Gemmology Canada - Special Issue
Will time last forever?
It is always hard to argue to the disenfranchised about morals,
ethics and environmental problems. Such is doubly true in the
Third-World, where the impact of any actions seems petty relative to
an apparently infinite world. For impoverished residents,
consequences stretch only as far as the lip of the nearest rice
To most on this planet, the world is indeed limitless, if only
because they have seen so little of it. Like goldfish trapped in a
bowl of someone else's making, their glass bubble is the world. Rare
glimpses of the fringes beyond only reinforce their impression that
they are but ants, grain by grain moving an unfathomable mass.
Similar to children, they comprehend only the immediate--that which
they can touch--the rest is both physically and intellectually out of
But just where does the Third World end and the First World begin?
And who stands betwixt the two? In every Third-World nation there are
those who understand only too well the true complexion of the earth,
its texture, its shape, its very finiteness and fragility. Thus it is
not to prostitutes that the present column is directed, but to their
pimps, those who trade virtue for coin, knowing full well that the
consequences of their actions have severe negative effects on
Thailand--Land of no tomorrow
Many of the residents of this country display a callous disregard
for the future, living as if there is no tomorrow, only today. This
is instantly obvious to first-time visitors, but easily forgotten. So
consider the following a wake-up call from someone who has lived here
and departed. There is a tomorrow, there is a future, and the
consequences of our past actions do impact the present and the
future. Bangkok's future is already here. And that of the rest of the
nation is close at hand, bearing down like the grim reaper, scythe at
Don't think the country's fathers are unaware. They do understand
the problems--and they care. Which is why they are now discussing
expansion of Bangkok's helicopter service. Hate to keep the wealthy
waiting, wouldn't we?
Still, city denizens maintain a sense of humor. Earlier this year,
Bangkok's governor declared that, if the upcoming 10-year plan is
properly implemented, in the next decade the city will become one of
the five most livable metropolitan areas in the world! Perhaps his
helicopter has a rose-tinted windscreen.
Corundum sites in Chanthaburi and Trat (Thailand) and Battambang
(Cambodia). (Modified from Vichit & Vudhichativanich et al.,
1978). Both Thais and foreigners, common sense not being the province
of any particular nationality or ethnic group.
For too long, the residents of Thailand have been on an
environmental looting mission. But today, the poultry has come home
to roost. Fish no longer swim in Thai waters. Forest cover is now
probably less than 10% (down from over 50% in 1945). And, in our
industry, rubies no longer come from Thailand.
A mining we will go
Thailand's ruby mines inhabit a corner of the country's eastern
region, in Chanthaburi and Trat Provinces, actually stretching across
the border into the Pailin area of Cambodia (see Figure 1). They
have been known from early times, the earliest known reference being
that of the Chinese traveller, Ma Huan, in 1408 ad
(Phillips, 1887; Gühler, 1947):
Remnant of a bygone era. A rusting ruby mining jig outside Bo Rai is now used for hanging clothes. (Author's photo; Jan., 1996)
A ruby mine near Tok Prom. Today it is operated mainly for tourists, and will soon close. (Author's photo; Jan., 1996) A hundred li (twenty miles) to the S.W. of this Kingdom there is a trading place Shang-Shui, which is on the road to Yun-hou-mên, [possibly a canal between Chanthaburi and Trat Provinces in eastern Thailand]. In this place there are five or six hundred foreign families, who sell all kinds of foreign goods; many Hung-ma-sze-kên-ti stones are sold there. This stone is an inferior kind of ruby, bright and clear like the seeds of the pomegranate."
Ma Huan, 1408 ad
From this date, numerous mentions of Thailand's ruby mines occur,
particularly in the nineteenth century, but the mines were always
overshadowed by the pigeon-blood variety in Burma. Unfortunately,
Thai/Cambodian stones were afflicted with an ignominious
disorder--excess iron--which quenched the fire, rendering their color
dark, like garnet.
It was events in the 1960s which propelled the region to
prominence in world ruby markets. In 1969, Ne Win's disastrous
military government annexed Burma's famed Mogok ruby mines. Suddenly,
the world was deprived of its traditional source of ruby and forced
to look elsewhere. Their ravenous gaze settled on the stones produced
along the Thai/Cambodian border. Although other sources produced
rubies of better color, only the Thai/Cambodian mines produced enough
facetable material. And with improvements in heat treatment, it was
not long before the mines supplanted Burma as the world's major ruby
supplier. The ugly duckling had blossomed into a swan--or a vague
facsimile thereof. Yes, this was no dixie chicken, but there were
wings and feathers, and the bird was female.
Bring in the trucks
During the 1970s and 80s, the Thai/Cambodian ruby reigned supreme.
But all was not well. This period in Thailand's ruby mining history
was different. For the first time, modern technology was brought to
bear on the deposits.
The 1960s brought much change in Southeast Asia. Impetus came
primarily from the Vietnam conflict, which gathered and concentrated
industrial-revolution technology in a region just beginning to crawl
out of the feudal era. Europe, Japan and North America had
experienced a similar phenomena decades before. Much mischief was
made, but the technology more closely matched the minds of the
country as a whole.
