Mist rises over the Mekong River. My fire has almost burned out and I’m curled into a ball on the wet sand, freezing. I barely slept. My travel companion has cracked a rib. Our boat’s pilot, who slept below deck, has nothing but dried noodles, same as last night. We’re somewhere between Laos and Myanmar – though exactly where, we’re not sure. We’ve encountered pimps, trigger-happy soldiers and gangsters on this trip. But it’s the river that has dragged us closest to breaking.
This was supposed to be a story about gambling, animal trafficking and sex. Then it became about obsession and drug bosses so huge they make El Chapo look like a street-level pill pusher. The mafias that hide in the hills of the Golden Triangle – the point where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet – have created a £47 billion industry that destroys lives as far away as New Zealand and has paralysed entire Asian cities.
At this industry’s heart is the thing we’ve spent weeks hurtling through perilous hinterlands trying to find: The Machine. It has carried us to corners of Myanmar locked in forever conflict and riddled by mines. These “black zones” are often off-limits to foreigners and claim hundreds, if not thousands, of lives each year. They’re also where, by some estimates, 250 tonnes of methamphetamine – either as cheap pills or high-grade crystal, aka “ice” – is pumped into the world. There are now more meth addicts than there are Australians. And the problem is spiralling.
As the haze lifts we embark on the second leg of our trip, down a river whose banks have scored borders and conflicts for centuries. They’ll carry us to a casino on its muddy shores, where this saga began, almost four months previously. Back then, it had all seemed so simple.
A hot mid-morning last October. Our rustbucket longboat spluttered gamely across the river from Thailand to Laos and into another world. Brownshirted guards at the Laos border took £27 for visas into their country. But the place beyond the exit signs – the place I and three others had travelled halfway across the world to see – was somewhere else altogether. The Kings Romans resort is a jungle Vegas, carved out of a special economic zone (SEZ) the size of 20 Hyde Parks in the heart of the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet. Its vibe is low-rent hedonism, a Roman orgy with nibbles from Greggs. The resort’s owner, Zhao Wei, is Chinese. So is everything else. People spend yuan, speak Mandarin and may travel there visa-free from China. A statue of Confucius greets visitors to a faux-historic Chinese village. Lao cops rarely patrol. Even its clocks are set an hour forward to Beijing time.
The Kings Romans was crazy. Tourists hunted drugs and women in packs
The first suggestion you’re stepping into a modern-day Gomorrah is the gold dome of a half-built hotel that pokes from a rolling, low-slung landscape of trees and hills. The second is a Routemaster-sized gold-and-green crown that sits atop the Blue Shield Casino, the Kings Romans’ premier gaming venue. Loaded Chinese come to gamble away millions – something that, until recently, they could do within China’s borders only on the island of Macau.
Our hotel, the Kapok Garden – named for a sprawling Central American tree – was less glamorous. Its sky-blue walls were peeling in the heat and a lot of rattletrap cars and pedal rickshaws hardly screamed wealth. Inside, a sign on the wall advertised a “Zero Clock” room to rent by the hour. Alcohol, as inside the casino, was banned. Just down the street is a Chinese “Ayia Napa”, where neon signs beckon punters into restaurants, bars and dozens of pink-lit venues with names such as “Leisure Club”. Cranes cast long shadows on crumbling streets, along which convoys of trucks transport construction material throughout the day. Despite its shady reputation – or more likely because of it – the Kings Romans is a boomtown.
Zhao’s own journey began 66 years ago in Heilongjiang Province, a vast, poor region on China’s northeast border with Russia, where he became a successful timber merchant. He poured his earnings into gambling – first in Macau, then the Burmese-Chinese border town of Mong La, where in 2000 he built the Nan Dun Casino. Zhao imported Chinese workers and exotic fauna, some of which is said to have wound up on the casino’s food menus.
LAOS. Golden Triangle. Special Economic Zone. Kings Romans Casino. Most of the workers are Chinese, Burmese and Laotians.
