Every day, thousands of Chinese visitors cross the border to Mong La in northeast Myanmar. And it's obvious why: You can get anything here, from bee's nests full of wiggling larvae to liquor served out of vats containing dead cobras to a complete crocodile carcass soaked in wine. And that's just at the first restaurant I visited after rolling into town.
Mong La is a 5,000-square-kilometer fiefdom in the Golden Triangle region ruled by a communist guerrilla turned drug lord. It's infamous for the flagrancy of its sin-based industries like prostitution, drug trafficking, and the selling of endangered animals. Along the town's neon-soaked streets there are dozens of garish hotels, seedy gambling halls and nightclubs, and—further out of town—flashy casinos. Everything here is geared toward Chinese visitors, who cannot legally gamble in their home country: Signs are in Chinese, the currency and phone networks are Chinese, and clocks are set to Beijing time.
These details underscore Mong La's status as not really being part of Myanmar. Though it's inside the country's borders, the area is controlled by National Democratic Alliance Army of Lin Mingxian (a.k.a. Sai Lin). A Wikileaks-published 2005 US embassy cable called him a "regional leader and drug trafficker" with "a James Bondian private police force" that keeps order in Mong La. You can see soldiers all over town manning checkpoints and on patrol, dressed in green uniforms and wielding AK-47 assault rifles and handguns.
In 2011, Myanmar—which has long suffered from brutal military rule and ethnic conflict—began to transition to a more democratic government. A ceasefire was signed earlier this year with eight of the country's 15 rebel groups, and during historic elections on November 8 democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory. These developments, however, haven't touched the area around Mong La; the rebels who control the Shan and Akha ethnic minority region are not party to the ceasefire, and no one here has voted.
Though isolated from Myanmar in many ways, the mountain valley is easily accessible from China's Yunnan Province. Chinese visitors do not require a passport and the rebels have good connections with Yunnan authorities, though Chinese officials occasionally closed the border in efforts to curb gambling by its citizens. Many of the casinos are Chinese-owned and even allow online betting from people in China, where gamblers can follow a live camera feed of the baccarat tables and pay through Chinese bank accounts, according to Michael Black and Bertil Lintner's 2008 book Merchants of Madness.
China could easily block the flow of tourists, but has refrained from doing so as its local economies are closely tied to the lively trade—and smuggling—of Burmese goods through Mong La. In 2003, reportedly after the daughter of a Chinese high-ranking central government official gambled away more than $150,000 in the town, the border was sealed and Chinese soldiers crossed over to shut down several casinos. Lin Mingxian reacted by moving the casinos further south of the border. In 2012, China cut off telecom services to Mong La to prevent online gambling, but the parlors installed satellite dishes as a counter.
Mong La's casinos and hotels were built on the illicit proceeds from the drug trade. Last year Myanmar and neighboring Laos manufactured 762 metric tons of opium, according to the UN (making the region second only to Afghanistan in heroin production), and the Golden Triangle is also Asia's main source of methamphetamine.
Lin Mingxian has long sought to combat Mong La's reputation. In 1997, he declared it "opium-free" and a gaudy pink museum, built next to a Buddhist pagoda overlooking the valley, showcases photos, maps and colorful murals of drug-eradication operations. Despite displays like this, Black and Lintner say in their book that the warlord remains linked to trade and "lives in a palatial Miami Beach-style pink mansion perched above Mong La, resembling the residence of a feudal warlord raised above his jungle fiefdom."
Though reporting and photography in the casinos was restricted, I was able to visit the many dodgy gambling halls in town. Here, the less affluent visitors—mostly chain-smoking, middle-aged Chinese men—were betting on video games, slot machines, and a craps game involving huge dice with animals instead of numbers on the sides.
Prostitution is just as ubiquitous as gambling here—scantily clad women were openly soliciting sex on the street, and in my grubby hotel room a Chinese-language advertisement offered "Girls with good personality who are cheerful and nice," as well as a "mom and daughter combo, [or] older and younger sister combo."
At night, on the streets next to Mong La's market, dozens of young Chinese prostitutes were waiting on plastic chairs in shopfront brothels. As I passed, one approached and uttered a few words in English: "What's your name? My name Sa Sa." Asked her age in English, the girl, who looked like a teenager, said, "25." When asked again in Chinese by my friend, she replied: "I am 17."
The daytime market in Mong La seems more conventional, with a mix of Chinese traders and local ethnic minority women selling everything from vegetables and meat to clothes and Chinese electronics, but in a corner of the market a more sinister trade was going on.
About a dozen stalls openly displayed a shocking variety of poached wildlife for sale: dried elephant skin, pieces of ivory, skulls and skins of wild cats, deer antlers, a bundle of porcupine quills, and the skin of a scaly anteater known as a pangolin. Cages held live baby monkeys, a large porcupine, and a variety of colorful wild birds. Some traders offered what they claimed was a tiger paw for around $250.
You could find more endangered animals or their byproducts for sale without even trying. Several upmarket shops in the town center sold complete sets of antlers, tiger skins, and a range of animal-based products such as wine. Some restaurants and casinos offered expensive wildlife dishes, including pangolin meat.
Professor Vincent Nijman, of the UK's Oxford Brookes University, has studied the Mong La market. According to him, it is a global wildlife trafficking hub, in particular for the growing trade in ivory, including from African elephants. "The ivory trade is huge, as is the trade in wild cats, and bears, and slow lorises [a type of small primate]," he wrote in an email. He has identified 60 species traded in Mong La, of which "a third is globally endangered and also about a third is legally protected."
Nijman said the trade is "largely, if not totally illegal" under Burmese and Chinese law, but buyers are not checked for animal parts by Chinese authorities. The tiger paw was likely fake, he said when I asked about it, but added: "Real tigers are sold in the high-end trophy shops further in town."
Like any town that survives off of gray- and black-market economies, Mong La is filled with facades and fakes. The most obvious is a towering building that is a Sheraton Hotel, or so the screaming, orange neon-lit letters would have you believe. (The American hotel chain's website reveals it has no such establishment.) It is one of dozens of buildings built during an ongoing construction boom in Mong La that has churned out huge hotels, gleaming new shopping malls, and high-rise residential complexes.
The town also boasts a coal plant, a golf course, and a zoo, while the surrounding mountainsides are covered in sprawling rubber plantations. Such development would be the envy of many impoverished Burmese towns and cities, but Tom Kramer, a longtime researcher of the country's ethnic conflict, said wealth gathered from Mong La's questionable economic development model benefitted only Lin Mingxian and those around him.
"It's a very top-down organization… It's not democratic and the development is just about building infrastructure and buildings," he said. "There has been a long period of peace and this brings wealth, but this doesn't go to the ordinary people."
The owner of a construction company from Mandalay, in central Myanmar, told me at a local restaurant that he was building two hotels in Mong La, including one with 100 rooms. He said he first visited seven years ago when "there were only farms along the roads and maybe five hotels in downtown.
"There is a construction boom," added the businessman, who asked not be named. He added many companies "build very fast, it's not safe… They don't do any calculations on the construction design and there are earthquakes in this area."
Asked what he thought of Mong La's development and business prospects, he said, "Chinese visitors are still increasing, but this place is no good. It can break down any time. When the Chinese government changes their ideas about Mong La, it 's game over."