SHAN STATE, BURMA
Mong La is defintitely interesting, but Burma is hard to travel through. It’s not North Korea; visas are pretty easy to get and you can fly into Yangon or Mandalay without any trouble, but tourists aren’t welcome outside predominately Bamar areas. Every single one of Burma’s borders happens to be in a minority region, so it’s pretty much impossible to enter overland.
Luckily, for the past few years the Shan State has been the one place in Upper Burma where you can both enter by land and travel beyond the border. The crossing at Tachileik is usually just a day trip – Thais cross the border to buy cheap Chinese stuff and tourists who need to renew their visas can just hop over and back – but the $10 entry permit actually allows a stay of up to two weeks. There’s no damn way they would have ever let foreigners into the rest of the country from Tachileik, but the road to Kengtung and Mong La was fine if you were willing to stop at military checkpoints.
Fine until the Kokang Incident, anyway. In August of last year the Burmese raided “a gun factory suspected of being a drug front” about 250km north of Mong La, sparking a breakdown of decades-old cease-fires with every ethnic minority army in the area. By the end of the month about fifty people were dead and 37,000 refugees had run into Yunnan.
Refugees from Kokang in Yunnan province, from Flickr user treasuresthouhast
None of this happened anywhere near Mong La, but the Burmese cracked down anyway and stopped letting foreigners in. It may have opened up by now, but I didn’t get far enough to find out – Since the Kokang Incident, all foreigners traveling beyond Tachileik need to hire a “guide.”
“Guides”, who may or may not be minders, cost about US$30 a day plus all their food and lodging. If you’re traveling solo that effectively quadruples expenses and I only brought US$250. Nobody could tell me if Mong La was even open, either. The soldiers at the border said yes, the tourist office lady with a curious Victorian accent said no and every other English speaker in Tachileik didn’t understand why I’d ever want to go there.
I did find one guy who was willing to take me without a guide – he wanted to smuggle me through the checkpoints in the trunk of his Lada.
In one week, I’ll be in Calcutta.
SPECIAL REGION 4, BURMA
Here’s a story about trying to get to weird places no one wants you to be.
Mong La sounds awesome. “Special Region 4,” in the northeastern Shan State, was a major hub for opium production until the junta completely eradicated it in the mid 90s. The region’s only source of revenue was gone, but the ethnic generals who controlled it realized that Mong La’s position on the Chinese border and near complete lawlessness made it a prime destination for tourists. The town quickly turned into the “Las Vegas of the East,” with 600,000 Chinese a year coming for the swanky casinos and brothels full of Eastern European hookers. Rich Chinese people were gambling away untold sums of money and it wasn’t long before luxury hotels, fancy discos and an amusment park were slapped together.
You know where this is going.
The relative of a powerful Chinese bureaucrat pissed up US$100,000 in a casino, so somebody pulled some strings and the People’s Liberation Army was ordered to close the border crossing. Everything fell apart overnight and the town was left in ruins.
Desparate for another source of income, the ethnic armies that controlled the area began to rape the landscape of Special Region 4 and ship the spoils off to China. Now entire mountains are being stripped of trees and any wildlife in the way is shot, dried and sold to middle-class Chinese people who think tiger penises will cure erectile dysfunction.
From Flickr user SoggyDan
From Flickr user SoggyDan
From Flickr user isafrancesca