3 or 4 year old Cambodian boy, begging cup in hand, working the tourists on Sukhumvit, about 1:00AM
I was in Bangkok last week. Stayed in the heart of the Sukhumvit tourist area, Soi 4. In my 3-day stay I was a bit surprised by the number of Cambodian beggars I saw there – all women and young children. Seemed to be a lot more than usual. I don't know much about the foreign beggar situation in Bangkok. I’m in the city every couple of months for a few days or a week at a time – shopping, doctor, perhaps a bit of R&R. I know the place mostly from the perspective of a tourist.
There have always been both Thai and foreign beggars in that area. Of the foreigner beggars I’ve noticed, it’s been mostly Cambodians and some Vietnamese in the past, often children. One or two at a time here and there. What seemed unique this time was the sheer number of Cambodian beggars, and that they seemed to be working in family groups. There were at least a dozen and a half that I saw, comprising 3 or 4 family (or family-like) groups working a relatively compact tourist area around Sukhumvit Soi 4, including 3 or 4, 22-32 year old women with infants, several very young (3-6 year old) children begging and selling gum, and also several, mostly female flower sellers, around 9-12 years old. They all seemed to know one another and from what I could overhear they all spoke Khmer i.e. Cambodian Khmer, not Khmer as it is spoken in Thailand. These people were from Cambodia, not ethnic-Khmer from Northern Thailand.
They were likely trafficked here from Cambodia.
One evening I sat in front of the hotel for more than 3 hours, drinking beer and lazily watching the street scene including watching the beggars work. That area is solid tourists and those feeding off of them – punters and prostitutes, shoppers, street sellers, travelers and, of course, beggars. There was an easy dozen Cambodian beggars working that block alone. No men. All women and children. The youngest beggar children carried plastic cups to collect money, as did the infant toting Moms. The older children sold flowers and chewing gum.
A three year old boy was working the sidewalk right in front of where we sat, pacing back and forth hitting up passing tourists for change and doing a pretty good job of it. Seemed about 1 in 3 or 4 would give something, highlighting why he's been put on the street to beg. Because it works.
My wife called him over and asked him in Khmer where he was from. He said, in Khmer, that he was from Siem Reap and that he had been working in Thailand a ‘long time,’ (whatever a 'long time' may mean to a 3 year old.) One of the flower girls saw him talking to us and yelled to him in Khmer, ‘Don’t speak.’ He went back to begging, working long stretches unsupervised. He sure was a puffy-eyed, tired looking little guy still working at 1AM. He’d lay his head on the railing in front of us to rest, but would go on auto-pilot when he heard a tourist coming, automatically waving his plastic cup in their path. He knew how to do it in his sleep, so to speak.
A few times the whole lot of them went dashing up the street in a panic as if they were running from something, but we never saw anybody give chase. I asked a Thai street seller what it was all about and she explained that they probably spotted the police nearby and were fleeing for fear of arrest. Apparently the local constabulary is not on the trafficker's payroll.
I noticed in the Pattaya Daily News a couple of weeks ago that there are reports of Cambodian beggars of similar description working the tourists (and now arrested) in Pattaya – all Cambodian women with infants and children. While noting that there are Cambodian beggars in Bangkok would not be news, in my limited observation this time there seems to have been a recent influx and numbers are up. And I wonder why. Is the increase because of the beginning of the tourist season? Or did some new trafficking route just open? Or did I just fail to notice all of them before?
Cambodian girls selling flowers on Soi 4
Cambodian mother with infant (well, presumably she's the mother) working as a beggar on Sukhumvit Soi 4, Bangkok
The Nature and Scope of the Foreign Beggar Issue (especially as related to Cambodian child beggars) in Bangkok