The smuggling route into this rebel-run jungle outpost just over the Chinese border begins on the back of a motorcycle that takes passengers through steeply terraced rubber plantations and skirts the official crossing before ending at an outdoor market where bedraggled prostitutes mingle with Chinese tourists haggling over tiger claws, bear paws and desiccated squares of elephant skin.
At US$14 each way, the 20 minute ride is a relative bargain, although the price does not include payoffs to teenage Burmese insurgents at impromptu checkpoints along the way.
Tucked into the verdant forests of Myanmar’s eastern Shan state, Mong La is better known here by its Chinese name, Xiaomengla, in part because the vast majority of its residents are Chinese, as are most of the illegal day-trippers, drug mules, Christian missionaries and comely young croupiers who work in the city’s 20 casinos, most of which are Chinese-owned.
Mong La has a hilltop Buddhist temple and a picturesque colonial church, but vice and self-indulgence, not sightseeing, are the city’s main draws.
“There’s not much to do here but gamble and eat wild animals,” one Chinese matron said with disdain.
Mong La runs on Beijing time, 90 minutes ahead of the rest of Myanmar. Cellphone service and electricity are provided by China. China’s yuan, not the Burmese kyat, is the only currency accepted at the city’s roulette tables, storefront brothels and Sichuan-style restaurants.
As Myanmar embraces democracy after decades of military dictatorship, Mong La, the domain of a former communist rebel turned warlord-entrepreneur, is a glaring reminder of the challenges Myanmar’s government faces in taming the patchwork of rebel-held territories along its northern frontier.
Sai Leun, the warlord who runs what is officially known as Special Region No. 4, employs several thousand armed men who, for the moment, peacefully coexist with Burmese troops and the ethnic Wa militia that controls a neighboring piece of territory.
Despite its longstanding economic and historic ties to the region, China has a conflicted relationship with Mong La. A decade ago, alarmed by the legion of officials gambling away stolen public money, Chinese soldiers poured across the border to shut down the casinos. In response, Sai Leun simply orchestrated the construction of new gambling parlors 16km farther south of the border in a virgin tract of jungle.
In 2012, when China severed cellphone service to the area in an effort to choke off Internet gambling, casino owners brought in satellite dishes to maintain the flow of money from those who prefer to bet from the comfort of Shanghai, Guangzhou and other Chinese cities.
Analysts say the Chinese are reluctant to pull the plug entirely — something it could easily do by blocking cross-border traffic or by cutting off the electrical supply flowing south from adjacent Yunnan Province.
“If we banned tourism entirely, it would harm more than just the casinos and hit a lot of businesses that support the local economy,” said Zhu Zhenming (朱振明), an expert on China-Myanmar relations at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.
Officially, at least, Beijing tries to limit access to the city by requiring its citizens to obtain special permits; outside each casino, large red signs remind Chinese that they are forbidden to enter.