Sunday, August 20, 2017

Mong La: Myanmar's Sin City

I watch as the immigration official carefully stamps my entry permit with seven different rubber stamps. “Do you have passport copy?” he asks, as he seals my passport away in a not-very-secure-looking drawer.

“A copy – now, that would have been a smart idea,” I think to myself. Well, too late now.

I shake my head. The official chuckes ominously, before handing me the papers and waving me out of his office.

I am travelling from Kengtung in eastern Shan State to the notorious city of Mong La – a strip of land on the border between China and Myanmar. A hub for prostitution, gambling and general debauchery, Myanmar’s “Wild East” has found itself the subject of considerable international attention recently, with a string of reports from TIME, the BBC and The New York Times painting a sordid picture of a lawless “vice city” and “Burmese Las Vegas”. In other words, the kind of place where you might want a copy of your passport.

A group of sex workers sit in a shopfront brothel near Mong La’s central market, waiting for customers.A group of sex workers sit in a shopfront brothel near Mong La’s central market, waiting for customers.

Of course, tales of sex, drugs and gambling may sell a lot of papers but I was convinced there had to be more to Mong La, so I set off to see for myself. Foreign visitors are required to obtain a permit from the authorities in Kengtung – and leave their passports behind – before travelling to the border. In reality, few tourists visit the border town from the Myanmar side and, of those who do, most visit on day trips arranged in Kengtung. I had decided to go it alone – in part because I have an inalterable hatred of guided tours, but mainly because everyone I asked told me I shouldn’t.

The 70-mile (112-kilometre) journey to Mong La takes around three and a half hours – though much of this time is spent getting in and out of the car to walk across each of the four military checkpoints along the way and engaging in the customary Chelsea Football Club chit-chat with uniformed guards. The drive itself is one of the most scenic in Myanmar. Carved out of dense green jungle, the winding mountain road snakes through mist-shrouded villages and emerald rice paddies until, as if from nowhere, the city springs up out of the valley like a grey, concrete Oz.

Officially known as Special Region 4, Mong La has existed entirely outside the control of the Myanmar government for more than 25 years. Run by the former rebel army known as the National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA) the enclave next to China’s Yunnan province has its own police force, though the rules, if they exist at all, remain unclear. As a regular visitor to Mong La told me, “I am afraid in Mong La. There is no security. If people have money, they can do everything what they want.”

In 2000 the US State Department described Sai Lin, a Shan-Chinese businessman who leads the NDAA, as “a major narcotics insurgent leader, but he has successfully rid his area of opium cultivation”. His territory may be remote and of dubious distinction, but Sai Lin remains rich and influential – only two months ago he had a cordial meeting in Kengtung with President U Thein Sein.

Wildlife parts on sale in Mong La’s central market.Photo: Douglas Long / The Myanmar TimesWildlife parts on sale in Mong La’s central market.Photo: Douglas Long / The Myanmar Times

Mong La lies within Myanmar, but you wouldn’t know it. It runs on Beijing time, 90 minutes ahead of Myanmar, and Chinese is the lingua franca and Chinese renminbi the only accepted currency.

Upon arriving, it became clear that my non-existent knowledge of Mandarin was going to be a problem.

“Our guides speak only Chinese and Thai,” said May, a travel agent at Shwe Lin Star Tourism Company, which I had tracked down in an effort to find someone who spoke Myanmar. “I can find you a guide, but he won’t be able to speak to you.”

Aside from the hundreds of Chinese visitors who cross the border illegally every week via motorbike through the jungle, visitors to Mong La are largely Thai and Chinese package tourists who can’t afford holidays elsewhere. May told me I was only the second Western tourist to show up at their travel company in the past year.

The town boasts a few joyless “attractions” to satisfy the sightseers. After stopping at the official border crossing with China, where one can have photos taken with one foot in each country, tourists can visit the Burma-China Friendship Pagoda and enjoy charmless views over the town and the many construction projects under way. Other sights include the depressing “elephant show”, in which a miserable-looking beast, brought in from Thailand, entertains visitors by beating a wooden drum.

