Tachilek, Burma

Buddhist monks, wrapped in sacred saffron-colored robes, flock here from monasteries in Thailand to stock up on cheap counterfeit movie videos and freshly ripped music discs, brought in from China,

Burma's northern neighbor.

Foreigners from all over the world trickle into this tattered town's bazaar in eastern Burma, a country also known as Myanmar, to buy well-made faux designer fashions from small, brightly-lit, modern boutiques

Pirated name-brand accessories, such as Christian Dior sunglasses, are hawked in nearby street stalls Uninhibited outdoor displays offer entire pelts from endangered clouded spotted leopards and other animals. Monkey skulls, bear paws and a variety of claws, internal organs and blood-infused potions are also publicly on sale, alongside Buddhist and animist talismans and icons.

Burmese men, women and children -- each wearing a chest-high, square plastic basket held by a cloth strap around their neck -- roam the crowded lanes, demanding people buy their pills, cigarettes, knives, lighters, and erotic videos. Their Viagra and Cialis medicine packets are professionally labeled, but officials throughout Asia warn that such privately sold pills are worthless or dangerous counterfeits.

Their cigarettes include cartons of Marlboros, Camels, Kents, and other famous brands, but customers say the cigarettes have been painstakingly emptied and restuffed with harsh, inferior, Burmese tobacco.

Bizarrely, the street sellers' baskets also offer new decks of playing cards featuring photographs of Iraq's late dictator Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants, most of them now captured or dead. The playing cards became famous when Americans distributed them in Iraq during the US military invasion, as hand-sized wanted posters.

Here in Tachilek, the decks are labeled in broken English: "Issued by Intelligence Agency of United States of America," and adorned with a US flag and American Eagle seal. The Ace of Spades, titled: "Saddam Husayn Al-Tikriti, President," is displayed face up in the basket, for customers interested in haggling. DVDs featuring nude women are also offered in the baskets, alongside Zippo lighters and big pocket knives.

Tachilek is a small town, and most foreign visitors come to shop for its dubious products, though Buddhist temples, a casino, and other sites attract some sightseers. To enter Burma, foreigners arrive from Mae Sai town, located on the northernmost tip of Thailand.

After passing through both countries' small, cramped, immigration and customs buildings, they walk across a short, two-lane bridge spanning a narrow, polluted river, which forms part of the Thai-Burma border.Located in what could be a lucrative cross-roads for import and export businesses, Tachilek is mostly a cluster of wooden shanties, bleak tea stalls, a dismal commercial district, and a garishly expensive golf course and hotel complex.

One of Tachilek's few tourist sites is a building where a group of minority Padaung tribal women are displayed. The females, known as "long-necked women," reveal how they wear spiraling brass coils around their neck, giving them a giraffe-like appearance.

Burma is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia. But it has been strangled for decades by U.S.-led international sanctions, which are part of Washington's unsuccessful bid to force regime change, amid hopes that democracy may flourish. As a result of the economic and political stalemate, and the regime's brutal repression, most Burmese are impoverished and live in despair. Money is so scarce that many Buddhist novices and monks disobey their religion's discipline and openly beg for alms, instead of silently and passively awaiting possible donations.

The military regime however struts atop a pyramid of wealth, and exploits Burma's natural resources, underpaid workers, and neighboring countries which are willing to break the boycotts.