© Chien-Chi Chang
The region became a ground zero for the region’s illicit drug trade. Mong La sits in Shan State, an empty, lush corner of Myanmar the size of England and Wales. Until Afghanistan overtook it in the 1990s, Shan was the world’s biggest source of opium and heroin. Later, as heroin production waned and ethnic militias wrestled semi-autonomous fiefdoms from Myanmar’s feeble ruling junta, Shan became the home of “yama” (“horse pills”), meth-and-caffeine tablets first produced to stimulate pack horses across the area’s dense, hilly terrain. Humans soon acquired a taste; they either crushed and snorted them or burned them on tinfoil and chased the dragon of their fumes (AKA freebasing). The high could last days: perfect for an all-night party or a long shift at work. But it rotted teeth and skin. Meth addicts often looked like wild-eyed zombies. Thai authorities found another name for the drug: “yaba”. Crazy pills.
It was a new pandemic for a drug that existed long before Walter White and Breaking Bad. A German scientist first synthesised meth in 1887. Its use became widespread by soldiers fighting the Second World War, when even Adolf Hitler reportedly received a regular shot. When the war ended, meth fell into the hands of mobs across Asia and doctors prescribed amphetamine – AKA speed – as diet pills.
Zhao found himself at the crossroads of a new meth boom. Mong La helped traffic drugs while providing safe access for constituent chemicals from the neighbouring Chinese province of Yunnan. His casino welcomed Chinese citizens and officials to squander their savings. When Beijing caught wind in 2005 it banned travel to Mong La. Two years later, the Laos government signed a 99-year lease with Zhao on a 38 square-mile stretch of land on the banks of the Mekong. A third of it became the SEZ on which the Kings Romans, which broke ground in 2009, now stands.
Zhao denied the Kings Romans was a criminal haven, while keeping close relations with Lao officials: resort brochures boasted of a visit from the country’s once-leader Choummaly Sayasone. Though meth shipments seized in Thailand have been traced back to the SEZ, Lao police complain they aren’t able to gain access.
“We have done a lot to stop drug trafficking here,” Zhao said in a rare 2011 interview. “We have our own special economic zone police and an office of the Lao police here. We take a very strong position against drug trafficking: this is our responsibility.”
The US government disagrees. In January 2018 its Treasury sanctioned what it called the “Zhao Wei Transnational Criminal Organisation”, which it claimed was exploiting the region “by engaging in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery and wildlife trafficking, much of which is facilitated through the Kings Romans casino”. Reporters who tried locating Zhao’s Hong Kong holding company found only denials and dead ends (I could not reach the business either, nor would the Kings Romans comment for this story). Zhao himself described the sanctions as “malicious rumour-mongering”.
Mong La still exists. But it is one of many “black zones” in Myanmar that are entirely shut off to foreigners. According to the United Nations Office On Drugs And Crime (UNODC), it and the Kings Romans are part of a network of dozens of casinos that help fuel a drug industry worth up to £47bn, between two and three times that made by Mexican cartels. “We’re talking about guys in Myanmar bigger than El Chapo,” Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC’s regional representative, told me. A suspected Canadian-Chinese crime boss named Tse Chi Lop is accused of building an empire worth £14bn alone.
Yaba and crystal meth travels mostly through Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia into the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Each country faces its own meth epidemic. A small amount of Southeast Asian drugs make their way to Europe. Local producers showed me pictures of ecstasy pills taken in clubs in Berlin and London. The region’s meth has even washed up in Los Angeles and other coastal US cities.
The number of casinos has exploded alongside the drug trade. Cambodia has almost three times the number of licensed venues it had in 2014. Laos, similar in size and shape to Italy but with a ninth the population, confines its five to a handful of SEZs. Many are suspected of playing a role for regional druglords that experts believe ramped up when a 2014 Chinese corruption crackdown smashed its drug and money laundering industries, scattering criminals among its neighbours.
Myanmar ditched a law banning foreign-owned casinos in 2018, paving the way for even more drug money. Ruled by a barely fathomable patchwork of ethnic militias, rebels and corrupt Burmese army (Tatmadaw) generals, crime bosses could land in an isolated spot, pay off the relevant strongmen and get to work. Myanmar’s new meth lords have upended the country’s economy. Entire towns rely on drugs to survive, in a country where almost half the population lives in poverty. Myanmar’s hinterlands rely on drugs in the same way as Medellín during the years of Pablo Escobar. Myanmar is a narco-state.
