I’m in the back of a luxury Limo on a dirt road, it’s pitch black outside only the occasional checkpoint light breaks the darkness as we speed past the armed guards unchallenged. I’m in one of the most totalitarian regimes on earth, no passport, no travel permits, alongside me half a dozen Chinese gamblers and one enemy of the state………
After what seems like an eon the jungle canopy breaks and the car pulls up in the middle of a vast levelled area concealed deep within the forest. Gaudy neon lights of illegal casinos illuminate the area, around a stream of limousines are pulling up in front of the casino doors dropping tonight’s punters off. Sprawled between the casinos a small array of support businesses intermingle; minimarts, liquor shops, bars, slots, street eats and street traders.
We have arrived at one of the most lawless and secret places on earth…….
Thailand left, Shan State right
Unlike most of the Shan who still either fight on or are under heavy military occupation and oppression, the Democratic Alliance Army of the Eastern Shan State have made peace with the Burmese junta and live in their own autonomous enclave in the east of the state. The region is ruled by warlord and former drug lord, the Chinese born Lin Mingxian, better known by his Shan name Sai Leun. For three decades his Chinese backed communist forces fought bloody war against the Myanmar government until the late 90’s they made peace along with his neighbours the Wa.
His fiefdom has the serendipity to border Thailand at Chaeng Saen and Dalou in China as well. Much of the 30 year war effort was funded by drug exports to Thailand, the Chaeng Saen to Bangkok highway even gained the nickname the ‘speed’ highway in the 90’s and it was the widespread rumour that Thai politicians paid for the Ya Ba pills, the army drove them down the speed highway to Bangkok, the police took delivery, stored them in a house a few doors along from Ramkanghaeng police station and passed them on to the Thai mafia for sale on the streets.
Part of the peace conditions imposed on Sai Leun was he had to give up his drug manufacturing activities. Sai Leun complied, however peace with the Burmese government is uneasy at best and one of constant wondering how long before they break the treaty and invade. The tiny state has cultivated a dependency on China allowing large numbers of Chinese migrants and illegal workers as well as businesses to move in, this along with its main trade, rubber and teak, all going to China maybe he has done enough to ensure Chinese military support if under threat.
The Eastern Shan have also allied themselves closely to the Wa to the north who have made a similar uneasy deal with the Burmese government. The Shan’s forces number only 2,500 and offer little problem for the Burmese army, however the powerful Wa with their 30,000 strong modern army are a different proposition. The Wa alliance comes at a cost to the Shan though, the Wa are arguably the largest drug manufacturers in the world, but lack a border with Thailand, so the Shan must allow them to freely traffic their produce across the Shan state to the Thai border.
The Eastern Shan themselves deforested the jungles, planted rubber and teak, created a tax free shopping haven for Chinese tourists and opened up a casino town complete with five star hotels, clubs, discos and multi story hostess bars to rival Las Vegas. All went well, Chinese gamblers flocked to it and soon 16 Billion Yen a year was finding its way into the statelet’s coffers, when China put its foot down threatening to close the border and cut off the electricity if the casinos were not closed down and even sent troops into the state to ensure this was done.
If the Chinese thought the casinos dead and buried they were very much mistaken, a few years ago rumours started to circulate the casinos had reopened in a secret location in the jungle. News reports stated virtual gambling was going on, cameras, mics and earphones were fitted to proxy players in the casinos and Chinese could gamble via them through the internet. Sai Leung also started to build a power station so the Chinese couldn’t cut him off.
When I read the news stories it left me wondering, if true, how virtual e-Gambling could ever be anything but a novelty and surely couldn’t generate the billions of Yen the casinos had……. Something fishy was going on, so I hooked up with the Burmese speaking founder of Burma Global Action Network who through an epic Burmese secret service blunder had to his amazement been admitted into the country, and we set off to investigate.
I get the idea the Burmese government are not too keen on Shan moving around the country. All the roads out of each town and village have a checkpoint a kilometre along them. This made driving through Myanmar a slow process, at one point we needed 25 checkpoint passes just to travel from one town to another. Checkpoints ranged from large concrete affairs with car parks to wooden huts beside the roads with barriers. Each one checked the papers of everyone on the bus. It was a slow process 8 hours just to go 180km.