Mong La’s main draws, however, are far less salubrious. Within minutes of checking into my motel room, a calling card was thrust under my door – the first of many – advertising an “exotic experience” with a 15-year-old Myanmar girl. A flyer next to the bed provides hotline numbers for “newly arrived” Vietnamese virgins and posters in the reception area advertise more sex with teenagers.

During the daytime, the town is eerily quiet. Save for a few girls clattering around the glitzy shopping malls in cheap, Made-in-China stiletto heels, and groups of young casino croupiers smoking on street corners, there is almost no one on the streets. When darkness falls, however, the city transforms into a neon-lit Mong Vegas, where open gambling and prostitution take place against a soundtrack of karaoke halls and Thai lady-boy shows. On every corner, girls in skimpy outfits wait, smoking. My guide, Sai Tip – who it turns out can speak a little English – tells me that these are Mong La’s “cheap serving girls”. Over-25s charge around 100 yuan ($18) for their services, he tells me, with 15-year-olds-fetching double this price. “You want younger, you pay more,” he says. “But these girls no good. I take you to market – the girls more beautiful there.”

The shop-front brothels that line the streets surrounding Mong La’s 24-hour central market make no attempt to hide their trade. Inside, scantily dressed girls style their hair and paint each other’s nails, while others sit around watching TV and taking selfies. Every so often a car cruises slowly down the street, and a yell from a brothel madam sends the girls tottering out onto the road in their high heels. I watch as one car stops and the girls jostle for attention at the windows, the madam pushing the youngest to the front. Eventually, the windows close and the car continues down the road, leaving the girls to totter back to their seats as a yell from the next shop sees another group rushing outside.

Inside the glittering shopping mall, filled with cheap Chinese imports and fake designer labels, Sai Tip takes me upstairs, where ritzy, upmarket “bars” are housed along with a cinema. Inside, girls in tight black dresses and diamante heels sit around on velvet sofas. They seem happy to welcome me inside to show me the selection of expensive foreign alcohol they have for sale, and one of the girls displays a bottle of Moet, priced at almost $150. Sai Tip tells me 800 yuan buys a stay of up to 12 hours here, including a buffet and girls “who serve you whatever you like”.

Gamblers play for money inside a souvenir shop. Gamblers play for money inside a souvenir shop.

The next day we visit Mong La’s notorious central market, a known magnet for wildlife traffickers who cater to the medicinal and culinary desires of their Chinese customers. In reality, the bustling, open-air market largely just sells fresh produce and meat, though a small area at the back sells animal parts such as ivory, deer antlers and desiccated squares of elephant skin. Live animals such as tortoises and monkeys sit in miserable cages, surrounded by animal feet and leopard skins. Recent Mong La “exposes” claim that most of these items are now fake, but WWF Myanmar spokeperson Ye Min Thwin said the wildlife trade on the border remains serious.

“Recent studies suggest that the number of shops selling wildlife products in Mong La has more than trebled in the past eight years. Animals such as slow loris and tigers are known to be sold there, and many shops sell parts of tigers, clouded leopards and other wild animals,” he said.

Products like wildlife meat and tiger bone wine, Ye Min Thwin tells me, are consumed in Mong La by Chinese tourists, while many of the skins are exported to China as souvenirs. “What is needed is better enforcement in the area so Chinese tourists are not bringing illegal wildlife products back into China,” he said.

Authorities in China may turn a blind eye to the trafficking of women and wildlife, but when it comes to gambling they have been far more vocal. In January 2005, reportedly concerned about the lawlessness of the town, the Chinese army crossed over into Mong La, shut down the casinos and sealed the border. But Sai Lin simply responded by moving the gambling dens to an area of jungle 16km south, and by 2007 he had built more than two dozen casinos – connected to cameras by super-fast internet connections to allow remote gamblers from Shanghai and Beijing to take part via live video feeds. Now, the area boasts more than 28 casinos – with many more under construction –and most Chinese gamblers cross the border illegally via dirt tracks straight into “casino city”. Signs outside reminding Chinese tourists that they are forbidden to enter do little to deter them.

