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March 29, 2017
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I’m a Southeast Asian Traveler, Neither Rich Nor a Begpacker

SA PA, VIETNAM | Yes, I’m Jona, a Southeast Asian traveler, neither rich nor a begpacker. These are my honest thoughts on the recent “white Begpackers in Southeast Asia” phenomenon. 

EDIT: I’ve been called racist for pointing this out. I’ve been called anti-white. Hell no, I’m dating a white guy, by the way. Some of my friends are non self-righteous Westerners. What I find resenting though are those self-righteous, self-entitled individuals, regardless of race and religion. This article doesn’t cover all the geopolitics involved in traveling. All I want is a dialogue. And please read the epigraph thrice if the article  is too long for you. 


That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

                                                                                                                     ―Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place


It ceases to surprise me that I am the only Asian on the bus ride the hotel manager persuaded us to book: all for the sake of comfort and Tobias’ abnormally long legs.

We are on the way to Ha Long Bay. We were reluctant to leave Ninh Binh, a place where I ran out of synonyms for various shades of greens.

Some days ago, Tobias and I had a passing conversation on basking in the place’s beauty and the guilt that often tails it.

We were by the road, looking at a woman attending to a grazing carabao. The woman wore a non la and a yellow long-sleeve shirt and pants. Not far from her was another woman in a similar outfit, uprooting some weeds from the field. A mama carabao and her baby grazed on the cleared field nearby. Behind them was a row of houses painted in yellow, blue, and orange, almost leaning on the towering limestones. The afternoon light cast another layer of magic of what’s already beautiful to my eyes.

The serenity of the scene awed me. Then the necessary question arrived. How do locals feel about us outsiders and about their lives?

Guilt started to creep in.

Farming is not foreign to me. I was a farmer’s daughter.

#DearSelf You found a new job that requires ten hours of your creativity a week. You got a fancy label: on-call creative consultant. The salary cannot really sustain your vagabonding ways, but it can feed you unlimited rice, some pork and fish, and vegetables. And yes, coffee! These days, you visit at least three job boards a day. You are afraid of failing. You are afraid of going broke in a foreign country. Keep on hustling. Keep on finding jobs that feed the restless you. But keep some religious hours for writing. Your soul feeds on poetry, on essays, on stories. Don't wait too long. You know what happens when you do. You will eventually forget the weight of their arrival. Write. You. Must. Write. Reminding you, Your Writer Self Photo by @tobithenut

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Come planting season, my siblings and I bore uniform holes in uniform length, dropped the seeds, covered the opening with loose earth. We repeated this whole activity like a GIF till the whole field was planted. For the kid Jona who only wanted to watch TV in the neighbors’ place, the ordeal was unjustifiable, but not for our father who often quipped, “If you’re fine with not eating, then don’t help.” Those who are not born to a poor family would surely scream, that’s child labor! But no, dear, it is called “how to feed the family, the poor way.”

I know, for sure, you’ve seen kids in Southeast Asia laboring around, helping their parents in the field, selling bottled water on the street, selling souvenirs, or some resorted to begging, not because they want to, but they have to.

So just imagine, some tourists saw the young me and my young siblings, found our whole setup beautiful, and took a photo of us?

Poverty is not some distant continent like Europe that I haven’t set foot on to. Rather it is a country familiar to me and my family. The cycle of poverty is rather a common story in Southeast Asia.

We managed to crawl out of it when we became adults. Among my siblings, I took the shakiest route to adulthood or old maidenhood.

I left the Philippines last December with USD3700 in my bank account, USD1000 Paypal fund, and some modest passive income here and there. Tobias, my boyfriend and travel partner for the past two years, is on a one-year sabbatical leave. He gets two-thirds of his monthly salary, so funding his trip was never an issue for him.

I could not dedicate all my waking hours to traveling, I had to hustle some jobs online on top of working on my personal writing projects so I could afford this extravagant lifestyle. (By extravagant, I mean, spending at least USD15-20 a day).

He is Austrian. I am Filipino. He got 156 visa-free country. My passport got 61 visa-free country. Germany got the highest rank, 176. That’s why “they’re everywhere,” said a German doctor we met in Lae, Papua New Guinea. Afghanistan got 24. The strength of our passport sadly determines our identity when we face an immigration officer.