In recent years crystal meth, or “ice”, has become the country’s export-of-choice, cooked in factory-sized labs that look like breweries. Meth doesn’t rely on good poppy harvests and it employs far fewer people. Its users cut across all levels of society, from poor addicts craving a quick high to truck drivers on long shifts and high-end bankers working across time zones.
Many Burmese labs switch from ice to yaba production, knocking out the cheaper and lower-grade pills to poorer, local markets. The rest goes to rich nations such as Australia. There, hounded by cops and priced out, biker gangs have given up on domestic production. Instead, they go to Thailand, party and bring home Burmese ice.
Some sources suggested to me that the bigger facilities are able to switch production from drug to drug, using chemists largely brought from Taiwan. Many in the trade know these sites by a simple name: “The Machine”.
Military checkpoints litter the landscape and each demands different paperwork to pass. Entire towns are encircled by them. Fighting breaks out sporadically and nine of the country’s 14 states are riddled with minefields. Maps are unreliable and out of date. The government is one of the most corrupt on earth. Experts – even those who’ve lived in Myanmar for decades – rarely agree on who is producing ice and where. The Tatmadaw denies it plays a role. But with its omniscient presence in the country and its web of ceasefire and peace deals with militia groups, that must surely be questionable.
MYANMAR. Tachileik. Drug addicts.
© Chien-Chi Chang
“Are they actually providing physical security for them? Probably not,” John Whalen, a Myanmar-based former DEA agent, told me of the Tatmadaw. “They are providing security by allowing it to exist.”
At the top of this, like the heads of a hydra, sit places such as the Kings Romans. It is alleged that Zhao’s creation acted as a kind of Charon, ferrying rich Chinese from their regulated land to a Hades of sordid lawlessness.
“Once you’re in there, you don’t even know who you are any more,” said the Chinese-speaking taxi driver who took us into town on day one. “You spend all your money. Any kind of drugs you can think of, they will provide,” he claimed. That afternoon we visited the casino. Aside from its garish Greco-Roman marble pillars and statues, there was little to report. Roughly the dimensions of a football pitch, it comprises a ground floor of low-stakes baccarat tables, a pool room and an upstairs lounge of high-rolling, chain-smoking Chinese youth, tossing $1,000 chips like peanut shells.
Outside the Blue Shield, things get weird. At night the resort comes alive with street-food alleys and thumping techno that hops across streets filled with groups of drunk young men. Many of them sport bloodshot, thousand-yard stares – a sign of meth abuse. Women sit on plastic chairs looking bored – or nervous. It’s as easy to buy drugs as noodles. Finding underage girls (the legal age of consent in Laos is 15) is tougher. Twice we visited brothels, telling madams their employees were “too fat”, a gnomic for wanting kids that we said through gritted teeth. Twice we were turned away. Annoyed we were wasting her clients’ time, our driver – the same from that morning – took us to another hulking club, 15 minutes away on the edge of the SEZ border.
Swarms of skinny-jeaned Scheherazades swayed to ear-piercing electronic music, backdropped by a big screen relaying sexts punters left via WeChat. Beers were bought by the dozen and sex workers took clients to six small rooms behind the main stage. A group of pimps sat beside us, slapping our backs and laughing every time a girl danced in front of us. Most of the girls were aged somewhere between 15 and 20. At one table in the farthest corner of the club, however, sat six girls who looked much younger.
We left before midnight and wound up in a bar in the resort, whose owner – lanky with side-swept hair and a plaid shirt – told us he could buy drugs. After a couple of drinks, he loosened up. Life in the Kings Romans was crazy, he conceded. The tourists hunted women and drugs in packs. Local law didn’t exist. “The land belongs to Laos,” he said. “But the sky belongs to China.”
The next morning we rose determined to find exotic animals. A widely covered 2015 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, which described the Kings Romans as a “lawless playground”, claimed a nearby enclosure held 26 tigers and 38 Asiatic black bears. Its head keeper had allegedly boasted about his tiger breeding and butchery skills (Laos lost its last wild tiger in 2013).
LAOS. Golden Triangle. Brothel is out in the open in the Special Economic Zone.
