He Said/She Said: Beggars in SE Asia

He Said/She Said: Beggars in SE Asia


This is a touchy subject and before I dive in I want to articulate the difference between the people begging to survive and me: luck.  I didn’t do anything special to be born where I was, they didn’t do something terrible in their past lives to be where they are today.  It was totally random, in fact, it was much more likely that a person would be born into an impoverished situation than into a stable family in Minnesota.

As much as we all want to believe that life is self-determined, that we are self-made men, I will issue this challenge: if we threw you into Somalia, would you, even with your substantial educational edge, be able to make it?  If you had not been born into the opportunities that you were, would you be where you were today?  What if you had been born in Cambodia in 1960, would you have survived the Khmer Rouge?  What if you had been born a woman in Afganistan, would you be where you are today?  Our lives are fundamentally based on luck, as much as we may believe we are singularly responsible for where we are today, the reality is that we are a result of our situation, of luck or misfortune outside our own control.

Even with this knowledge, as I parade around the world, share my tales on this website, and rarely give to beggars.  I do feel bad, in Cambodia a weeping mother with a starved child knelt in front of us as we ate dinner, yet I gave her nothing.  When people try to sell me their trinkets I often ignore them.  It is not without considerable guilt that I do this, it is not without knowing that I could help them, but I am choosing not to.

Honestly I wonder if traveling in the third world is one of the most selfish things we can do, even as we rationalize to ourselves that our tourism is “helping” them.  Are we helping them or ourselves?  Are we creating a sustainable economy or fueling dependency?  What will they have left when our interests feigns, when our tourism destroys the sights and we move on to the next fashionable destination?  What will they have when they rise up against their oppressive government, risking their lives for freedom, and toursits avoid the “dangerous situation”?

Some people may visit these places and return home to adopt a child, either fully or through organizations such as Save the Children.  Some people may feel compelled to start a non-profit to support the areas they have visited.  These people are far and few between.  Take Cambodia for example, hundreds of thousands of people visit each year, many, myself included, could easily give $1000 per year and drastically change the standard of living in the country (GDP per capita is ~$706).  We can rationalize away why we don’t: corruption, we don’t know how, we don’t know what to do, etc.  The reality is that we choose to spend the money on ourselves, not helping others.

I will support organizations that do work in these countries in the future and/or volunteer.  These organizations can help people more than giving a dollar by providing education, training and family planning and accountability that giving a dollar to an individual does not.  At this point though, I am rarely giving more than food, as I know that individual giving only incentivizes them to continue begging instead of seek out help from these organizations that provide more sustainable solutions to their situations.  My belief obviously lead the unlucky by birth down a continuously unlucky road.  I am speaking from a point of comfort that few ever living will know, as billions of people struggle for food, health and safety, but I, whether you agree or not, am acting in what I believe is better in the bigger picture.

One organization we believe in and participate through is kiva.org.  We asked that people not give us wedding gifts, instead give to kiva and have given out nearly 100 loans.  Please visit kiva.org to learn more about what we are supporting and how kiva works to help people build small businesses and self-sufficiency instead of dependency.


One of the hardest things for me to come to grips with on this trip is the poverty and begging in many of the countries that we visit.  I already struggle with the fact that I am extremely privileged to be on this trip and then to come face to face with the other end of the spectrum on a day to day basis is very difficult.  The worst of the begging and selling trinkets thus far has been in Cambodia.  From children peddling post cards at Angkor Wat and teens pushing books in Phnom Penh to kids selling braceletes on the beaches of Sihanoukville, it’s everywhere.  Not only is it hard to see, but it’s hard to know what to do.  If you buy postcards from them or a book where does the money go?  Are you better off giving a donation to an organization that helps street kids? Or should you buy them a meal?  If you do any of these things does it really help to solve the problem?

As we have tried to come to terms with the poverty we see around us we employed all of the above methods.  We dined at Romdeng in Phnom Penh and had cocktails for a cause at Makphet in Vientianne, Laos.  These restaurants both help to fund a non-profit that provides training to street children so that they don’t become beggars.  We have also bought books from the teens, bracelets from the children and postcards at Angkor Wat.  But my real lesson in poverty came when we bought dinner for two kids pushing their wares in Phnom Penh.  We didn’t want anything they sold and we were eating dinner, so we simply had them join us.  These two children were so adorable that it took all the willpower I had not to kidnap them and take them home to what I assume would be a better life.

However, even after giving in those different ways I wonder if it was the right thing to do.  For every person that we gave money to, bought something from or provided a meal to, we turned down five other people begging for our attention and money.  Who am I to determine if they are deserving or not, how am I really sure that the organization I gave money to is doing the most for people in need.  By supporting these beggars am I perpetuating a cycle that’s not sustainable?  As heart breaking as it is to see all the kids and even adults reduced to begging, I also wonder if my small contribution is enough to change their situation even for awhile.  I will continue to give a few dollars here and there because it is so hard to say no, but I know I will also continue to have more questions about these handouts.  I don’t have answers to all these questions and I might not ever have them, but being exposed to this issue is one of the most important parts of travel- awareness.  Awareness of my privilege and let’s be honest luck, as well as awareness of the hardship of so many people around the world.

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» Donna :
Apr 27, 2011

This is a really ticklish subject and I appreciate your honesty and being up front about your feelings. While we don’t see here the extent of what you’re seeing there, we have the begging issue to deal with as well. All the “homeless vets” who stand at the street corner looking for a handout as you pass by in your car … will the $5 you give them really go for food, or will it just buy another bottle of Boone’s Farm or drugs? I struggle with that urge to help as well here … and, like Matt, I usually choose not to give in to it. I many times think I should keep a storehouse of packaged food in my car that I can hand through the window to these folks … until I hear the other side of how many really don’t want your food … they want your money so they can spend it how they want. On the other hand, on our trip to Europe, it was common to see the street performers on every corner performing for your Euros. But there they are providing a “service” to you in their performance … so is it really begging? Probably just as much as selling postcards. Did I give in? Nope. But then I’ve had to borrow from friends in my past life, so maybe I’m hardened because I had to make the best of what I had … and, yes, in spite of that, I, too, was born into “privilege.” I will worry about you two when the issue doesn’t tear at your heart strings anymore … then it will be time to come home.

LOCAVORista Reply:

Donna, I cannot imagine this issue not being one that constantly tugs at our heart strings, but as I mention the questions will always be present as well. It is a really tough subject and one I am sure will be discussed in future posts on our blog. Thanks for weighing in.

» dad :
Apr 28, 2011

At one time or another i have shared my sentiment with each of you being born on third base and your thinking you had hit a triple……..amazing what a few years, education and maturity will bring……as you both know, i “error’ on the giving side, probably to ease my conscious and “pay” for my good luck……we too, saw the incredible begging you write of and i still proudly wear my ankle bracelet from Snooky……..this is a very personal choice and certainly not one to judge or question anothers perspective or beliefs…….did, i change any ones life with my daily sharing of coins, maybe not, but it perpetuated my personal belief that we/one can make changes in small ways……it was not just the coins for me, but also an acknowledgement of there presence for me as well with a smile and a touch…..let these travels continue to remind you of the blessings we share…..be safe….love dad

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, this is an issue that as I mentioned I have really struggled with and I more often than thinkCHUA slip a few coins to them because I just can’t say “no” or ignore them. However, there are also times that I just don’t have money in my pocket. It is a constant issue and one we hope to be able to help with through volunteering as well, because I think as you mentioned it is important to acknowledge these people.

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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