BANGKOK — Despite widespread online outrage against tourists busking on the streets of Asia, a survey has found that nearly half of Thais have a sabai sabai impression of begpackers.
UK-based market research agency YouGov found 46 percent of Thais have a positive perception of “begpackers”: travellers, usually Western, who beg for money from locals to fund a globe-trotting trip. Only 10 percent have a negative impression of them, while the remaining 44 percent are undecided.
“I have no particular feelings toward them,” said Kamonrat Nuna, a street vendor selling rice in front of MRT Chatuchak Park – once a popular spot for begpackers. “I just wonder why charming farang have to be on the streets asking for money.”
Opinions on begpackers seem determined in part by age. The survey found that only 41 percent of older Thais (aged 55 and above) have welcoming attitudes towards begpackers, compared to 53 percent of Gen Z respondents (aged 18 to 24).
However, begpackers – who often try to engage in novel forms of begging such as street performances, selling goods, or offering hugs – are not necessarily more successful at getting donations. The survey found people are only four percent more likely to give to begpackers (52 percent) than to ordinary beggars (48 percent)
But although many Thais appear sympathetic, more than half of respondents (53 percent) simultaneously support stronger law enforcement measures against begpackers.
An interviewed city law compliance officer (tessakit), whose duties cover arresting beggars, revealed that he has used his discretion to let begpackers off the hook.
“Actually, it’s against the law to beg on the streets. But I don’t want to catch them as I feel pity and want to give them a chance,” said a tessakit officer stationed in Mo Chit who asked not to be identified. “I don’t really know why they have to be on the streets because I’m not good at English, but I guess they must be spendthrifts who got carried away among the lights of Bangkok.”
The officer said he hasn’t seen a begpacker for a while. Two years ago, he spotted a couple of Westerners selling their travel photos by the BTS Mo Chit stairs. The pair claimed that they were finding money to fund their return tickets home.
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Seeing a Thai begpacker abroad is highly unlikely, as only three percent of Thais have chosen to resort to begging in the event of running out of money while on a trip. Most people would simply go home (47 percent), ask from friends or family (40 percent), or find a temporary job (35 percent) instead.
“Even if I really broke, I will never beg. It’s better to find something legit to do,” Kamonrat said.
The survey was conducted online from July 9 to 25 using a pool of 2,052 Thais who signed up to participate in return for compensation.
It did not find a correlation between both support for begpackers and socio-economic status, and support for begpackers and gender. However, Thais who have been abroad tend to have a more positive impression toward begpackers.
Elsewhere in Asia, public perceptions towards begpackers are strikingly different. South China Morning Post reports that immigration officers in Bali are threatening to return begpackers to embassies. Meanwhile, a begpacker couple who played guitar on the metro received backlash from Singapore netizens, according to a report from France 24.
Begging is illegal under Thai law. Offenders can face up to a month in jail and fined up to 10,000 baht. In an effort to cope with begpackers, immigration requires some tourist and student visa holders to show proof they possess at least 20,000 baht upon entering the country.
In 2014, “infamous” begpacker Benjamin Holst was arrested in Pattaya and deported after he was found begging on Pattaya beach, which locals later found him using the money he begged for parties. He is now believed to be in Gambia, his wife’s homeland, according to his latest post on Facebook.