the imbalance that still exists between the Western world and former colonies in Asia.

I think that this kind of behaviour shows how many people still look at the world with an orientalist view [Editor’s note: a way of seeing that imagines, exaggerates and distorts the differences between so-called “Eastern” and “Western” cultures.] They see Asia as an exotic place of spiritual discovery.

This turns our continent into a caricature, a mystical land full of adventures or, in other words, a playground for white people. People come here on a journey of self-discovery, eager for exotic experiences. Sometimes, I want to ask them: what makes you think that this kind of behaviour is normal in Asia? Why don’t you do the same thing at home?

Unfortunately, there is still discrimination and racism directed at people who aren't white, while white people are worshipped. It’s a colonial legacy. These begging tourists would have been treated completely differently if they weren’t white — proof lies in the way we treat non-white migrants here.

If we think about it in terms of fairness, and particularly now when everyone is talking about immigration policies, I think it's crazy that governments in the global north are so strict towards foreigners and demand that migrants contribute to the local economy, while all the while, their own citizens can travel anywhere they want to without having any economic requirement.

This phenomenon just highlights the fact that the tourist industry in the global south is highly problematic and contributes to the myth of the “good savage", this person of colour who is gentle and well-meaning, but poor and ignorant, and whose only goal is to serve the white man and welcome him to his country.