© Chien-Chi Chang
Other exotic animals, including pangolins, and furs and ivory were on sale in shops. One had needed only to ask a restaurant owner for “yewei” (“wild flavour”) and they’d be handed an alternative, illegal menu. The 2015 report caused four restaurants that offered trinkets made from illegally poached animals to shutter. The tiger and bear enclosure had since been torn down and the secret menus were gone. But some claimed tigers were still held on the property. And a speakeasy-style nod, they said, might still win some yewei.
After a day’s enquiries, however, we were empty handed. Most people shook their heads nervously and refused to talk. Others said it was gone; a couple simply pointed at the casino. Dozens of security guards and cameras ensured we’d never find out. Our photographer left us to go into town to investigate further, and as the sun set we strolled across an overgrown field opposite the casino’s entrance, where children played football.
Buried between temporary buildings and piles of rebar was a collection of cages the width of a bus. A tarp on its side announced “Protect the Blue Planet” in English and Mandarin. Inside were 20 tigers, their fur faded and bodies gaunt. Chicken carcasses were scattered on the concrete floor. Faeces lay everywhere and the place stank.
Some tigers paced back and forth; others lay deathly still, staring at us. There was no way this was a zoo. After around 15 minutes, having spotted some concerning gaps in the metalwork, we beat a retreat back into town to wash away our experiences with cheap beer. I sent our photographer a message and dropped a pin.
The next morning we woke to a photo on our WhatsApp group: a tiger had mauled the photographer’s arm, gouging it with three deep claw marks. It was a good time to leave the Kings Romans. We hopped back over the Laos border, across the Mekong and back to Thailand.
LAOS. Golden Triangle. Special Economic Zone. Chien-Chi Chang is mauled by the one of the 20 tigers in ten cages.
© Chien-Chi Chang
I was left with more questions than answers. If the Kings Romans was a conduit – albeit a grotesque one – for a gigantic drug trade, where was the industry that lay behind it? How could such a massive issue be understood by so few? And why had nobody been inside The Machine? We headed to the Thai-Myanmar border to find out.
Myanmar was a druglord’s heaven long before Zhao Wei arrived. For centuries it was a collection of kingdoms home to a bewildering number of ethnic groups, before British invaders landed in the 19th century and steamrolled them all into one giant colonial possession, gluing it to the British Raj on the Indian subcontinent. Poppies, grown in the country’s lush highlands, were the primary crop in many regions. In the 1920s George Orwell, stationed in Burma as an imperial policeman, described the “cool sweetish smell of opium” that wafted through the country’s towns and cities. Colonial overlords granted “indirect rule” to tribal leaders, who paid patronage back to Yangon, the country’s biggest city (then called Rangoon).
Orwell’s five-year stint in the country would inform his later dystopian works, including Animal Farm and 1984. They may have been written about the decades of military rule that followed Burma’s 1948 independence. Ne Win, who won control of his country in a 1962 bloodless coup, threw a socialist “bamboo” curtain around Burma, isolating it from the world.
Win, who believed his lucky number was nine, issued banknotes in denominations of 45 and 90. When in 1970 a soothsayer told him he’d be killed from the right, Win ordered cars to switch from the left side of the road to the right. He ruled Burma just as bizarrely, decreeing a “Burmese way to socialism” that crippled the economy, making Burma one of the planet’s poorest countries. Opium producers switched to heroin, which is far stronger, in the 1970s, led by warlords who bivouacked in the jungles of Shan and other semi-lawless states, while the junta hermitised itself with Rangoon.
Win’s luck ran out on 8 August 1988 (the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighty-eighth year) when a pro-democracy revolution (whose lucky number was eight) won Rangoon. But the Tatmadaw denied the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s democratic icon, two years later and Burma was plunged back into darkness. Information was controlled by the state, the internet didn’t exist and mobile phones cost thousands of pounds. Burma’s generals renamed their country Myanmar – a more florid version of the same word – and Rangoon returned to its pre-colonial name of Yangon. In 2006 the junta decamped to a new capital built from scratch in the jungle, called Naypyidaw, from which it could safely steal as much of the country’s paltry wealth as possible, building a surveillance state that imprisoned dissidents at will. Naypyidaw had a 20-lane highway with no cars and neighbourhoods with no residents. Orwell’s paranoid fiction had manifested in his former home.