British colonial buildings in Shan State
In the 1970’s Burma had changed from driving on the left side of the road to the right, this despite the fact all the neighbouring countries drive on the left. This would have been all right had Ne Win’s policy of ‘sufficiency’ isolating Burma from the world not been such a disaster and only a few new cars since the 70’s had made it into the country. This meant most vehicles were still right hand drive, making Burmese busses the only buses I know with two drivers. One sits in the driver’s seat on the right hand side and steers the bus, the other stands on the left giving him information on traffic coming in the other direction, cars don’t have this luxury so drive around the winding mountain roads half blind. The reason for the change from left to right was rid itself of British colonial influence. Ironically they are still one of the last three countries in the world not to have adopted the metric system, surely a more sane way of ridding yourself of colonial influence. Then again who said Burma was sane.
The Burmese countryside is ugly; I’ve seen deforestation all over Asia. In Thailand the forests are gone and houses, factories and towns sit on their former location. In Lao, in place of the some dense forests sit neat rows of rubber and teak plantations. In Indonesia forests are replaced with paddy fields and working farms. In Burma the trees are gone and just desolate wild scrub left revealing the legion of shell holes from their war with the Shan, and no attempt made to replenish the land.
In the central Shan area the heavy military occupation is apparent, military bases surround Shentung, convoys of military vehicles plough through it daily and there’s an air of oppression among the local Shan. The owner of our guest house brought home just how oppressive as she recalled the tale of how a few years ago the police had burst into her home at midnight and dragged her husband away, who mysteriously died in jail shortly after, his crime, speaking English and meeting tourists surely must have meant he was involved in subversive activity.
HQ of central Shan, now under Burmese military occupation and turned into a timberyard
Once you get into the interior of the Shan State travel become harder as foreigners are not allowed to use busses and the only option is taxi which can be expensive, even though this is about the only thing in the whole country you pay local rate for. Cars are expensive to buy, a fourth or fifth hand 70’s car will cost 200,000 baht and the driver must recuperate the cost somehow.
It was while stopping at a checkpoint in one of these taxis we make our first spot of a physic nut plant, these plants should be everywhere as the government was forcing all Burmese to buy 2-4 plants from the government and plant them in their garden, however unsuitable climate and soil caused most to die. In the Burmese language the nut plant’s name is ‘kyet suu’ which is similar to Ang Sung Suu Kyi’s name backwards. The superstitious government made the law believing the plants would ward off her evil spirit from every house.
After 4 days of travel we reached the Eastern Shan State around midday, arriving at the border checkpoint we paid our admission fee, (yes admission fee) to get in. As we crossed the border the world changed we truly were in a theme park. The farmhouses were no longer wooden huts but villas, the farms flourished with vegetation and were brimming with animals, neat crops and the latest modern farm equipment. Brand new Maseratis and Hummers sped passed us on the modern roads which carve their way through the tended rubber and teak plantations, yes we were in Burma one of the poorest and least developed countries on earth.
Eastern Shan State
We entered the Mongla valley, a scenic canal carved the town in two, spanned by ornamental Chinese bridges, a huge boulevard ran along either bank. In the picturesque hills around the town luxury apartments, villas and brand new temples nestled between luxury mansions. Along the boulevards lined up massive five star hotels, casinos, luxury car show rooms and parades of modern shops……… Every single one with Chinese signs.
Not one word of Burmese, Shan or English could be found in the town, ironically two shops had Thai signs, one a boutique the other a travel agent. Chinese meter taxis drove around the town, Chinese people worked in every business, made up the entire staff of every hotel from cleaner to manager, ran every shop, were 100% of the tourists, and not one spoke a single word of English, Thai or Burmese. With the exception of the Shan troops at the Chinese border who could speak Thai we were well and truly buggered.
First stop we reported to immigration, we had already surrendered our passports to the Burmese in exchange for travel permits, now the Shan relieved us of these, this could be a long stay. We wandered around the town for an hour looking for something that resembled a guest house, after visiting a few hotels and working out just how out of our price range they were, along a side street we luckily stumbled upon one and the owner ran out and gestured us to come in.
We spent the next few days exploring the town, we ate lunch at a huge modern centre piece market and quite by chance sat next to some Shan builders who were in town for the day carrying out some work and chatted to them. If you speak Thai you can’t understand a word of the Shan language, however just as in Lao, Thai TV makes it into the Shan state and all Shans speak good Thai. Shan after all is a Burmese bastardisation of the word Siam, the Shan call themselves the Tai Yai in their own language and speak a dialect of the Tai language group, so have little difficulty picking up Thai from TV.
We wandered around examining the casinos scattered throughout the town for signs of life, large ones that rivalled Las Vegas to smaller and more intimate ones. All were derelict having closed down over 3 years ago. Peeking through the glass we could see the dusty gaming tables and abandoned floors.
