Sin City is a label often given to Las Vegas, Nevada for its international reputation as an adult playground. And while you can certainly party hard in Vegas, there’s a far more sinister city you’ve probably never heard of.
The small Burmese city of Mong-La is known locally as “Special Unit Number Four”, a nod to its reputation as a city awash with a worrying sex industry, the trade of drugs and endangered animals, and gambling.
Situated in the infamous Golden Triangle region in northeast Myanmar, Mong-La receives thousands of visitors from neighbouring China on a daily basis. They’re keen on the city’s colourful nightlife and insane commerce opportunities, two things you might expect to see in a city run by a communist drug lord.
The neon-lined streets are awash with ladies of the night, each one trying to shepherd tourists into shady bars, nightclubs and casinos. Gambling is illegal in neighbouring China, which explains why they hit up Mong-La in their droves.
On a map, the city is very much part of Myanmar. In reality things are very different. The town is run by Sai Lin, a 2005 U.S embassy report called him a “regional leader and drug trafficker,” who is at the helm of an AK47 wielding “James Bondian private police force,” who monitor the streets night and day.
Walking down the various markets you can find everything from antlers and ivory to bears claws, elephant skin and tiger teeth. Many of the aforementioned items are believed to be medicinal by many people in the region. If that’s not your bag, then there’s plenty of moonshine on offer.
If you get a little peckish then Mong-La has you covered in truly bizarre fashion. Restaurants there feature cages of live animals with everything from Burmese pythons to anteaters. Consumers simply pick their creature, and they’re killed, cooked and served up right there.
China could easily and quickly stop the flow of tourists pouring into Sin City each day, but in reality it shares close ties with Mong-La. Many of the casinos are owned and run by Chinese businessmen; the clocks are set to Beijing time, the main language is Chinese, and the accepted currency is Chinese yuan.
That’s not to say that Sin City’s proximity to China is without friction. In 2003, the daughter of a Chinese government official crossed the border and reportedly dropped a cool $150,000 in casinos. China responded by sending troops over the border to shut down several casinos. The Chinese government also shut off Mong-La’s internet in 2013, a move designed to stop illegal live streams from inside casinos.
These knee-jerk reactions have also been short-term, which probably has something to do with the amount of money the place makes. It’s endangered animals trade alone is one of the most substantial in the world.
“The ivory trade is huge, as is the trade in wild cats, and bears, and slow lorises,” Professor Vincent Nijman, who studies the Mong-la Markets at Oxford Brookes University. 60 species are traded in the northeastern Myanmar city “a third is globally endangered and also about a third is legally protected.”
Recent additions to Sin City include a coal plant, a zoo, a shiny-new mall and the largest hotel in the city. Orange lights on the side of the hotel reads “Sheraton Hotel”, but the U.S hotel chains website reveals it has no involvement in the establishment. The fraudulent hotel seems right at home in the city of sin.
The city is currently experiencing a construction boom which is the biggest indicator of its popularity. But it’s also fragile. Should the Chinese government decide to turn off the flow of traffic at anytime, Mong-La will likely fall into disrepair. For the time being, the city of sin is thriving.