A 2008 constitutional referendum finally ended Myanmar’s North Korea-like isolation. Today, locals are less likely to look over their shoulder for spooks than at the screens of cheap Chinese smartphones. Outside the major cities, however, Myanmar is a failed state.
Warlords and militias had long controlled vast tracts of Myanmar. Some of the more infamous, such as former soldier Khun Sa, amassed billions of dollars flooding the world with opium and heroin. In recent years, if anything, the country’s control has been sliced and diced even more. Splinter groups have split from splinter groups, most of which fund their fight with drug money. Some militias barely govern land outside their own towns, with states carved up by People’s Front Of Judea-reminiscent acronyms.
The Tatmadaw, weak and corrupt, has brokered dozens of Faustian pacts with these groups, allowing them a scrap of self-administered land as long as they quit violence. The result is a quilt of quasi-kingdoms – some small enough to drive a golf ball through – all of which are producing heroin, ice or yaba. It has turned Myanmar into a semi-lawless, bureaucratic nightmare, cleaved into crumbs and barely functioning.
To us, once we crossed the Thai border into the small Burmese border town of Tachileik a day after leaving the Kings Romans, it meant our journey to The Machine would likely involve a multitude of rebels, drugs syndicates and government roadblocks.
Nonetheless, we chugged back across the Mekong confident we’d see it. We had no idea just how difficult seeing The Machine would be.
Two types of tourists come to Tachileik. Some cross the bridge from Thailand, walk through its parasol-covered market, grab a coffee and leave again, happy to have another stamp in their passport, avoiding hawkers who aggressively sell Viagra, cheap cigarettes and counterfeit football shirts. But others come for the vice. In Tachileik, everything is for sale. Fixers at the border offer tours of the town’s surrounding green hills, studded with stupas and monasteries. They can also direct you to casinos and “VIP clubs”, buy shipments of meth or heroin or matchmake any sexual predilection (one told us he travelled from Tachileik to Mandalay to find a virgin for a Japanese visitor). If somehow one has failed to satisfy illegal urges in Thailand, Tachileik will oblige.
At night the saccharine smell of opium wafts across bars and restaurants all over Tachileik. Drinkers keep the party going with the heart-pounding, red-eyed high of yaba bought for under £1 a pill. An overgrown Chinese cemetery on the town’s edge bustles with addicts and the homeless. They gather to share needles or suck up the wispy entrails of freebased yaba. So widespread is Tachileik’s yaba use, you become acutely aware of its visible effects after just a couple of days. If the Kings Romans is the Golden Triangle’s Vegas, Tachileik is its faded, beer-bellied Reno.
But it was production of drugs, not consumption, that we arrived in Tachileik to see, just three hours after we left the SEZ. Beyond the town’s limits is an area so heavily sliced up between ethnic armed groups that accurate maps are nonexistent and those that try look like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Find your way through or around the myriad Tatmadaw checkpoints that sit outside every major town and you might wander into a region governed by the Restoration Council Of Shan State, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Kachin Defense Army, the Lahu Democratic Union or any one of dozens of smaller “border guard forces” – former rebels co-opted against ethnic militias by Naypyitaw. And that’s not to mention Wa State, whose 30,000 or so communist troops patrol a region the size of Wales and as secretive as North Korea. Getting into Wa, once believed to be Southeast Asia’s leading drug producer, is an Iliad all of its own.
Drinkers keep the party going with the red-eyed high of yaba bought for under £1 a pill
Suffice to say, where there is division and misrule, there are drugs. Producers, users and smugglers routinely told me many cartels are stationed outside Tachileik – from mom-and-pop pill mills in bamboo huts to meth labs the size of tennis courts. Tachileik’s proximity to the Thai border and Mekong gives land and river trafficking options. Cops, who may earn as little as £90 per month, are easy to buy. Casinos and brothels wash money overnight. Tachileik is a two-bit town and a gangster’s paradise. I didn’t know it the day I arrived, but over the next four months it would become my Rome.
Still, after a couple of days the Tachileik grapevine brought us to Mark, best described as a Burmese Derek Trotter. (Mark is not his real name.) He is short with wide shoulders and bow legs. The edge of his mouth is forever stained red from chewing betel, a nut whose high is equivalent to six cups of coffee.