We were in Hanoi when I read the news on white begpackers in Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Malaysia. An hour or so before the news flooded my FB (well, I’m a member of many travel groups!), I told Tobias if I would be able to sell something if I do the same: find a space in the busy park by Hoàn Kiếm Lake, set up my postcard store, and of course, the most important of all, prod the handwritten signpost beside me, saying, Hi, I’m Jona, I’m from the Philippines. I’m selling postcards to travel the world. Buy now and help me fulfill my dreams!

It was a busy weekend in the park surrounding Hoàn Kiếm Lake. I spotted at least three white foreigners selling postcards (had to insert the white adjective there, because I am a foreigner too) and hand-painted photographs with the signpost beside them.

It never crossed my mind to sell postcards on a busy city street to fund my travel. I found it very problematic, especially here in Southeast Asia.

You see, for us, Filipinos, when we travel abroad, there is a lot of paper works involved, especially if it is your first time to travel.

Two years ago, I decided to skewer and cram five ASEAN countries in five weeks for my first trip. I was not able to get an Authority to Travel document (some bureaucracy public officials had to go through; I was a public university teacher), so I wore my freelance writer hat.

#DearSelf You sometimes receive messages from BWAB readers (there are just five of them), telling you how they wish they have your life, how they wish they could travel abroad long-term. But the truth is, they cannot have your life because they have their own to live. You never want to ignite a culture of envy nor you think that your life is the ultimate version of a well-lived life. Because there is no such thing as an "ultimate." Just like any breathing humans, you have your own highs and lows. You sometimes share your highs on IG. Your lows? Rarely. But you're trying to change that, you started sharing some laundry videos and uninstagrammable life of a traveler on FB. You're very proud of your handwashing skills, a skill you learned at the age of 8. You did not venture abroad until 2015. From 2008-2016, you exhaustively traveled your own beautiful country: the Philippines. It is always the reference when you see something spectacular. Or ugly. Like the very scene above. You think that Ban Y Linh Ho is as beautiful as the Philippines' very own Batad Rice Terraces. If you can share a snippet of advice to travelers who had not ventured out of their own country yet, it would be this: travel your own land first. Traveling, at its very core, is not about distance. Traveling is about having new eyes on something that can be very near and familiar. Love, Your exhausted but satisfied self

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Paranoid, I asked my bank to provide me a bank certificate (even though it is not really needed if a Filipino is only traveling the ASEAN), disclosed my income sources, printed my itinerary, made dummy hotel bookings, and printed my return ticket back to the Philippines. You see, the Filipinos are not permitted to go abroad unless it is clear that you have a return ticket and you can fund your trip. My paranoia made my time in the immigration office short but still nerve-wrecking. {Wrote about it. Discussed the so-called Asian toilet too.)

Kristina, an Indonesian, commented on the post I shared on BWAB, that she found these “begpackers ridiculous. I know that NOT all tourists are rich but we as Indonesian (I don’t know about your country) have to own at least $5000 to get visa to Western countries approved. To prove that we are not gonna seek for any job and to make sure that we can fund our trips. Then why are these people begging for money while we take times to save money for traveling. Be responsible when you travel!”

In a separate discussion, Dan Arrojado said, “Isn’t it just insane that they can just soulsearch their way through Asia and we have to jump through hoops to even set foot in the West?”

When I applied for my tourist visa for Australia, I had to go through 19 pages of tourist visa application online, scanned all the stamps found in my passport, scanned three months of my monthly pay slip, two months of credit card statements, a bank statement, income tax return, my VULs.

Despite seeing traveling as a personal choice, for a Filipino traveler like me, traveling remains a privilege.

A typical working Filipino earns Php454.00 [8USD] a day. A lot of my countrymen lived below poverty line. [I sound like my nagging mother who kept saying the same thing every morning.]

I know traveling is a privilege, that’s why it never crossed my mind to sit by the busy city street and sell my terribly taken photos and expect locals to buy them. And I know too that I would not rouse enough curiosity among the locals who, by first glance, had similar features as I do. [What are the realities of an ordinary developing country citizen? Read. To educate yourself.]

Race is another factor. (You know I would pull the race card, don’t you?)

Over coffee at Café 76 in Hanoi, I told Tobias, if we conduct a social experiment by Hoàn Kiếm Lake, he with his signpost and me with mine, who do you think would earn more?


