Casino patrons smack fistfuls of yuan onto gaming tables, calling out bets with bloodshot eyes. The room is windowless, ashy, loud. The game is simple and repetitive: higher or lower, played on digitized card decks. Signs near the entrances read, “No Chinese Nationals Allowed Within” — though this is merely a formality. The gamblers, staffers, pit bosses, and casino owners are all Chinese, here to illegally work in or visit Mong La.
The town sits in Myanmar’s Shan state, which borders China’s Yunnan province. Chinese entrepreneurs developed Mong La in the early 1990s as a hub for all the vices that were taboo or banned back home, like high-stakes gambling, prostitution, and so-called medicine from endangered animals. To cross the official checkpoint, Chinese citizens need a cumbersome permit. So many carve their own paths across the border.
At the bus station in Daluo, a Chinese border city, motorbike taxi drivers roam the lot shouting, “Tou du! Tou du!” (“Smuggling! Smuggling!”). There are no visas. No one checks identification. It costs USD 16, a healthy profit for a 20-minute fare.
The dirt path to Mong La is rocky and pockmarked. Spinning wheels carve out a course inches from the cliff, riding the thin line between 40 kilometers per hour and a straight drop to a painful end. But the bikers grew up in these hills and know them better than anyone else. Their families live in mountain huts, and tip them off if Chinese border police are nearby. Even if there is a chase, the rugged men in flip-flops riding bikes held together with duct tape can easily outmaneuver their uniformed pursuers on newer bikes.
The trees soon give way to Mong La, a rare breed of town based almost entirely around an unofficial economy. Traffic zips by a fake Sheraton Hotel before reaching downtown, which is only a ring of food stalls, a market for animal parts and fresh produce, a series of brothels, several pharmacies, and a few cellphone stores.
An aged Shan woman hawks tiger bone wine out of a small shop, ladled from a massive urn and poured into thumb-sized teacups. Pale amber, reeking of ancient herbs, the stuff tastes gamey and salty.
“I watched this place develop from nothing,” she says over a shared drink. “We had huts and fields, then the Chinese built modern things. Not for us but for their casinos.” Yet without the Chinese, she’d be out of business, she adds. “We don’t drink tiger bone wine. It’s the Chinese who sell me the bones.”
Gamblers in Mong La spend most of their waking hours in the ever-bright casinos, a half-hour car ride from downtown. In their downtime, when not throwing 100-yuan bills at dealers, they head for the street market. Here sellers brandish counterfeit certificates that say they’re licensed practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. A stroll through the compound brings sights of exotic animals, or parts of them: tiger paws and pelts; entire pangolins or bags of their scales; ‘wine’ made with bear bile stored in plastic water bottles.
Ancient Chinese medical texts claim these items are good for human health. Tiger bone wine allegedly boosts kidney function, improves blood circulation, and cures baldness. Some believe soup cooked with pangolins is anti-inflammatory and can cure cancer. Bear bile, which is extracted from live, caged bears and added to throat lozenges and shampoo, is supposed to be good for hangovers.
Never mind that scientists have debunked these claims. If the gamblers want to eat exotic, endangered animals, there are plenty of country folk to fill that demand. The catch? Some of the exotic found in Mong La is fake.
It takes a discerning eye to see through the ruse. Desiccated tiger and bear paws might have belonged to large dogs, the fur dyed and patterned, claws chiseled from spare bones then glued in. The same goes for pelts. Tiger penises meant to improve men’s sex drives were likely attached to more common beasts, like deer.
Chinese police have raided Mong La in the past, and casino owners operating just beyond their home country are blacklisted from returning to China. Officers from Yunnan go undercover to monitor the trade of endangered animals and the casinos. But pit bosses say bribes are routine and come in the form of sex and cash. Since visits are unofficial and the normal rules of immigration don’t apply, there are no records for how many Chinese nationals have been in Mong La. But all the casinos stay packed 24 hours a day.
Workers all have their reasons for being here. But most seem to be running from something, and the underground world of Mong La serves as an attractive escape.
One man, originally from Nanjing, tells others to call him Laoban, Chinese for ‘boss’. Constantly sloshed, he operates a bar and mahjong parlor right by Mong La’s lane of brothels. Laoban says he’s hiding from loan sharks, after losing everything he owned in the glitzy casinos and underground betting houses in Macau.
“I lost this much,” Laoban says as he holds up a hand signal that means eight — as in a staggering 800 million yuan, or over USD 121 million. It’s a steep figure, but not an outlandish claim for a former factory owner.
His debtors now seem like a distant threat, and Laoban is jovial enough to share his private reserve of booze. But as the boss recalls his story for anyone who cares to listen, the lesson falls on deaf ears. After all, gamblers are there to challenge boundaries—moral, sovereign, addiction—and talk of lost wagers is shushed. Gamblers stay for weeks or months if they are sucked into a losing (or winning) streak.
Time warps a little in Mong La. The clocks of China and Myanmar differ by 90 minutes. And while the vice town is part of the Burmese nation, its electricity and cellphone services are from China, so why not the time zone as well? Tell someone you want to meet at noon for lunch, and they may show up much earlier than expected. To avoid that confusion, visitors and locals tend to not bother marking the passage of time. Things happen by rhythm, not reminder.
In Mong La’s malleable time warp, fortunes are made, lost, and obsessed over. Half of the town’s stores have names that contain the Chinese character xin. Long Xin (long means dragon), Fu Xin (fu means blessing), and, of course, Xin Xin. Xin is three copies of jin, which means gold, stacked in a pyramid. That’s what Mong La is: a western frontier where visitors can arrive paupers, but leave as kings. With no clocks, there is no time limit to this transformation.