Mark’s side hustle is running Chinese gambling machines across Tachileik – psychedelic shoot-em-ups the size of pool tables on which punters destroy digital fish for cash prizes. His other earner is meth. Mark shareholds a cartel shifting ice and yaba from the Shan jungle. A dual-US national, he spent over a decade searching for Burmese footholds in the American meth market. But he returned to Myanmar having failed to find a state that wasn’t already controlled by South American or Vietnamese gangs. Now, he focuses on logistics between Tachileik and Thailand.
It was Mark who first mentioned The Machine. Speaking as if it were a mythical creature, he described a new kind of drug lab, one that could switch from ice to yaba to heroin – even to party drugs such as ecstasy – and make orders on spec, rather than pumping whatever it made straight to market. He showed us pictures of pills his own machine had pressed. Some of them were on sale at clubs in Berlin and London. This was Uber for druglords. We wanted to see it.
The first night we met, Mark took us to a small club in the city centre, where men played one of his fishing games and clouds of cigarette and opium smoke filled the air. Upstairs we discussed The Machine. Mark and two other shareholders briefed each other on who we were and how we’d get to their lab.
Yet profits, they said, were down due to a border crackdown by the Thai DEA, whose operatives preferred to shoot suspects first and ask questions later. Routes into Thailand, from where drugs often found their way to ships in Bangkok and other ports, were being squeezed. Perhaps chaperoning to their lab would add some notoriety? We weren’t sure. But Mark and his associates seemed keen, particularly a youngish man with an elaborate side-parting and heavily tattooed arms who grinned and sank can upon can of weak-tasting Myanmar beer as we spoke.
As days wore on we became more aware of our plan’s pitfalls. For one, it would involve travelling to a spitball town called Mong Hsat. That required a government-issued travel permit, as it would pass from Tachileik through Wa territory. Having failed at the first attempt with Tachileik’s immigration officers, we secured a permit to get to Keng Tung, a city around three hours away that once housed a royal palace, latterly Khun Sa’s largest yaba factory.
A second problem simmered. Each new night we spent in Tachileik, we picked up a new tail. Each night a member of the Myanmar police’s intelligence division, dressed in a shirt and traditional longyi kilt, would sidle up to our restaurant or bar and pace back and forth intently, sometimes for hours. Should we call him out, another would appear in his place. The more they appeared, the more spooked our hosts became. “Myanmar has the best CIA in the world,” one pointed out. Given they’re patrolling the world’s most successful drug industry, that may not be true.
Nonetheless, paranoia set in. There is a saying in Burmese: “You cannot trust your knee.” Everything is questionable. Centuries of colonialism and remote, despotic rule mean that nothing is to be trusted. Wait staff refuse to clear plates or bottles from tables so customers can’t claim they’ve had less to eat or drink and try to underpay. Trust is often afforded only to those within one’s own ethnic group. All minorities hate the Burmese – the nation’s dominant group – and Muslims. Engage the average Shan resident on the Rohingya genocide in the country’s northwest and you risk denting your faith in humanity.
All these peculiarities come partnered with a bureaucracy that would make Kafka shudder and corruption that ranks among the world’s worst.
Waiting around in a drug town to be led to a jungle lab by young men who are almost constantly high, all the while being watched by cops and God knows who else: the stress finds an outlet in true Tachileik style, ending nights by purchasing packets of plantain leaves soaked in purple opium and either chasing its fumes from tinfoil or smoking it out of a bong. There’s a reason people have taken it for centuries. The high is a helter-skelter, topsy-turvy mix of high and low: cannabis and cocaine rolled into one.
MYANMAR. Tachileik. Drug addicts.
© Chien-Chi Chang
The next morning we were finally headed to Keng Tung. The ride wends along empty roads through thick, serried flora. Before I arrived in Myanmar I wondered how a £47bn drug industry could thrive in a country the size of France. Staring out at Shan’s endless, rolling hills, which tail off towards the Yunnan border, I understood. We arrived in Keng Tung mid-afternoon and ate a barbecue in the shadow of Khun Sa’s old stronghold, the shell of which sits among pagodas on a dirty, man-made lake. Myanmar beer, drunk by the 600ml bottle, struggled to oil conversation. If the Tatmadaw saw us, we might have to cancel the entire trip. Worse, they might arrest us. We spent the night in a nondescript hotel outside town. We were drunk. The Machine felt a little closer.
