This article traces border practices along boundaries that China and Thailand share with Burma. It portrays a spectrum of small border polities, from principalities on the fringes of Southeast Asian kingdoms, through Nationalist troops in Burma following their defeat in China, to ‘drug lords’ and ‘rebel armies’. The focus here is on Akha village heads who have worked their connections in multiple directions, including into Burma, to position themselves as patrons controlling local resource access. With state appointment as border guardians, village heads become chiefs of new kinds of small border entities, protecting the border for the homeland while enabling certain illicit information, people, and goods to cross. In regions with a history of complex patronage relations, state efforts to control peripheral people, resources, and territories have in fact produced small border chiefs, with practices similar to those of frontier princes in the past.