Only 13 is the story of how a child became caught up in Thailand's prolific sex-tourist industry. It is moving, emotional, informative and shocking at the same time.
For anybody who has visited Thailand, is thinking of doing so, or even for people who have heard tales of Thailand, its unique culture and the seedy reputation it has developed for being a haven for sex-tourists from across the world, this is a must read book. I would strongly recommend it, not just for its insights into the sex industry, but also because of insights it provides into Thai society, and in particular the beliefs of the Isaan region in the north east of the country.
This review will give an overview of the book, centering on the life-story on Lon, the main author and subject of this compelling, and tragic story.
A tough upbringing
Lon's life begins in an impoverished village in the Isaan region of Thailand. Her family have little money, carrying out back-breaking work seven days a week for the equivalent of around $20. As the oldest daughter, Lon is expected to look after her two younger sisters and brother, and yet also regularly endures horrific beatings from her grandmother. The only person from whom Lon experiences any love is her father.
Yet her father needs to provide for the family. And so when he leaves for Bangkok to work for a pittance and send home what he can, Lon is left at the mercy of her wicked mother and selfish brother. She gets into trouble at school, leading to more beatings at home. Even when she works as a cleaner and dancer, her money goes straight to her mother.
When Lon runs away for the third time, her father dies while looking for her. Lon's family blame her for his death, and she is shunned. For the first time in her life, Lon's mother gives her 300baht - around $6 - but this is only to get rid of her daughter on the first bus to Bangkok. It is here that Lon's life in the sex trade begins.
Selling her virginity
Lon begins her life in Bangkok by working as a cleaner. She soon realises that there is much more money to be made in the sex trade. Working at a go-go bar (strip club) her duties are to clean up after customers and serve drinks late into the night. After work she goes to a nightclub with friends, and it is here that the mama sang (lady pimp) tells her that an American man is looking for a virgin. At the age of 13, Lon sells her virginity for the equivalent of around $700.
As painful and traumatic as the experience was, Lon is overwhelmed by the amount of money she receives. A cleaner in Bangkok would not make that much in two years, and her family would need at least a year to earn that much. Yet she has earned it in a couple of hours. Lon has found her new career - one more profitable than any other job for an uneducated village girl from Isaan.
Lon earns good money by Thai standards working as a dancer. She gets er basic pay, then extras for drinks that the customers buy and for tips. After work she can earn another $40 by going home with a man. On top of this, western tourists often give her extra, and pay for food during the day. Several men who she becomes close to send money to her, or give her extra when she pleads poverty and makes up lies, such as her sister is ill, her family had a bad rice harvest of that she needs to pay college fees.
She is now earning close to $2,000 a month - very, very high buy Thai standards. But she is constantly sending money home to her cruel mother who spends it on jewelry and other luxuries in order to show off to other villagers.
Lon moves to Pattaya, a beach resort that is generally regarded as the prostitution capital of the world, where girls can be bought cheaply for as little as $20 a night, and even children are readily available to men.
Lon is involved with many different men in Pattaya. She marries a man from Sweden and moves there with him, but returns to Thailand because he stops sending money home.
After trips to Germany and Spain, Lon begins working as a porn actress, which is highly profitable for her and doesn't involve sleeping with men. She also does some work as a presenter in travel programmes, but eventually returns to the go-go bars to sell her body.
Here she meets a British man, and moves to England. But their violent and turbulent relationship becomes worse, and while they are separated Lon becomes pregnant. She has to stop taking her heavy doses of medication for mental health problems, including bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. She is sectioned in a mental hospital after attacking a police officer with a knife and her baby is taken into care and lives with foster parents.
It is here that the story ends, as Lon awaits her release from the secure hospital, where she has been recovering for more than five years.
Only 13 is a fantastic book about the life of one girl from Thailand's sex tourist industry. Yes, she is an extreme example. But there are many more just like her, and her story is a representation of almost every other Thai prostitute. Almost all of the girls working in the bars, parlours, clubs and on the streets of Bangkok, Pattaya and Thailand's other major cities are from poverty-stricken backgrounds. They are all doing it for the money. And contrary to what western men might like to believe, the majority of them do not enjoy the time the spend with the men for money. Even marrying a western man and moving to his native country is primarily about getting money.
Just like Lon, many of the Thai girls who work as prostitutes will suffer emotional trauma and mental health problems arising from their job. In that respect, this book is worth reading to understand their behavior. It is also great to read because of the detail description of Thai social conventions, especially those that originate from Isaan.
Only 13 is a highly recommend read.
To purchase Lon's book, or read selected extracts from each chapter, please visit the website where it is sold. A documentary is also currently in production about her life.