One thing westerners find upsetting when they come to Thailand is the number of beggars they see on city streets. Actually, no more in number than in the US or Europe, they seem worse to westerners because they seem so pitiful – either very old, clutching worn musical instruments and holding out a tin cup, or young mothers in dirty clothing nursing a month old baby that shouldn’t be breathing in the Bangkok pollution.
It’s often difficult to walk by, once you see someone like that, but putting a few baht in every cup that’s proffered to you can become quite expensive. Besides, should you really be giving them money?
One thing tourists should know about beggars in Thailand, is many are mafia-run. What that means is they’re either put out on the street by the mafia and only allowed to keep a miniscule amount of their daily earnings or, they’re a style of Thai mafia themselves – con artists who are actually quite well-off and even manage to put their kids through university and drive nice cars. They just make sure you don’t see that when they’re lying in front of you on a Bangkok street.
Thai friends tell me never to give money to women with children and babies. Usually these are mafia-run, so the woman and child aren’t getting the money anyway. In fact, the Thai government says one out of three children begging on Bangkok’s streets are exploited by other people who are controlling them for the money.
On top of that, the Thai government offers free schooling for all children in Thailand up to the age of 12. The kids should be in school and not being forced out onto the streets to beg by their parents and to breath in the polluted air.
Recently the Thai government has tried to put a stop to the mafia beggars by requiring all beggars to have licenses, which they are mandated to wear while out begging. This separates the legitimate beggars from the ones who are not so legitimate and, at least, tells the would-be donor they’re okay to donate to.
I do sometimes donate to these people now as I know, chances are, they do need the money and are getting it. Also, I always give money to the old people who are on the streets begging by playing a traditional Thai instrument – Thai friends say they do the same thing.
The older folks begging usually have a legitimate reason for it. There’s no such thing as social security or retirement in Thailand and, because they were always the working poor, they’ve never been able to save money for their old age. For many, if they don’t beg, they don’t eat and they die – simple as that.
So, the next time you’re in Thailand and see a beggar, give if you want to but give with the understanding they may just very well be mafia-run. But, then again, what if they’re not? And are you really going to miss that 10 baht?
Photo – I’ve seen this lovely man playing a traditional Thai instrument at Chatuchak Market in Bangkok several times, with a tin cup put for donations. One day I gave him a small donation and asked if I could take his photograph. He graciously allowed me to, smiling all the time.