Now, the strength of one’s passport is one of the reasons white travelers despite the lack of money to completely fund their trip managed their way abroad. Most of them do not have to show bank certificates and return tickets. Their passport and their whiteness are enough proof that they can be trusted and they can afford their trip here in Southeast Asia.

Tired of the capitalistic and materialistic world, some backpackers left their homecountry denouncing the capitalistic world to death, yet they expect other people to fund their trip. Modern traveling, ironically, is very capitalistic by nature.

Some of them are the proponents of “everyone can travel” dictum. I just find it ironic when travelers from countries with strong passport say this. They’ve been to some poor regions of the world like Southeast Asia (their favorite destination because of high conversion, and everything is “cheap”), and they should know by then that not everyone can leave everything behind to travel the world.

That is, if they actually give everything a second or a third look and not just simply hang out, party, and get drunk with fellow white travelers.

“I wish we do what Brazil does: require visas from countries who require visas and allow visa-free tourists if their country of origin doesn’t require Brazilians visas to enter,” shared Nikki Alcantara.

Yes, I hope Southeast Asian countries will go for “an eye for an eye.”


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Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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  1. Shelbe says:

    I am a bottled up thunder and I’m sick of having holdijg my travel stories and experiences likewise, excluding the reality shock when I left my tiny Caribbean island for the “bigger slices”, as a writer myself – I’d like to be part of this!!!

  2. Anne-Di says:

    WORD. I couldn’t agree more. For people who involved themselves in “begpacking” do this to accomplish a very privileged and first world activity while locals who beg do this for survival. BIG DIFFERENCE.
    I just can’t get my head with this thing because like you’ve said, we have to fill up an application form, submit many certificates, and must have a healthy bank account to prove that we are capable of travelling while they just come and go without such hassle. This visa thing, it’s just a form of neocolonialism for me. People from the north or developed countries can freely come down to the south or developing countries partying, soul-searching, and taking pictures why those of us who come from the south will have to undergo so many process.

  3. Ashley says:

    I love that you give an explanation as to why you don’t like the “begpacker” thing beyond the “other people shouldn’t fund your travels” argument. While I agree with both sentiments, yours at least has some backbone. I’m also a fan that you don’t mention buskers. I personally don’t feel it’s the same thing as begging with a street sign. I love when people (locals or tourist, or even better locals & tourists jamming together) perform and if people decide to give them some change, so be it. But as an idea to fund your travels is ridiculous. I also love the whole eye-for-an-eye idea with the visas! While that would probably be a negative thing for me (I have a Canadian passport) it’s only fair.

    Great post!

  4. J-Crew says:

    Hi! Your perspective on this issue is refreshing especially among the seemingly Western travel bloggers. I’m always reminded how different life was for many people especially Southeast Asians even 20-25 years ago, so perspective is lost on many travelers. By the way, were you in Thailand for the Thai New year called Songkran? We enjoyed the water festival among locals in Bangkok … Here is our link of the Thai New Year video: However, many people asked why I did not celebrate in the “Backpacker” area that is mostly non-local ….. This is what makes me angry about travelers!? Why travel if you don’t want to even mingle with real locals. Anyway, keep writing!

  5. Nick Morris says:

    My assumption is that these “begpackers” are trying to get donations from other travelers who they can relate to, not from locals. Also, i doubt their presence will affect the donations that a local beggar would get.

    With those assumptions in mind, what is the argument against these people? Sounds like its along the lines of “local people are miserable so tourists arent allowed to be happy, or that their level of happiness should be constrained.” I dont think thats a fair argument.

    The only other thing you could say is that its disrespectful… which i understand is possible because its completely subjective but i struggle to think of a legitimate reason that a local would feel disrespected.

    • Hi there, Nick.

      Have you read the post at all? I don’t think their target market is their fellow travelers. Travelers by far are outnumbered by locals. I’m not against street performance or vending, by the way. I’ve seen a really good one in Australia (a guy in a high monocycle, blindfolded while juggling three torches.) His is a legit performance, and he got a pretty decent donations. For postcards of really terribly taken shots, you must be kidding someone.

