Chinese flocking to gaming tables of Burma's sin city

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The Independent Online

Burma's wild east is taking on a definite Chinese flavour. Forget about an unofficial tourism boycott called by the Burmese pro-democracy opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. There's no stopping the busloads of high-rollers, who have been banned from placing bets inside China for the past half century.

Burma's wild east is taking on a definite Chinese flavour. Forget about an unofficial tourism boycott called by the Burmese pro-democracy opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. There's no stopping the busloads of high-rollers, who have been banned from placing bets inside China for the past half century.

By the end of this year, at least 200,000 tourists are expected to have crossed into the frontier town of Mong Lar alone. It is the boom town that heroin built. And now it is rapidly transforming into a bloated sin city popular with day-tripping Chinese gamblers and a others eager for cut-price vice.

Some 50 casinos have sprung up and adorn the horizon like giant neon jukeboxes. They lie just beyond the Chinese border to lure players into Shan State, an autonomous region run by ethnic guerrilla armies.

The Chinese yuan currency flows onto the gaming tables. Purportedly, even more is laundered behind the scenes.

Gesturing at a vast plaza of snack-carts parked under plastic awnings where call girls clutching state-of-the-art mobiles shelter from the drizzle, a tea vendor chuckles: "Welcome to Mong Lar. They say our GDP is guns, drugs, and prostitutes." A dozen Chinese sex workers play a board game with a long-legged Chechen transvestite. Normally, says one sullen blonde, groups of Taiwanese businessmen can be counted on, but just now business is slow.

From miles away, Mong Lar's illuminated gold pagoda gleams. A monument beneath it, with spiky towers painted a garish bubble-gum pink, is a drug-eradication musem erected by Khun Sa, the notorious Burmese druglord who turned his 1996 surrender into an economic strategy and lives off his drug wealth in Rangoon.

Under pressure from the junta, the narcotics barons of what is called Special Region 2 claim to have abandoned heroin trafficking. But sexual tourism has been embraced. Souvenir condom packs are on sale at the museum gift shop.

Brothel customers devour exotic meat in the belief that it will magically enhance their sexual stamina and there are places that cater for them 24 hours a day. Wines stewed with serpent or what appears to be tiger penis are on tap.

At the intriguingly-named Power Long Hotel, a "stimulating and hygienic" genital wash is supplied along with the toothpaste and soaps. Room service has extra telephone numbers if a customer has specific sexual hankerings. Room rate cards at other luxury hotels include charges for renting rooms by the hour.

In Mong Lar, gangsters and guerrillas have succumbed to another addiction introduced by the British, golf. A plush nine-hole course was built two years ago and subtlety is not a selling point: the country club logo is an S slashed with two golf clubs to make a dollar sign. U Sai Lin, a local druglord, is said to have funded the project.

The area is run by the Eastern Shan State Army which claims to have abandoned drug trafficking. But Mong Lar has been the centre for opium traders ever since the British Empire promoted poppy cultivation 120 years ago. Control of the trade passed first to fleeing Chinese Nationalist troops, then to Beijing-supported Communist fighters, to Vietnam-era CIA pilots who flew heroin cargoes on Air America and finally to the hill-tribe warlords.

Tribal guerrilla armies still hold sway in Shan State, but Bao Youxiang, the chieftain who runs Pang Kham gambling town to the north, blames cross-border heroin syndicates for any illicit drug trade. Chinese gangsters, he claims, collect suitcases of heroin from crude laboratories, where the refined drug is 10 times stronger than the gooey black gum smoked in dirt-poor hamlets upcountry.

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