While the abandoned casinos are left to crumble in the centre of Mong La, the glitzy new casino area is a truly incredible sight – huge columned palaces with names like Royal Casino and Casino Lisboa rise up in bizarre contrast with the villages and rice paddies that surround them. Armies of young casino workers in waistcoats mill around outside, and inside they robotically flip cards and spin wheels for the crowds of Chinese men and women squeezed around the tables.

But what of my search for a Mong La that is more than just vice and debauchery? In theory, Mong La could make an excellent base for trekking into the surrounding villages, and I ask Sai Tip to take me to the Shan and Akhu villages in the hills outside the town. For travellers looking for an “authentic” hilltribe experience, however, village life here may come as a surprise.

Chinese tourists enter a casino in Mong La’s “casino city”. Photos: Charlotte Rose / The Myanmar TimesChinese tourists enter a casino in Mong La’s “casino city”. Photos: Charlotte Rose / The Myanmar Times

“These villages very rich,” says Sai Tip. “The children all go to work in the casinos when they are 14 or 15, and stay their whole lives.”

In one of the Shan villages we visit, every house has a car or 4x4. We stop to talk to a family sitting on the steps of their wooden house, just a few metres away from a brand-new Range Rover. One of the women, dressed in traditional Shan clothing, tells us their son and daughter both work in the casinos, where they earn around 4000 yuan ($640) a month.

For many, it seems, Mong La represents a chance to make their fortune, far from the poverty of rural Myanmar. I met two boys who told me they had come to the border from Taunggyi to look for work. “I don’t like it here. We don’t speak Chinese and no one understands anything we say. But there is no work for us at home,” one said. Back in Kengtung, several people told me that there are few young people left, as they have all gone to work in Mong La’s casinos.

For others, however, the lure of winning big in the city’s gambling dens has left them with nothing. This is a city built around separating people from their money, and temptation lies at every turn, with slot machines, live lottery draws and casino tables in almost every hotel, bar and shopping mall.

I watch as a family with a small child pull up on their motorbike outside a small downtown casino – which Sai Tip tells me is frequented by “poor people who bet small money”. The mother jumps off and runs inside clutching a 100 yuan note, only to emerge minutes later, shaking her head. As in Vegas, it seems, the house always wins in Mong La.

Back in Kengtung, getting my passport back wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. Travelling alone, as it turns out, isn’t such a good idea after all.

“You go Mong La! You are security risk!” says the immigration official, with a smile that said he knew I was nothing of the sort. “We give you back before you leave. Do you have passport copy?”

I shake my head again.

“You go Mong La with no copy? That is not a good idea!” he exclaims. He walks across the office and removes a rice cooker from on top of a photocopier. “No problem – we make copy here.”

Getting there and around
Yangon Airways and Air Bagan operate flights to Kengtung from Yangon. Tourists are not permitted to travel to Kengtung by bus from Taunggyi.
Guided tours of Mong La from Kengtung ($158 including English speaking guide and car) can be booked at the Princess Hotel in Kengtung ([email protected]).
A pick-up truck leaves Kengtung for Mong La daily when full. A faster (and more comfortable) alternative is to go by share-taxi (around 100 yuan/$18). Arrive at the taxi waiting point early in the morning and let the drivers know where you are going (or take someone with you who can speak Myanmar), and they will pick you up at your hotel when they have enough people to fill a car.
Shwe Lin Star Travel in Mong La can help you find accommodation and arrange a guide – but it’s going to be difficult if you don’t speak Chinese or Myanmar.

Despite what the writers of Lonely Planet might tell you, there are many comfortable accommodation options in Mong La. Upmarket options include a branch of the Sheraton (rooms approximately $90 per night). Cheaper rooms can be found in the town’s many “motels”. The problem, of course, is that signs are all in Chinese, so finding them is more of a challenge. Shwe Lin Star Travel can help you.
In Kentung, Golden World Hotel offers basic, clean rooms for $30 per night ([email protected]). The New Kengtung Hotel offers slightly tired but pleasant rooms for around $50-60 per night, and has a pool.