      The whole point is, a traveler, regardless of race, should be responsible of himself/herself financially as to not reach the point where one has to come up with lousy techniques like selling bad photos on the street and expect people to support their goal of traveling the world. And again, if you can’t wrap your head around this idea, please contemplate on the Jamaica Kincaid epigraph. Her words are more than enough to see the world from a non-privileged POV. I actually find it funny, you know, because traveling is supposed to expand every traveler’s perspective, not shrink.

      And by the way, local people in SEA are not miserable. We have our own branding of happiness that doesn’t require partying every night.

      • bart says:

        Travelers should be responsible for themselves? Why? Because you say so? Do you resent those white kids? Why? I’m not one of these kids, but I don’t resent them. Eh, Jesus was a beggar. It has it’s place in this world, and who cares what package it comes in or why. I would bet you are quite bitter about your background and your own struggles. To me, this is just another kind of racism, albeit insidious. To me, it sounds a lot like envy. Why talk about passports and rights of travel and throw that in with “white begpackers”? Sneaky and ugly article if you ask me.

        • Hi there, Bart.

          Travelers should be responsible for themselves because that’s the ethical thing to do. Do I resent white people? No, I’m dating an awesome white guy, by the way. I resent self-entitled travelers regardless of race and religion. Am I bitter? Nope? I am not. I’m more than satisfied with my life right now: to be able to do what I want to do in my life. Am I solely referring to my struggle in the article? Really? You might want to give it a second read, we called it close-reading. Really, this is another form of racism? Really? Putting a non-white privilege point of view on traveling and geopolitics is racism? Huh!

  6. Teja says:

    “Those who are not born to a poor family would surely scream, that’s child labor! But no, dear, it is called “how to feed the family, the poor way.” ”


  7. Kristine Li says:

    Your writing and sentiments are very mind-provoking, I really enjoyed this read and am glad to have come across your post from FTB! Indeed travelling remains a privilege and its difficulties for many in other countries will be something not everyone will experience. I’m from Singapore and it’s not difficult for me to travel too, so thank you for this humbling post!

  8. Alina says:

    It has been a big debate in my own country, after one lady announced that everyone should donate one lunch money so she can travel to Antarctica and “see the penguins”. Just because she wants to. She is not a biologist and is an educated, white, able to work woman. She did get the money though, in just a few short days.

  9. Fascinating. I love to be educated on things that I couldn’t possibly know about. I have a USA passport. My grandparents are from Mexico though. I have told many people that I wish I had Mexican citizenship to which they replied, what for? USA passport can get you ANYWHERE. There is privilege attached to it unfortunately. So many things we could discuss on this topic. I like Brasil’s policy. I hate the US’s policy. I had no Idea how difficult it was for some asian country passport holders to travel. (I also think that some places are overlooked and are much more worth visiting than capital cities in Europe and the West) I think we should keep these discussions going. We do hold different privileges though. You hold the privilege in parts of Asia of fitting in. I would stand out as foreign and might get charged more because they absolutely think I have money. Happened in Morocco. I got charged more for things left and right, but I wasn’t dressed like a dream. I was always walking around dressed simply (though I had a DSLR camera) and they pegged me with deep pockets. haven’t been to anywhere but Japan (so far in Asia) and it was while I was a university student so I had to pay for a visa and such, and it was 9 years ago. Can’t wait to take a big trip there later this year, mainly because I want to learn and be educated by the experiences in these knew places. Will do the proper research before hand and will definitely travel in the simpler and more conscious way.

  10. Lana says:

    I have recently started approaching the so-called “responsible travel”, which means traveling and being considerate. As a white European and let’s say, “Westerner”, I admit having very little idea about struggles of people from different countries and cultures, but I learned a lot from the story of the refugee-migrant crisis of 2015. Unfortunately, not many people learned anything about the real issues. Definitely, white people are seen differently than non-whites. There is another interesting thing to point out – life on the West is expensive – salaries might sound very high, but what people have to pay for their infrastructures and life conditions is ridiculous (in taxes and other expenses), and also, we don’t have much time, most of us are not “rich” for the place we live in. Therefore, it’s also somehow brave and challenging to be a Westerner who travels – again, particularly a Western woman who travels. I think we should, as women from different countries, cultures, and sides of the world, be more understanding to each other, and maybe we create more positivity in this world. Stay strong and brave, you awesome lady!

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