Even as Yangon’s streets empty when the military regime’s nightly curfew goes into effect, the sound of electronic dance music pumps out of bars and nightclubs illuminated by neon lights.
While Myanmar’s economy has been in freefall since the 2021 coup, nightlife venues are flourishing across Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, despite ongoing power blackouts.
In those venues, there has been an alarming rise in the availability of so-called party drugs: illegal narcotics such as ecstasy (E) and ketamine (K) that are increasingly being taken by young people.
“It might be difficult to buy a large amount of paracetamol. But E and K are everywhere. In clubs and bars, 15,000 tablets sell out in single night,” said Ko Kelvin, a pseudonym for a 30-year-old organizer and promoter of nightlife events in Yangon.
Happy Water — a mixture of E, K, methamphetamine, diazepam, and other narcotics — is the most popular party drug among young people in Yangon.
E is a pill and K, which was originally designed as an anesthetic for animals, comes either as a liquid or powder that is smoked.
“Previously, one tablet of E cost over 100,000 kyats [around US$35], and it was the same for K. So many people couldn’t afford it or used it only occasionally. But both E and K are cheaper now and more readily available,” said Ko Kelvin.
Since the coup, the price of E has dropped to between 40,000 and 50,000 kyats per pill, while the price of K has also dropped to 60,000 to 70,000 kyats per gram. And there is an abundant supply of these drugs, as their use has increased.
Happy Water is sold for around 300,000 kyats per packet which, if mixed with water, provides ten shot glasses of the drug.
The increase in narcotic abuse in Yangon is the result of more drugs being produced in border areas controlled by ethnic militias affiliated to the Myanmar military. The drugs are then transported along routes guarded by the military, before being distributed by cronies. Some of the narcotics are also manufactured in the border areas close to China and Thailand without the involvement of the military, according to drug users and traffickers. The police cover up the drug dealing.
With new drugs such as E, K and Happy Water on the rise, the price of methamphetamines like Yaba pills and Ice has dropped significantly, meaning people on low incomes can now afford them. Before the coup, a Yaba pill cost around 5,000 kyats. Now, they sell for between 300 and 500 kyats each.
Some Yangon drug users aged between 25 and 30 said narcotics make them feel alert and energetic.
Ma Honey, a pseudonym, from Hlaing Tharyar Township said: “It makes you feel energetic for a few hours. It also depends on how upbeat the music is. The effect of the drug declines while you are dancing.”
Ko Aung Khant, a pseudonym for a drug user from Tamwe Township, said: “When you inhale K, the high comes with feelings of euphoria. When you take a lot of K, your mind leaves your body and floats to other place. You are euphoric, even if you don’t look good while doing it.”
He added: “K affects the brain, so your memory will decline with prolonged use.”
KTV lounges and nightclubs have separate rooms known as Hi Rooms [‘Hi’ is an abbreviation of ‘High’] where partygoers can buy and use drugs. Some Hi Rooms will even prepare the drugs for users.
In the Hi Rooms, drug users dance all the time with music sometimes played by private DJs. Ecstasy pills are often taken as they enable users to dance for hours without getting tired.
A new occupation known as ‘Hi Girls’ has now become popular with young women. The job doesn’t involve sexual services, but requires the women to dance with male guests all night. ‘Hi Girls’ usually charge from 50,000 kyats to 150,000 kyats for six hours of dancing from 10pm to 4am the next day.
The job was previously popular only in Laukkai by the Myanmar-China border and Tachileik along the Myanmar-Thailand frontier. Both places are border towns in Shan State and notorious for drugs, gambling and other illegal activities. But with unemployment rising in Myanmar since the coup, ‘Hi Girls’ can now be found in Yangon and Mandalay as well.
The prolonged use of stimulants can have physical effects like disorientation, depression, loss of appetite, bladder pain and kidney failure, unconsciousness, acute respiratory failure, and erectile dysfunction, according to healthcare professionals.
The most popular nightclub in Yangon for drugs is the Honey Nest near Bayintnaung Bridge in Mayangone Township. The One Entertainment near Shwegondaing Junction in Bahan Township has the most popular Hi Rooms.
Honey Nest is a Chinese-owned club that opened in September 2021, seven months after the military takeover.
Other well-known Hi Rooms include Music Buzz and VIP in Bahan, Diamond KTV in Sanchaung and Good Sound in Mingalar Taung Nyunt. Popular Yangon clubs include The Next Level KTV Bar in Kamayut, Vuvuzela in Thingangyun, Woodland X and Domino Lounge in South Okkalapa, The Maze in Tamwe, The Myst in Bahan and Pioneer in Dagon.
These clubs are run by relatives of generals, businessmen close to them, and Chinese business owners. So they are effectively beyond the law.
In 2022, the junta said that it arrested 30 drug dealers in Yangon who were selling narcotics near KTV lounges and nightclubs, along with six policemen who had ties to the dealers. But there is little sign of the regime tackling the major suppliers of drugs or the bars and clubs where they are taken.
The junta has turned a blind eye to drugs, gambling and illegal entertainment in Yangon in an effort to persuade the outside world that the city has come back to life, despite striking workers and ongoing resistance to the regime.
Now those illegal activities are increasingly affecting the lives of residents and Yangon is a city on the skids.