The Outlaw of Mong La

In the Eastern Shan State of Myanmar is a Special Administrative region run by a warlord instead of the government. Its special status means that the main city of Mong La is a place beyond the legal framework of Myanmar, it is a place with no laws. The vehicles have no number plates as there is no department for regulating them. The city is a den of vice where the trafficking of drugs and animals is conducted in the open along with prostitution. Chinese tourists spill over the border in droves to try their luck in the many casinos.

Having previously attempted to enter via Kengtung in Shan State but found the road to be closed due to deteriorations in relations between the warlord and the government of Myanmar, I decided to try again by entering via the unofficial Chinese border used by the gamblers crossing each day to try their luck. Perhaps their luck would help me get through.

Bus Timetable
Bus Timetable

From Jinghong in Xishuangbanna prefecture a bus runs to Daluo, the town that sits on the Chinese side of the border opposite Mong La. In the places I passed through it seemed that almost everything was under construction or falling apart – there was very little middle ground.

Messing Around With Borders

Border map Mong La
Border map Mong La

At Daluo bus station a mob of motorcycle taxis surged forward with every bus that arrived.

Taxi mob at Daluo bus station
Taxi mob at Daluo bus station

Somewhere nearby was a formal way across the border for locals with the appropriate papers and border passes. But these local fixers could arrange transport along the unofficial route through the ‘mountains’. The price was normally two hundred yuan, but for a foreigner it climbed to three hundred. There was a lot of waiting around while phone calls were made and things were arranged. Twenty minutes later a motorcycle arrived to collect me. At first we headed directly towards the border but then turned off on a side road along the canal. As we drove along the canal path, the driver began glancing across to a cornfield on the right where the roof of a small hut could be seen with the Chinese flag on a pole above it. We stopped and waited until a man emerged from a path through the corn and summoned us. He was carrying a phone in each hand. He told us to stop and wait in the tall corn. Nearly ten minutes passed and there was the sound of a semi-automatic weapon firing off rounds in the middle-distance. A second passenger arrived on a motorcycle taxi and joined us – this Chinese man was the reason we had been waiting and his arrival meant that we could then move forward to a hut on the edge of the field. The occupants collected ten yuan as the fee for allowing us to cross their land.

We pushed through bushes along a muddy path for about fifty metres to a new concrete border road that was under construction. The two of us ran across the road to where another young man was beckoning us and we went through a hole in the fence on the other side of the border to enter Myanmar. After scrambling up a short steep muddy slope we were taken through the rubber palm plantation on motorbikes that navigated the slippery and deeply rutted path. Further down the trail was a clearing by the road-head where half a dozen people were waiting at a small hut. Three pickup trucks were parked there. The fees were paid to the main ground-level organizer who also provided a contact number.

The two of us were driven in a pickup truck along the road into Mong La. There were soldiers in lookout posts but we drove past them. We pulled up beside a check point, disembarked and were asked to show identification. The soldier at the check point entered the details from the Chinese man’s ID card into a database on the computer. He then looked at my passport with a sneer on his face, shaking his head.

My driver/handler asked him in Burmese, “How much?”

The soldier shook his head again. He wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. It was a case of Mong La and bust. I had arrived, but I couldn’t stay.

Everyone on the Chinese side had been willing to let me make the attempt. I wondered how many westerners came through and were not granted entry. Likely very few, since the handler gave me a substantial discount on the return journey.

Damn those officials of the Eastern Shan State Special Administrative region, but in spite of them I got my five minutes in Mong La!

Mong La city
Mong La city

The bloggers and journalists that wrote about Mong La and brought the place to my attention should take some of the blame for the tightening restrictions on movement of people across the border. The Myanmar authorities no doubt don’t appreciate such attention online. Ultimately the main revenues generated here are a result of the supply routes from Myanmar to China and not from being a destination for tourism.

Was my attempt to experience a place with no laws thwarted by the whim of a gatekeeper or by state level policies? The border agent was tasked with entering into a computer system the details of each person crossing the border. If it’s part of a computer system, then it must be linked with the central Myanmar government systems and they are therefore aware of all the people crossing the border despite the region supposedly being under the control of the warlord. Representing this border as an unofficial crossing point is merely a fairytale told to the world.
Perhaps both the Myanmar government and the Wa Army warlord are under pressure from senior Chinese officials to keep Mong La’s casino trade running for the benefit of the “Big Bucks” in China, to continue outsourcing iniquity from where such activities are frowned upon in mainland China. Market forces have created the outlaw oasis.

The Trend of Excluding Westerners From Places With No Law

People from the West don’t deserve such a place with no laws. Overthinking everything, as a culture they generally manage to trample anything that might approach freedom of expression. They bury spontaneity beneath layers of rules and their opinions about what is good and bad. There are so few arenas in life where a person can truly challenge themselves.

But Mong La is a place without someone else’s laws. It wasn’t made for me. Westerners are trouble. I am a Westerner. I am trouble to their little world of no laws.

Places with no laws need protection from the likes of Westerners.
And who can blame the gatekeepers to Mong La? Their business is at risk from self-righteous and outspoken bloggers with no fear of repercussions for what is said online. When a thread of dark tourism revelations is published it only ruins things for the regular visitors having fun in this adult playground.

It should not be presumed that a place with no laws comes at no cost. A pseudo-political infrastructure needs to be put in place and maintained by special military forces to establish a playground for the high rollers.
But I was on a search for meaning. I was curious to see the logical consequences of a law-free zone. Yet visitors from the so-called developed countries are quietly being excluded from lawless party zones around the world. Westerners aren’t invited. People from other cultures seem more prepared to let go of their normal selves for longer and have fun without limits. Westerners cling to their identity and they fear who they may become without the ingrained rules they carry around with them.
Freedom of travel and movement is the modern dream that is quietly fading. ‘Thou mayest’ is the order of the day, until the gatekeepers decide that thou may not.



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