Among Myanmar’s hermetic almost-kingdoms, Wa State is the strangest. Prised into two enclaves – one bordering China, the other Thailand – its 600,000 citizens live in a sealed quasi-state where every man is conscripted to an army decked in decades-old fatigues and China-made AK-47s. Wa’s military, the United Wa State Army, was once the world’s biggest producer of yaba. Since 2005, officials claim, it has weaned off drugs for coffee, rubber and other minerals. It is hard to believe.
Getting to Mark’s Machine through Wa required cover, so we posed as Christian missionaries, hoping to preach the gospel to godless communists. It worked. After just one night in Keng Tung, we hobbled back across mountain roads to Tachileik.
We crawled along the region’s dirt roads for six hours before arriving at Mong Hsat – a flat, dusty crossroads built around a tarpaulin-covered market of food and used Chinese goods – a little after sunset.
Police operatives on mopeds followed our battered Toyota Hiace. As in Tachileik, it was our presence, rather than that of a clique of drug producers, that stirred their interest.
Mark outlined our plan for The Machine. At dawn we’d head out, blindfolded, along a little-known jungle route, avoiding Tatmadaw and Wa checkpoints. Of the group, only Tattoo Guy knew it. He looked calm. Mark seemed cocksure, too. But, he added, his jaw dripping with blood-red betel juice, “If anything goes wrong, jungle justice will be enforced.”
We woke around 5am. Then, we waited. And waited. At first, Mark said he was waiting for the cops to leave the lobby. A day passed slowly, in stifling heat, broken only by a midday trip to the market. At night, the police – and walls of mosquitoes – ensured we didn’t leave the hotel. For the first time, our hosts appeared worried.
The next morning followed much the same pattern, except for one detail: Tattoo Guy had gone. Later that day, Mark told us why. The previous night, his accomplice had driven to the lab, stolen guns, money and drugs and sped off across the Lao border. Not even Mark knew the route. Just like that, our hope of seeing The Machine died. We spent an afternoon agonising as to whether it was worth staying in Mong Hsat, then gave up and rolled slowly back to Tachileik.
A day later I was sat in a Yangon bar with Mark. He seemed genuinely upset and told me he’d lost face. He and his associates were hunting Tattoo Guy. “He cannot live,” Mark added, offering to show me a picture of the body. I implored him not to do anything of the sort. To double down, I offered to return to Myanmar just after Christmas. I shuddered as the words left my mouth. I’d spent a fortnight chasing The Machine and was leaving with little more than notes, barely enough interviews to count on a single hand and memories of the strangest reporting trip of my career. Who knew meth dealers would be so unreliable? Myanmar had chewed me up and spat me out, as it has done to millions before me. I was unsure if I was chasing The Machine for the story or some personal wager with myself. Either way, I had to see it. The next morning, I began planning another trip.
‘The land belongs to Laos. But the sky belongs to China’
Upon our return to Myanmar in January, we visit Lwalkhan, a village in a pro-government militia territory 250 miles north of Tachileik. In 2018, the Burmese authorities had announced raids on two labs – a rarity – that held more than £5m worth of equipment. It’s night and almost all the village’s lights are off. Somebody has scrawled “Fuck you” on the wall of what looks like a youth centre. A middle-aged woman selling food and drink claims she knows nothing about the lab. One teenage boy who walks past stops to answer questions, before a friend cuts in. “Don’t talk,” the second boy says. “Be careful.”
Rumour has it the lab is back up and running. A pastor in a nearby town tells us it’s an open secret that the Tatmadaw raided the labs when they got too big to control. He sees trucks coming out of Lwalkhan regularly. “If you want to stay here,” he warns, taking short sips of Chinese almond tea, “you watch your mouth.”
The next day we return to Tachileik. Mark is back in touch. A friend had been caught by the Thai authorities with more than £200,000 of meth destined for New Zealand. Mark had been in on the deal too. Business is down and his friend could be sentenced to death. He seems worried and asks in a less guarded moment whether we’d consider smuggling a Chinese-made pill press into Myanmar for him. When we ask him about seeing inside his Machine, he’s jumpy. He says, “No one will be watching you. You’ll be fine. You’re not going to have any problem.” He seems high.
