Chinese Tourists Flock to a ‘Pleasant Village’ of Gambling Dens in Myanmar

SPECIAL REGION 4 — At 8am, the road out of Mong La gets busy. Many visitors to this border town in the far east of Myanmar’s Shan State come to gamble—to do that, they must make the seven-mile journey to Wancho.

Eleven years ago, the National Democratic Alliance Army that controls this enclave on the Burmese-Chinese border moved Mong La’s casinos here, apparently responding to crackdown by the Chinese government after a Chinese official blew more than US$100,000 in a single visit.

Wancho, not the original name for this place, means “pleasant village.”

“The village’s name was Wanshow originally. But to make it a happy place, they changed it to Wancho when they built the casinos,” said Aung Tun, a Mong La resident.

About 400 expensive-looking cars take tourists to the gaming hub each day. Most are men and women from China, where, like in most of Myanmar, gambling is prohibited. They are not allowed to sleep in the casino village—although they can gamble 24 hours a day in the casinos—so many return to Mong La’s hotels at night.

The 15 or so casino buildings are topped with satellite dishes. Inside, many of the players wear headsets, communicating with high-rollers elsewhere for whom they serve as proxies.

The guards seem to let anyone in, but taking photographs inside is prohibited.

For many of the workers here, all dressed in black and white, the casinos one of the limited options for employment—outside of the sex industry and the illegal wildlife trade. But only 18-30 year olds are allowed to work, and those who reach 30 have to leave their jobs.

Hailing from Shan State towns like Muse and Lashio, or Mong La and the town of Tangyan in the Wa region, workers from various local ethnic groups alternate day and night shifts and are shuttled back and forth to accommodation in Mong La.

A local ethnic Shan ethnic woman, who has two daughters working in the casinos, told The Irrawaddy her daughters earn 3,000-4,000 yuan ($489-652) a month—a relatively high wage in the rest of Myanmar.

“I rent an apartment here in Mong La and have to pay 1,200 yuan [$195]. The rent price has high because many people come to work in here,” she said.

“The town does not have much border trade, so there’s not much work except for in the gambling industry. Most people here go to work in the casinos.”


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