Sex, casinos and tiger parts: Myanmar's vice-riddled China frontier

People walking in Mongla, Special Region Four, in eastern Shan State.
People walking in Mongla, Special Region Four, in eastern Shan State.PHOTO: AFP

MONGLA, MYANMAR (AFP) - Bentleys and BMW convertibles roll up to the "Venetian Casino" in Mongla on the Myanmar-China border, a melting pot of sex, drugs and gambling on a frontier that has also become a "supermarket" for illegally traded wildlife.

This area of Myanmar is largely self-governed - lying within the country's borders but playing by its own rules, nestled in the eastern range of mountains and cut off from the rest of the country.

Instead, the region looks to China.

The yuan is the currency of choice, most people speak Mandarin and phones connect to Chinese, not Myanmar, networks.

It is also the insatiable Chinese demand for illegal wildlife products that is driving the booming trade in Panghsang, a reclusive city to the north of Mongla, in territory controlled by the ethnic Wa.

Tiger and leopard pelts are piled up in full view at streetside shops which also displaying ivory, pangolin scales and stacked cages of rare birds.

Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) conservation director Nick Cox says the open sale of the illegal products is a problem "not just for Myanmar but for the region", calling it a "wildlife supermarket".

A shop selling wildlife and animal products in Panghsang in eastern Shan State. PHOTO: AFP

As night descends on the quiet streets of Panghsang, pockets of pink light illuminate the gloom - emitted from the countless Chinese-branded massage parlours dotting the roads.

Further north in Mongla, sex and gambling are the main businesses in town, luring the playboy wealthy in a country where a third of people languish in poverty.

The city, which sleeps by day and parties by night, offers ample opportunities - both above-board and illicit - for people across the region seeking work.

Luxury cars cruise the avenues downtown, drinkers spill out of bars onto the streets and live lottery draws every couple of hours keep punters gripped.

The Venetian Casino and Diamond International are two of the swankier joints near town, with huge bouncers in black preventing undesirables from entering VIP areas upstairs.

Cranes dot the skyline of the city that cannot build accommodation fast enough.

But visitors are easily entertained.

Chinese characters on a signboard of a shop offering services to cross-border individuals in Panghsang. PHOTO: AFP

"These hotels have drugs, sexy ladies and everything," 24-year-old Ah Yan, from Tachileik in Shan state, says while smiling.

Rooms in more upmarket establishments can set you back US$600 (S$815) per night, he says, adding the big casinos offer pick-up services for their clientele.

Sex workers lining the pavements and pouring out of brothels thrust calling cards on passers-by.

Unregistered prostitutes cost US$7.50, while those with a licence can charge double.

Ah Maung, 22, comes from southern Rakhine state on the other side of the country, ending up in Mongla two years ago in his bid to find work as a mason.

He hoped to be able to send money to his parents back home but says the lure of casinos and brothels is just too much.

"I just can't save money. There's so much entertainment here," he confides.