The next morning a Lahu militia member invites us to his home, near a monastery on the edge of Tachileik. He tells us his men are guarding an ice lab run by a Wa cartel in a village hundreds of miles west. This would prove the Tatmadaw, as many have told us, are in cahoots with the Wa to produce tonnes of meth. The Lahu man’s plan is familiar: we’ll wear Wa uniforms and travel in a tinted-window vehicle to slip past the many Tatmadaw checkpoints along the way. We fly from Tachileik to a distant city to continue negotiations. But two days later the plan changes. The checkpoints are too much and the Lahu won’t “take responsibility” for us – ie, they’re too scared to lose face.
Checkpoints are literal and figurative roadblocks in modern Myanmar. They carve up its land, divide its people and provide a safe haven for crime. They burn days of our trip and cut us off physically from those who might provide us valuable information. If anybody doesn’t want us to see something, go somewhere or speak to someone, there’s a simple one-word excuse. The checkpoints render Myanmar into a maze of impenetrable kingdoms, keeping the law away. More than that, though, they are a surrogate for poverty that’s not just financial but bureaucratic. Phone signal shifts from town to town. Most people have three or more numbers. Secret police litter the landscape. Families and friends are cleaved from each other. Simple journeys are made near-impossible, or worse. Outsiders are kept fully outside and locals are conscripted into pointless, unending battles against the state, stoked by China, mostly just to keep a small clique of generals and gangsters rolling in cash.
Once it’s clear we won’t get anywhere with Mark or the Lahu and his peers, we have one more chance to find The Machine. A contact in Laos tells us he knows a band of smugglers who operate between the two nations, in a concealed part of the Golden Triangle. We travel over two days through Myanmar, Thailand and finally Laos, before driving up the shore of the Mekong to a village that sits right next to a “friendship bridge” into Myanmar.
There, in a bamboo-hut restaurant, posing as Australian meth dealers, we meet the smugglers: a middle-aged couple from the village across the river, who claim that the easiest way to ship is via the Kings Romans, where they could deliver a tonne of product to the door of one of its restaurants. It’s the perfect stopover: no cops, no rules. They’ll skim ten per cent of the value of the drugs. Even that would leave us with millions of pounds of profit. But seeing one of their producer’s Machines? Out of the question. We thank them for their time, watch them walk back across the bridge with no intervention from border guards on either side and plan our final route back to Myanmar. Our chances of seeing The Machine dashed, we decide it’ll be more pleasant to take a longboat back down the Mekong to the Kings Romans, rather than spend another two days behind the blacked-out windows of our car. We haggle successfully with a local pilot, grab a couple of Beerlaos and get on our way.
It’s a wild ride, past vestigial rock formations, thick forest and grassy ranges that lollop on the horizon. Two hours in, far short of the casino, the sun dips behind the earth a final time and we moor on a sandy beach surrounded by mangroves. It’s too far to walk to the nearest town so we start a fire and stare at the star-filled sky. Some villagers are enjoying Chinese New Year celebrations nearby and fireworks soundtrack a night that gets increasingly cold and uninhabitable, forcing us into the forest on repeated firewood missions. On one, my travel companion slips in the darkness and breaks a rib.
We sleep in hour bursts before the fire dims and we replenish it, hoping snakes or other creatures aren’t alerted to the flames. Somewhere along the way I catch a rest, during which the sun splits day from night. Once a heavy mist rises above the river, our pilot chucks us some dried noodles and we continue the journey. Around 90 minutes later we spot the familiar gold hotel of the Kings Romans. Except this time its façade is almost finished and even more cranes dot its lurching skyline. Chinese lanterns hang from every building. Even the outbreak of the coronavirus doesn’t seem to have kept punters away from the casino floor. If the US Treasury hoped its sanctions would slow Zhao Wei’s hedonistic juggernaut, they hoped in vain. As we drive through towards the Laos border with Thailand, we spot the patch of land on which we discovered the tigers almost four months previously. All that remains is some dried grass. There has been more press about them since we came. Accusations of drug trafficking might do nothing to harm the Kings Romans, but perhaps the ire of the animal rights lobby is something it could do without. A colleague claims the yewei is still on the menu, though. The tigers, like The Machine itself, are somewhere.