For anybody who has ever been in a Bangkok girlie bar, what the smiling and giggling women in their spangles and bare skin have given up to get there remains hidden and out of sight. But these women, many of them no more than children, have faced lives almost before puberty that has annealed them into hardened and calculating individuals whose life is dedicated not to the befuddled westerners asking them to lap dance but to survival and finding money. It is kept well hidden, under the surface, beneath the smiles.
It is a story of exploitation on a savage and depressing scale. It has been told before, but is told again by a young woman whose name at birth was Bountah, born in the impoverished northeastern region of the country, called Isaan. Only 13: The true story of Lon, is told by authors Julia Manzanares and Derek Kent as autobiography.
Beaten repeatedly as a child, Bountah was forbidden from going to school because the family only had enough money to send the boys. She ran away from home at age 11 because her grandmother refused to let her go to school even though she had earned the money herself to go by cleaning houses in a nearby town. A troubled, rebellious child, she set out for Bangkok 500 miles away, only to be returned home. She ran away twice more before she fled to Bangkok to take a job as a waitress – at the age of 12, working from 5 am to 7 pm for Bt1,500 (US$48.50) a month.
Frequently jailed as a runaway, confined briefly in a psychiatric hospital, she fights off a would-be benefactor at the age of 13 who tries repeatedly to rape her. Finally returned to her home in Isaan yet again, she discovers her father had died in a car accident while searching for her. Her family blames her for his death. Heartbroken and overcome with guilt, she was given Bt300 by her mother and told never to return.
Thus began her life in Bangkok’s sex industry, first as a full-time cleaner in a Patpong go-go club. Changing her name to Lon, she discovered that at the age of 14, weighing 34 kg, 1.44 meters tall, she could make Bt30,000 by selling her virginity to a 50-year-old Swiss national who had come to Thailand hunting for a child – 20 times as much as she was making as a cleaner. The choice, terrifying as it was, made depressing economic sense to her.
“Why would sweet young girls want to go to (the bar where she sold herself)? “The reason is simple,” she said. “They are the result of Asian poverty – and they are not alone. Their behavior is the direct result of the low value placed on women in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia. Even now, in this 21st century, six baby girls are abandoned every day in Bangkok. In my case, my family’s poverty, and my need to win back their love were more than enough motivation.” Terrified, she walked down the street hand-in-hand with the man, a foot and a half taller than she was. Nobody stopped the couple, including in the hotel where “the clerk looked at me,then at him, then at me again, and said nothing., A very young girl – really just a child with a grown man – must not have been too unusual a sight for her to see.”
Sadly, in Bangkok and other Thai cities and indeed throughout Asia, it is not too unusual a sight at all. “There are roughly 30,000 Thai girls in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Koh Samui and Chiang Mai who seek the tourist trade, Manzanares and Kent write. “There are tens of thousands more in the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia; they are the ones who have been ‘fortunate’ enough to see foreign men instead of locals. There are about 400,000 prostitutes in the brothels in Thailand, and millions more in other Southeast Asian countries who see local men for pocket change or simply to pay off family debt plus the massive interest charges that accrue.”
That began a long and depressing story. “Some clients have told me that people in Thailand are poor because they are lazy,” Lon says. “At the age when they were playing Little League, going to football games, or having wet dreams over their favorite cheerleaders, I was sleeping with GoGo customers to help support my family – for which I paid the ultimate price, the loss of myself. “
Lon would become a top go-go dancer, making a small fortune – for Thai women anyway – in the sleazy resort town of Pattaya, which, as she says, “is different from the rest of Thailand, with the exception of the tourist areas of Patpong, Nana and Soi Cowboy in Bangkok, and the islands of Koh Samui and Phuket. It was built for and thrives on sex tourists. ..Everyone in the city knows their livelihoods are dependent upon the Isaan-born bar girls attracting tourists. The unkempt beaches are littered with garbage, plastic, and animal waste; the polluted bay and the poor quality of infrastructure offer little to the tourist who seeks a tropical paradise.”
Eventually she caught the gold ring – marriage to another Swiss national and a move to Europe. It didn’t work out. Little worked out for her in fact. It is a depressing and sad book. But it illuminates a life that typifies far too much the fate of young, pretty, poverty-stricken women in too many parts of Southeast Asia.
A share of the proceeds from sale of the book is donated to organizations dedicated to aiding young girls at risk for, or who have become involved in the sex trade. If that will help to save some of them from Lon’s ordeal, it is worth buying this book.