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Mong La

Officially called Special Region 4, Mong La (or Mongla) is an autonomous region of Myanmar in the Golden Triangle. The town runs on Chinese time, the principal currency is the Yuan, and when visiting you will see and hear more Mandarin than Shan or Burmese. The centre was once a hub of casinos filled with Chinese letting off steam, but in 2003 the People’s Liberation Army stormed the city and shut them down. Unabated, Mong La’s government began constructing new casinos towards the border of Myanmar proper.

Nonetheless, much of the spice of Myanmar’s Wild Wild East was extinguished. The dancing elephants perform for only a score of punters each week and the flamboyant gay disco overlooking the magnificent Nong Nain Lake, once the gyrating hub of the town’s nightlife, shut down when the influx from the East dwindled to a trickle due to the strengthened Chinese border. Nonetheless, there is still much of interest. At the market, alongside fresh fruit and veg one finds monkeys, hawks, and plucked porcupines in cramped, miserable cages; locals sit down to heated games of Ma Jiang and the outer rings of the market is made up of brothels and massage parlors.

The Golden Triangle, where Myanmar’s border meets that of China, Thailand and Laos, is known to be a hive of illegal activities including smuggling and opium cultivation. This is more the case in Mong La, Myanmar’s Sin City, than anywhere else, however there are still non-illicit activities to take part in when in the region. Abstaining visitors to Mong La can be seen walking down to the ‘Border Stone’ and have their picture taken with one foot in Myanmar and the other in China.

On a hill overlooking the town, the Wat Dwaynagara displays reconstructions of the great holy sites in Myanmar such as Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda and Mandalay’s Mahamuni; locations indefinitely cut off to the majority of Mong La’s population. Outside on the terrace, bare-shouldered girls in short dresses burn incense while little novices wearing snapback caps mess around with their laundry and use empty bottles of Tsingtao beer as football goal posts.

It is no longer permitted for tourists to travel to Mong La from Myanmar. If and when the border opens once more, travellers to Mong La should be aware that foreign dollars spent here can inadvertently prop up an unseemly and exploitative economy. 

To find out more about Mong La you can read our article on Myanmar's Sin City here.