Mong La is an odd place. Perhaps one of the oddest. Located on the Chinese border, the city lies within Myanmar, but is part of the semi-autonomous Wa State, a finger of land controlled by the United Wa State Army, an ethnic militia closely associated with drug production and trafficking. The Wa — former headhunters — have their own government, license plates (attached, almost exclusively, to white, ’90’s era sedans) and road signs. Chinese is the lingua franca in Wa State, and the Chinese Yuan is the accepted currency. Mong La is one of the few cities in all of Myanmar to have electricity 24 hours a day.
Years of open and unrestricted prostitution and gambling made Mong La the epitome of the lawless border town. The vices were a huge draw for Chinese tourists, who came in great numbers to visit casinos, fornicate, take photos at the town’s “zoo”, and catch a stage show at the town’s transsexual cabaret. Drug use among locals was rampant and open, and Mong La became known in the western press as the “Las Vegas of the east”. Finally, in 2005, the Chinese authorities decided that the party had gone on long enough, and closed its side of the border to all but locals.
Today, Mong La is largely the shell of the place it used to be. The Wa authorities claim to have eradicated drugs in the area, and have erected a bizarre museum to honour this achievement:
Many of the town’s casinos are abandoned:
The former transgender cabaret is crumbling and covered in weeds, and the town has an overabundance of huge, mouldy hotels.
Yet the one vice that appears to have survived in Mong La is the trade in wildlife.
In one corner of what appears to be an otherwise typical Southeast Asian market is a knot of vendors selling items gathered from the forests. Goods range from paraphernalia associated with wildlife — porcupine quills, bile, bones, organs:
including what appeared to be squares of elephant skin:
to entire animals, dead and alive, including civets and voles:
reptiles and birds:
larger animals including deer:
and smaller animals:
I had been taking photos for several minutes and to my surprise, the only person who objected was the woman preparing the animals above. Although she couldn’t speak Burmese (very few people in Mong La appeared to), it was clear that she was threatening to call the authorities if I continued to take photos, so I left.
In addition to these vendors, there were also shops around the perimeter of the market stocked with what appeared to be ivory and exotic animal pelts; eyewitness reports and photos online suggest that tiger skins and organs are among the wares available.
It’s a disturbing sight, particularly when coupled with the state of the environment surrounding the city, one of hills bald from deforestation or covered by vast rubber plantations. Yet Wa State’s autonomy and increasing demand from China ensure that the trade in wildlife will continue indefinitely.
Mong La’s Morning Market
Mong La, Shan State, Myanmar
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