MONG LA, Myanmar—In this gaudy mecca of eroticism and greed on the eastern border with China, the cuisine isn’t for the squeamish: Many items on the menu, including the drinks, are derived from poached endangered animals.
At one riverside bistro a tiger skeleton marinates in a dark alcoholic tonic in a 12-foot aquarium, its vacant eye sockets gazing down on patrons. The elixir is believed by its many aficionados to be a potent aphrodisiac that imparts the animal’s muscular vitality.
“The tiger wine is good for both men and women,” says a Chinese businessman who has lived in Mong La for a decade, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. “It makes a man strong in the bedroom.”
The wine, like its grape-based relative, must steep, preferably for at least a year. Then, discerning sex tourists can quaff it for 1,000 yuan ($163 U.S.) per bottle.
“Most people just take one or two glasses,” says a giggling waitress.
The drink is just one of many enticements that lure hundreds of Chinese across the border every day to Myanmar’s city of sin. As a taxi driver ferried us through the darkening jungle toward the neon-lit valley in the country also known as Burma, he summed up the destination’s decadent attractions:
“There’s not much in Mong La. Just prostitutes, gambling, and rare animals.”
Mong La is a smaller, seedier, anarchic version of Las Vegas—a collection of casinos and their associated vices in an unlikely, out-of-the-way place, though one where the rare animals are not for show, but for consumption. From humble market stalls to high-end boutiques, the town is a macabre menagerie where Chinese tourists can scoop up a bargain. A framed tiger tail goes for 30,000 yuan ($4,890), a tiger skin for 100,000 yuan ($16,300), and a prized rhino horn for 280,000 yuan ($45,640).
The city is the capital of Special Region No. 4, a largely lawless, 1,911-square-mile realm in a remote area. This territory is typical of Myanmar’s porous borderlands: a blind spot beyond government writ or regulation where local authorities apply national laws with caprice. In this crack between the paving slabs of statehood has sprouted the largest rare animal market in Southeast Asia—a poacher’s paradise.
“The rate of poaching in Southeast Asia is unbelievable. It’s being vacuumed out,” says Chris Shepherd, Southeast Asia regional director of TRAFFIC, a group that monitors the global trade in plants and wild animals.
During the past couple of decades, China’s extraordinary economic expansion has created a vast cohort of nouveau riche, eager to spend cash on totems of wealth and prestige.
China’s Middle Class Drives Demand
Today China’s middle class (those earning $10-$100 per day) number some 150 million, a little less than half the population of the United States. During the next decade that figure could more than triple, ratcheting up demand for Mong La’s unrestrained hedonism, bourgeois trophies, and traditional Chinese medicine.
“Poaching and wildlife trafficking of large mammals in Asia have increased exponentially over the last two or three decades, but also in Africa in the last ten years,” he says. “The driving force is the increased number of middle-class or affluent people involved in conspicuous consumption in Asia, particularly in China.”
It’s a similar story with the array of other endangered animals hawked in Mong La’s open-air apothecary: bear bile and claws, elephant hide and ivory, leopard and jungle cat pelts, as well as live pangolins, turtles, and monkeys.
In Mong La’s main market, a woman sells four-inch squares of dried elephant hide. She explains that they are ground into a paste and applied to wounds to help them heal. As she talks, a giant, blue-eyed husky saunters past, sniffs her goods, and then tries to befriend a monkey chained to a post.
“I sell all my products to Chinese tourists,” says the woman, who asks not to be identified. Like most of those interviewed in Mong La, she fears retribution for speaking openly from people involved in the illicit trade or local officials.
Continuing her sales pitch, she proffers what she claims are tiger claws, for talismans, and dried tiger penises, for extra sexual vim.
Menus across town feature turtles, lizards, and pangolins, the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Several pangolins sit in cages outside one restaurant, like anteaters in chain mail, awaiting the pot. The meat of this small armored creature is considered a delicacy; its scales are used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ills, including poor circulation.
In recent years an international trade in pangolins has sprung up from African countries to Asian markets, driven by China’s new affluence.
Animal Trafficking Replaces Opium Smuggling
It’s difficult to establish firm origins for the animals sold in Mong La. Of a dozen vendors queried by National Geographic, all said their tiger products came from Myanmar, although it is unclear whether they first had been smuggled in from another country.
Most locals, though, point to the surrounding jungle of Myanmar’s Shan State as the source. “In the past the business was drugs and heroin, but now it’s animals, mostly from southern Shan State,” says Abraham Than, an 88-year-old retired bishop, neatly condensing two decades of the history of the area known as Special Region No. 4.
Over a glass of local wine, Than talks about how Mong La’s fortunes have changed since he arrived in 1969.
“There were no buildings; it was a jungle village,” he says.
At the time, Shan State was overrun by rebel groups, far too many for Than to recall. In 1989, the army, which ran the country, reached a cease-fire agreement with the militants, including the National Democratic Alliance Army in Mong La. The NDAA, with about 3,000 troops, has controlled the region ever since, even as Myanmar has taken significant steps toward democracy.
Than built a Catholic church on a hillock overlooking the town in 1996, hoping to spread the Lord’s word in a new era of peace, but the word mostly fell on deaf ears. “I say to myself, ‘I have made a mistake coming here.’ I wanted to come here to be a monk in the quiet, but it’s so messy,” he chuckles.
In the 1990s the NDAA became heavily involved in the drug trade in the area, which is in the heart of the Golden Triangle. Along with Laos and Thailand, Myanmar once produced most of the world’s opium. It is now second behind Afghanistan.
Feeling the heat from the U.S. State Department, Myanmar’s ruling junta pressured the NDAA’s leader, Lin Ming Xian, to quit narco-trafficking, and by 1997 he proclaimed his fiefdom opium-free, but his reputation stuck.
One U.S. diplomat wrote in a leaked 2005 embassy cable that Mong La “is patrolled not by the Burmese army or police force but by a James Bondian private police force funded by regional leader and drug trafficker Lin Ming Xian.”
Mong La quickly turned to substitute vices: gambling, the sex trade, and rare animals culled from the jungle.
“It’s not regulated. Special Region No. 4 has been basically allowed to do what they like as long as it isn’t opium. There’s a real Wild West element to the place,” says Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based political analyst.