It’s instantly obvious that gambling is the main industry of Mongla. Casinos proliferate and, as we turn a corner, we come across a gaggle of about a hundred young people dressed in black trousers or skirts, maroon jumpers and white shirts with black bow ties. They’re just one shift of croupiers on their lunch break from just one casino.
The L.T. Casino on the edge of town is a garish monstrosity of Las-Vegas-Meets-the-Orient architecture, featuring one-storey-high panels that depict glamorous gamblers in black evening garb silhouetted against a lurid lolly-pink back- ground. The building’s façade is a messy scramble of roulette wheels, dice and decks-of-cards motifs. The entrance ways are bordered by sickly bright-blue columns and arches which drip gilt, and the long sweeping driveway is bordered by profusely flowering hedges.
We pop into a lavish casino in the centre of town, the Oriental, to encounter acre after acre of cavernous rooms choking with faux marble, fake ornate pillars and gilt chandeliers. Oriental kitsch to the max.
We leave the casino and drive to the Chinese border. Mongla is confusing, but the border confuses me even more. It is a strange case of West meets East, East being Myanmar and West being China. The Chinese tourists who pour across the border are well heeled and fashionable in a Western style, arriving in gleaming new cars like downtown cosmopolitans from a fashionable Western city.
The last stand for Myanmar at the border is a drab roadside office, and [my driver] Sai Zoom suggests we check with the officials in case we need to report our presence. We enter a dim interior where officials are partitioned from civilians by old ornate iron scrollwork. A sign hanging from the scrollwork is the only example of the Myanmar language I’ve spotted in Mongla. An English translation informs me this is a ‘Saniton and Antiepedemic Station’. The officials laboriously enter information by hand in large antique ledgers, but they wave us out of the office as though we are nuisances intruding upon their Dickensian clerical duties.