The derelict casinos
Just what an isolated place we were in became apparent when we worked out there were no banks in town and no internet either. With Yuan the only currency taken we counted our blessings we had spent half a day searching for a black market money changer before we entered the region, all the time worried being the only foreigners in the vicinity we may have been being observed by the secret police.
In the evening the town became a red light area, huge disco sized hostess bars lit up in neon, many small shops completely empty apart from 2/3 girls sitting on chairs in them opened up and a small side street of shops with curtains where front walls should be opened for business. In each 20/30 girls sat at tables both in and outside, cars drove up the road picking them up and taking them back to hotels. Chatting to one of the madams we found the girls were all from Yunnan and spent a few weeks/months illegally in town each year to supplement their incomes.
Another day we visited the Anti-Drugs Museum and met the towns only English speaking and non-Chinese resident, an Ankh who worked for a UK aids charity handing out condoms and some quite graphic leaflets to the drivers of cars as they crossed the Chinese border. That evening too we met someone we could communicate with, a Thai woman who could speak Chinese and was doing business in town. Pointing at food works great but when the restaurant has no rice on display asking for it is difficult, we went through our repartee of foreign languages, but it was when I asked for Khao Plao that the Thai cavalry arrived.
It was leaving this restaurant another night that we scored the goal we came for, we bumped into a 72 year old Chinese gambler who spoke some English. Born in India, he lived their for 30 years, spent the next 30 in Sweden and the last twelve in Vancouver living half a kilometre away from my travel companion and what’s more he able to tell us the covert information on how to get to the casinos.
The secret jungle casinos
Video of them, before I was stopped filming
We exited our Limo and made a brief survey of the area, there were nine casinos of varying size spread over an area of half a kilometre, as well as shops many local hill tribe had set up selling food such as Khao Lam. Some luxury cars were parked outside the casinos but most gamblers used the casino’s transport. The atmosphere was laid back just some casino security in tuxedos but no military or police presence.
We entered our first casino; it was one of the smaller ones. Twelve tables covered a large single in room which could be described as doing its best to impersonate a marine blue carpeted and cream walled snooker hall. Compared to the luxury casinos we see in movies at Vegas or Monte Carlo this was more Klong Toey than the Oriental. These casinos were clearly hastily built functional but no glitz replacements for the luxury ones closed down in town. The Chinese among Asians are usually particularly well noted for being underwhelmed and nonchalant at the appearance of westerners. However on this occasion I felt like the proverbial gunslinger walking into the western saloon and the whole place going slack jawed and goggle eyed as I entered.
The game being played was Chinese Baccarat, a game that makes the western version look like rocket science. It consisted of 2 or 4 cards being drawn in two piles, red and blue and punters betting on which pile of cards added up to the higher number. A Majongesque style count was kept showing which pile won each round. The game was initially confusing as the betting wasn’t colour coded and red on the betting mat didn’t necessarily correspond to the red pile of cards, instead I had had to quickly memorise a couple of Chinese characters.
Each table had a clear stated minimum and maximum bet, the cheap tables 10-200 Yuan or 20-200Y, more expensive tables 200-2000Y. In the third casino we visited about 30 people crammed around the cheapest table, I felt sure enough of the rules and I hesitantly put my first 10 Yuan bet on the red pile and won, the following game too. Within 20 minutes I was 40 Yuan up then back down to zero again. Then I hit a streak and won four in a row, as I did I noticed the man standing beside me following my every bet, I guess I was appearing the player with his luck in tonight.
We moved on to the next casino and then the one after that determined to visit all of them. The fourth an biggest casino had a huge floor of tables and a second room. Investigating this room which was quite small we saw just two tables and around them a cluster of players, only these players had headphones and microphones on. Around the tables was bright studio lighting and multiple cameras covering the table form all angles, we had found the world infamous e-gambling tables.
My first suspicion was correct, the e-tables were not a viable business just a novelty or smoke screen to the dozens of tables with live gamblers we saw. Within a few hours we had visited each of the casinos, all the time Chinese turning up by the score in black vans, limousines, Chinese taxis and luxury cars. It was my first time in a casino and at the end of the evening I went home 1500 baht richer.
Visiting the Eastern Shan State had been a revelation, sort of Disneyworld for the Chinese Nouveau riche. Sai Leun’s little realm was no more democratic than Burma but it wasn’t oppressive. The Eastern Shan were wealthy and content, I wondered if it would be the same if they weren’t so wealthy. I also wonder if it can survive. Each year the junta’s power grows along with their military strength and one by one the regions outside their control are picked off. The answer to the question I guess is how China will react to a town of Chinese people and investment being attacked by the Burmese army, has Sai Leun cannily outwitted the junta by turning his state into some more akin to part of China than part of Burma.