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The Golden Triangle in Myanmar is the region to the far east of Shan State where the country meets the borders of China, Thailand, and Laos. Due to this opportune crossing point, the Golden Triangle is renown for the illegal passage of anything from teak to opium, tiger skins to humans. In the last few decades the Burmese military has largely been able to quell the flow, but there is one patch where the Tatmadaw has no control at all.
Mong La is located directly over the border from the Chinese town of Dalou in Yunnan Province. Otherwise known as ‘Special Region 4’, Mong La is an autonomous state run by the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) an insurgent army of roughly 3, 000 troops that split from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1989.
That same year, the NDAA signed a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw; the ensuing peace led to an economic boom as the passage of opium and narcotics was allowed to flow unrestricted. Investment from China began to roll in and what was a small Shan village began to transform into a quasi-Chinese protectorate. Today, electricity and telecommunications in Mong La, as well as imports and exports, are dependent upon their powerful benefactor to the east; Mong La runs on Chinese time, trades in the yuan, and Mandarin is the lingua franca.
Mong La has been built up to be a Chinese vice town. The emergence of casinos and brothels in the 1990s attracted wealthy businessmen not only from China but also from Thailand and Japan; spending time in Mong La was cheaper than gambling in Macao or going to a brothel in Bangkok. This, and the open trade of endangered animals, both live and in parts, led to Mong La being dubbed ‘the Wild Wild East’.
Rumours of the debauchery and daring of life in Mong La attracts the more adventurous travellers to the Golden Triangle. Reaching the Wild Wild East is actually remarkably easy, requiring only a visit to the Kyaing Tong Immigration Office and allowing them to keep your passport until your return. [Please see below for updated travel advice.]
The journey from Kyaing Tong is beautiful, passing through some of the finest forested mountain to be found in Shan State. Half way into the trip you will pass through the Burmese checkpoint into ‘no man’s land’ and about 40 minutes after that reach the border of Mong La. The atmosphere is less professional here and for that reason slightly unnerving. While your papers are verified in a dark, slap-dash hut, gangly, young guards skateboard awkwardly down the road, their guns slung loosely on their backs like forgotten lacrosse sticks.
The emergence of casinos and brothels in the 1990s attracted wealthy businessmen not only from China but also from Thailand and Japan; spending time in Mong La was cheaper than gambling in Macao or going to a brothel in Bangkok.
The richly forested mountains surrounding Kyaing Tong are soon replaced by naked pinnacles with great clefts of earth dug out of them. Through a veil of white dust one emerges upon what seems to be a mammoth building site. Young men and women appear from behind mounds of rubble clad in checkered shirts and big boots caked in the white residue from the rocks that they heave up the hill in wheelbarrows or in sacks over their back. Lolloping with sure feet up the road, with their conical hats and bandanas covering their mouths and nose, they appear somewhat like sentinels of the Old Republic. Shouting foremen wearing cowboy hats bellow out orders over the din of patched up chinese machines belching out black smoke.
Heaving their way down the road – not so much driving as falling into and revving out of a long series of holes – heading in the direction you have just come from are sleek SUVs and minibuses with tinted windows. Unfortunate predecessors lie tipped over and neglected in the ditch.
These are the suburbs of Mong La where the old casinos have been relocated to and brand new ones are being built. Within the SUVs are the plungers and cardsharps on their way to another full day at the gaming table. In 2003, supposedly after the daughter of a high-ranking official in the Chinese government gambled away over $150, 000 in Mong La, border controls were tightened, and the People’s Liberation Army stormed the city to oversee the closure of the casinos.
Just down the hill from the restaurant, the elephant that once danced for visitors now sits shackled and undisturbed in its cage, and there is no-one standing on the viewing bridge to point and yelp when a gnarled snout emerges through the surface of the crocodile pond.
Though U Sai Lin, the leader of the NDAA, responded by merely relocating the casinos and providing a free-taxi service to and from them, the party scene of Mong La in the ‘90s has never quite been revived. The old gay discotheque where go-go dancers and ladyboys once performed every night is now a quiet and little frequented restaurant. Just down the hill from the restaurant, the elephant that once danced for visitors now sits shackled and undisturbed in its cage, and there is no-one standing on the viewing bridge to point and yelp when a gnarled snout emerges through the surface of the crocodile pond.
The centre of Mong La is dominated by square and gaudy Chinese hotels, the tat of the reception visible from the soulless boulevards that lacerate the town into blocks. On a hill towards the Chinese border, reminiscent of Christ the Redeemer, looms a large Standing Buddha, one arm outstretched, index finger pointing as if damning the sordid and slightly depressing metropolis below it.
The image stands on the platform of the Wat Long Pagoda, inside of which one can visit pint-sized reconstructions of Shwedagon, Mahamuni, and other religious sites of note in Myanmar that the locals of Mong La are barred from reaching. Outside the pagoda is a monastery where young novices play football and hang up their washing to dry. They appear much like their counterparts in the rest of the country save for the aviators and snapback caps worn to pimp their saffron robes.
Next to the football match, scantily clad tourists from across the Chinese border squeal as they set fire to whole cartons of incense, and in the afternoon breeze an empty can of Taozin rolls across the entrance to Wat Long.
The market is more exciting. Although bustling and busy like any market in Myanmar, here wads of Kyat are not handed over to vendors as tender but instead hang in clumps in plastic casing for curious locals to purchase as a novelty from a foreign land. Men and women sit around drinking beer and playing Ma Jiang and instead of boys wearing shirts from Stamford Bridge and Nou Camp the youngsters sport the names and clubs of the Chinese Super League.
In cages, erratic baby monkeys scream and bicker; brightly coloured birds flutter with their wings clipped; and in dim corners you may see a morose porcupine squeezed into a small cage, only patches of spikes left upon its raw body. There are bees nests full of wiggling larvae, liquor served in vats containing dead cobras and complete crocodile paws marinated in wine. Due to increased international scrutiny, it is said that “the best stuff” on offer is now kept behind closed doors.
Encircling the market are brothels and massage parlors with verandas where prostitutes lounge with signs above their head promising ‘mother and daughter shows’ and ‘fresh virgins from Vietnam!’ When the sun goes down, the bridge just over from the market becomes bedecked with girls leaning on the banisters for a going rate of 300 yuan.
There is not much for the tasteful traveller to enjoy in Mong La after sunset. The nightlife is mainly made up of kitschy bars selling expensive, illegally imported alcohol, karaoke clubs and the smoked filled casinos. You will pass more of these on your way out of the city. Around their backdoors hordes of young croupiers smoke, smartly dressed in glitzy waistcoats and bow ties, most from over the border in Shan State proper.
Mong La has become as much a destination for Shan teenagers looking for employment as it is for Chinese gamblers and sex tourists. Though reportedly housed in brick dorm blocks similar to those used for workers in Chinese factories, it is said that in the casinos they can earn up to $600 a month, far more than they could hope to earn farming in a Shan village. As Richard Cockett writes in his book Blood, Dreams and Gold, ‘any more wholesome alternatives for the Shan economy have long been superseded by the Mongla mix of [the Thai methamphetamine tablets] yaba, yaun, karaoke and sex. Such has been the fate of the princely Shan States.’
In the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, though the current state of affairs is better than war, and one could argue that the ‘mountain children’ of Shan State would feel just as out of place working in Yangon, for a city that is so reliant on the good-will of China, one wonders what the NDAA will be able to fall back on when China stops looking in the other direction and pulls the plug on the Wild Wild East party for good.
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.