Begging and Tipping

2 03 2013

One of the fascinating things about much of Southeast Asia was the way that they approached tourism. For the first couple weeks we traveled through a dozen town and cities across two countries, and primarily found the same thing. They didn’t care.

It wasn’t that tourism was not a large part of their economy. They just didn’t act like it. I never felt any high pressure sales pitches to get me to buy some piece of junk knockoff made in China. Sure, the larger towns all had their night markets, and the bigger it is the more likely that there is a section for locals and a section for foreigners.  There were always plenty of cheap Chinese factory made knick knacks that were for sale on the blanket right next to the little old lady hand stitching pillow cases. However, when negotiating with either type of vendor, they were much less likely to try to bargain with you by convincing you to buy three instead of just one, or to haggle hard with you. They were much more likely to simply let you walk away. There’s this fascinating difference there, called ‘saving face.’Image

An important part of Thai and Laos culture is one’s ability to maintain a calm demeanor. This means that you will likely never witness a local yelling, or raising their voice excitedly, or even showing excessive enthusiasm. If you elevate a conversation by losing your temper, you will deeply embarrass them and disgrace their honor. Ultimately, this means that they are less passionate, and therefore less aggressive when it comes to getting a few bucks from tourists.

As we wandered the streets, there were a few people that we would see who clearly could have used a few more meals a week, or some fresh clothes, but not once were we asked by them to help them out. It made me wonder, “Why not?”

At first, in Chiang Mai, I suspected that the city had a public ordinance that heavily punished beggars, for fear that it would scare away the tourist dollars. Some cities in America have had a similar approach in the past. As we ventured further afield into smaller and smaller villages, I still could not find anyone asking for anything from me. I even noticed that I saw fewer people who looked in need. I began looking for this, intrigued by their absence.

What I came to conclude is that it was not a matter of public policy- a heavy handed law- but more of a social policy. They take care of their own. It is even more evident in the smaller villages. No family would ever go hungry there, unless the whole town was suffering. They simply could not let that happen. These people are very loyal and proud. They would be far more likely to receive an uninvited contribution of rice during hard times than to be forced to shame themselves by asking foreigners for a hand out.ImageImage

The interesting thing is that there is also a correlation between this lack of beggars and tipping. In all of Thailand and Laos, tipping is not customary. There are some European-influenced, high class restaurants in the biggest cities, like Bangkok, where they will impose foreign customs, and add a tip to your bill, but this is not the norm. It wasn’t until our journey took us down to Siem Reap in Cambodia that we first experienced the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction.

Upon arrival there, some 17 days into our trip, we were culture shocked. The streets were filled with panhandlers, scammers, and aggressive hockers. You were bombarded every 10 steps or less, and it quickly created a sense of dread when you thought about walking somewhere. The ATMS spit out U.S. Dollars only, and everything was priced in that foreign currency. The people there all spoke remarkable English, and they were suave sales men and women… and kids. And despite the dollar menu pricing, they gave out change in Riel, so you were likely to give at least $1 for a tip. Additionally, they expected tips, which was a surprise to us.

When we went to see the sacred sights of Angkor with our newly purchased 3-day pass, our revelling was interrupted by even more persistent adults and kids trying to sell us anything and everything. They ALL spoke English, and verbally assaulted you nonstop until you either paid them for something, or another victim came closer. They must have been forbidden from actually entering the temples (though a few snuck in), but the second you crossed the wall of the temple, you were bum rushed.

The worst was the kids. First, one little 6 year old girl came running up to us and asked me, “Lady, you buy my bracelet?” all sweet and innocent. I didn’t know any better at the time, so I looked into her face and smiled, and said, “No thank you.” Then, seeing that I was giving her my attention, four other kids came rushing up to take advantage of a “Day Oner.” “Lady, just one dollar for four of them!” we were then persuaded. I looked at Bethany before responding, and without speaking, we agreed that it was not a good idea to buy from children, despite how sweet and desperate they seemed. Then, we realized, they wouldn’t take no for an answer. We continue walking, and the swarm followed us. Each of the children trying to convince us to buy “just one” of something, pleading with us, and causing us to start to fear getting pick pocketed. Once we would shake them off, the swarm buzzed back to the temple wall to await the next sucker.

The only way to get rid of them was to completely ignore the children. You couldn’t look at them, you couldn’t talk to them. Any recognition whatsoever simply implied that there was a chance you would buy something, and they would walk with you for 100 yards if that was what it took to make the sale. It was heartbreaking.

In Cambodia, tourists are viewed as walking dollar bills. They are quickly assessed, suavely convinced, and thoroughly sucked dry. It was an awful feeling to be participating in a culture where they are that desperate, because it means that children and adults are being exploited to make those sales, and probably only get a few riel out of every dollar. We tried to do what was right, and we only shopped at local stores that were connected to some sort of humanitarian campaign. We only bought handmade items from artisans who were legitimately trying to make a living, often after losing limbs in landmine accidents. And we never bought from children. There is a local NGO with an ad campaign that explains, “Let Adults Earn, So Kids Can Learn.”Image




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