I don’t remember seeing so many street kids my first time through Bangkok. Most nights I went to bed pretty early out of exhaustion and the desire to save my money. Friday night however I wanted to stay up a little later and wandered around. Street kids start coming out after the sun goes down but then a huge wave shows up after 2am when most bars and clubs are letting out and foreigners are stumbling about. It’s simultaneously the cutest and saddest sight to see. On one hand you have these adorable kids running up trying to get you to buy flowers, gum, tissues or any other item that they might push. They usually speak English pretty well and show their best puppy dog eyes or playfully punch you in the leg and arm in attempt to get you to play around with them. Their job is to be cute and make you feel sorry for them so you’ll buy what they’re selling.
I sat at an outside bar sipping on Thai whiskey with the son of the bar owner. His name was Lek and he told me a lot about the kids. In the absolute best of situations these kids are working to support their family and their mother or father are usually not far away keeping a close watch. Some are the children of disabled parents and this is their only means of making money. In the worst case scenarios these children are forced into work by the Thai mafia where little or none of the money they make goes into their hands or the hands of their family. This is a much darker reality and kind of takes the cuteness right out of it.
Just as Lek was explaining this to me, a girl maybe 9 years old came up with her basket full of Doublemint gum trying to get me to buy a pack. I told her no thank you, or “mai ow krap” in Thai. She stuck out her tongue at me. When I returned the gesture she punched me in the arm and then leaned into my back with her back. I can only suspect this was an attempt at being cute. Lek said that she was probably Cambodian and a lot of the kids on the street are from other parts of South East Asia. I don’t know if this is true or an attempt at alleviating the responsibility of the Thais.
My usual rule towards any kind of beggar or panhandler, young and old is to not contribute. This was no different. However, I’ve changed my mindset a little bit. Instead of ignoring them or muttering “You should be asleep right now!” in an authoritative tone, it might be best to give them a friendly smile, act goofy and try to make them laugh. It’s usually not their choice to be out on the streets but if they have to be, the least a tourist can do is not treat them like lower class. If I knew for a fact the money was going to her family and not the mafia then buying a pack of gum off of her instead of 7-11 would make me feel a little bit better.