In reality, Mandarin speakers fill nearly every seat at the baccarat tables and electronic slot machines. Few bother applying for a pass and instead sneak in, via motorbike or by climbing through large holes conveniently located on the border fence.
Mong La thrives by appealing to humanity’s more base desires. Hotel rooms are littered with palm cards hawking “newly arrived virgins,” “mother-daughter combos” and “sassy 16-year-olds with large breasts,” while hotel televisions broadcast round-the-clock Japanese pornography, along with Chinese historical dramas and South Korean soap operas. Crystal meth is widely available, as are handguns, stolen cars and a Noah’s Ark of endangered wildlife — owls, bamboo rats and tortoises — displayed in cages outside restaurants.
The city’s anything-goes ethos has turned Mong La into a magnet for wildlife traffickers eager to satisfy the medicinal and culinary cravings of its Chinese clientele. Stores openly sell Tibetan antelope heads, clouded leopard pelts and wild tiger limbs — items banned in China. At the live animal market, caged monkeys and pangolins, scaly anteaters whose meat is highly prized in southern China, await slaughter.
Vincent Nijman, a zoologist at Oxford Brookes University in England, said Mong La has become one of Asia’s largest markets for endangered wildlife. In recent years, he has cataloged about 40 rare and threatened species at the market, among them a hairy-nosed otter — an animal that until recently had been believed to have been extinct.
During his most recent visit in January, Nijman and a colleague from the conservation group Traffic counted 49 whole elephant tusks and 3,300 pieces of ivory for sale.
“There’s absolutely no attempt to hide anything,” he said. “The scale of the trade is shocking.”
At night, Mong La resembles a neon spaceship that crash-landed in the jungle, but the potholed streets are thick with desperation.
“I came here a rich man, and now I have nothing,” said a 43-year-old cabdriver, a former businessman from Chongqing, who said he gambled away nearly 700,000 yuan (US$115,000), more than a decade ago.
The driver, who gave only his surname, Zhang (張), said he longed to be with his family but could not leave until he earned enough money to regain his pride.
“I won’t let my family come here, because this is no place for children,” he said before turning his attention back to the poker game on his cellphone.
Having borrowed money from loan sharks, some residents are trapped as they await money from relatives. Others are outlaws who have found refuge in a lawless land. Liu Qiao (劉喬), 40, a blustery man from northern China, fled here in 2009 after gambling away what he said was US$1.6 million that belonged to his mining company.
Fearing arrest if he returns to China, he found work as a so-called casino agent, escorting wealthy gamblers to casinos and arranging cash advances through a company that gives him a small cut of each loan. Asked what happens to those who cannot repay their debts, Liu smiled uncomfortably.
“You don’t leave until you pay,” he said.
With many of his Chinese customers spending the Lunar New Year holiday at home with family, Liu was eager to accompany a group of Western visitors he mistook for high-rollers. After a bone-rattling drive along the unfinished road that connects the city center to the gambling district, he showed off the Casino Lisboa, a Thai-themed gambling hall presided over by a large Buddha, and the Royal Casino, its brightly lit facade dressed in fluted columns and Roman centurions.