Flowing through the heart of the Golden Triangle, the Mekong is a conduit for all manner of criminal operations. Drug smuggling is the major illicit industry, but other contraband moves along the river too.
“We concentrate mainly on stopping yaba, but guns, cigarettes and petrol are also smuggled from Myanmar,” said one 19-year-old Laotian soldier based in Xieng Kok.
Laos does not have the resources to stop the growing of opium in the nearby hills, let alone staunch the flow of drugs in and out of its territory.
“One time last year, they sent a helicopter up and found some fields,” said a local farmer named La Te from one of the hill villages. “Then, the government sent soldiers to cut down the poppy. But they only got a little bit.”
Nor is Myanmar able to regulate the Mekong. Much of Shan state is off-limits to authorities, dominated instead by rebel ethnic-minority armies funded by by control of much of the drug trade in the Golden Triangle.
Only Beijing can assert any semblance of control over the Mekong. It is even able to influence the Shan state militias, as it demonstrated by putting an end to the piracy that was rampant on the river until recently.
The cue for that was the murder of 13 Chinese sailors, whose vessels were hijacked and used to transport yaba, as they travelled south from Yunnan province to the port of Chiang Saen in Thailand in October 2011.