Southeast Asia has not been so fortunate. Carpet bombing, Agent
Orange, napalm, these are but a few of the buzzwords of a war long
since over. Technologies introduced by the industrialized nations at
war rippled down into the societies at large. The pesticide DDT,
banned for decades in the United States, has been exported to
Thailand in quantity. If it will kill Americans, it will also kill
Thais, but the American manufacturers, and their Thai counterparts
who import it, see only profit.
My first visit to Chanthaburi occurred almost 20 years ago; since
then I must have traveled to this humble town over fifty times. But
it had been several years since my last visit. Thus in January, 1996,
I packed the family off to Chanthaburi to make a survey of ruby and
sapphire production in Thailand. For one who has been crying for
years that the Thai deposits would soon be exhausted, even I was
shocked. The Thai ruby is dead. Kiss its sweet culet goodbye. It's
The first change I noticed was not the shape of the town (which
has grown considerably), but that the trip from Bangkok to
Chanthaburi now takes five hours, instead of three. I took solace in
the fact that I saw so many new shophouse designs along the way.
In many respects, Chanthaburi appears to be living on borrowed
time. The market is still active; Möng Hsu ruby from Burma is
here today. Tomorrow is difficult to predict. The Thai/Cambodian ruby
that once fed this city's appetite is long gone. That was yesterday.
Amsterdam diamonds were also yesterday, as were 8-track tapes.
'Hill of Gems'
From Chanthaburi, I paid a visit to nearby Khao Ploi Waen the
legendary "Hill of Gems." Mining on the side of the hill opposite the
Wat continues, but most operations have moved to the Wat side, where
substantial excavations are now taking place.
At nearby Bang Kha Cha, not a mine was to be found, with locals
stated that all mining had halted years before, even in the Khlong
Hin ('stone canal') estuary.
The next day, I proceeded to the little-visited area of Tok Prom
and Bo I Rem. This region lies directly behind Khao Sa Bap,
the large mountain which dominates the view of Chanthaburi town. It
is far off the beaten tourist track and I felt that if mining existed
anywhere, it might be here. But alas, all was for naught. Other than
two small mines just outside of Tok Prom, which were reprocessing
already-mined ground and were, incredibly enough, set up for
tourists, nothing was to be had. Jigs were seen lying here and there,
rusting in the tropical sun. Local inquiries stated that the
situation was the same in Na Wong.
Nong Bon was once a bustling mining town. Our arrival there was
greeted not by the pounding of earthmoving equipment, but only by
yawns from bored children. Not a single mine was in operation. Weeds
peeked through the ass-end of a rusting ruby jig.
Not to be deterred, I set off for Bo Rai, king of the Thai ruby
mining towns. The scene that awaited was devastating. A once-bustling
town was beginning to show the early signs of derelict ghost towns
from the American West. Abandoned equipment littered the landscape
everywhere one looked. Hundreds of traders once turned up daily for
the early morning rough ruby market. These days, barely five offer
their wares. Ruby Town has quietly metamorphosed into Ban
Thai military sign outside Bo Rai forbidding declaring that entry
into the area within five kilometers of the Cambodian border is
restricted to those with military permits. According to one villager
with whom the author spoke, this zone contains a number of Khmer
Rouge camps, but this was denied by military officials along the
border. (Author's photo; Jan., 1996) But surely miners must still be
going to Cambodia? No, I was told, the Cambodian trade had ground to
almost a complete halt. Two reasons were offered: first, the Thai
military had sealed the border. Sure, I'd heard that before (nudge,
nudge, wink, wink). But secondly, even the Cambodian side was said to
have been mined out. I inquired as to the presence of the Khmer
Rouge, who were ubiquitous on the Thai side of the border in years'
past. "They're still here," he told me, "all along the base of these
mountains." Some things never change. But will time last forever?
Thailand's last ruby mine
Not taking no for an answer, I drove down one of the old mining
tracks that leads into Cambodia. Past the markets, past the
semi-markets, past the villages, past the semi-villages, past even
the Thai signs warning that this was a restricted area and all
civilians should keep out. Still I drove on. Finally, against the
mountain that formed the border with Cambodia I saw signs of life.
Certainly this must be it--ruby miners heading to Cambodia. Pick-ups
and motorcycles parked near a trail. My family and I de-carred and
asked where the ruby mines were, only to be led to a waterfall, a
pitiful waterfall, at that. We had only succeeded in discovering the
local tourist site. The infamous Thai/Cambodian border at Bo Rai,
where prospectors once risked life and limb in search of the red
stone, had become a two-bit tourist attraction for bored residents of
local villages. Bummer.
The infamous "Charp Curve" has been the death of many a careless
traveller. It is endemic in the Bo Rai area. (Author's photo; July,
1996) But we would not be denied. Back in Bo Rai, we asked local
merchants--where did the stones in the market come from? And then we
heard the magic words: Bpai Kow Duan Chumpon ( " " " ÿ æ
). This was the last ruby mine in Thailand.
"Where?" we asked. "Oh, you can't go there," they said. "Antalai"
(dangerous). "Where?" we asked again. "Thirty minutes from town," we
were told, with an arm extended in the general direction of Cambodia.
And so we set off, to go exactly there, to find the last existing
ruby mine in Thailand.
Heading north out of Bo Rai for several kilometers, we then turned
onto a dirt track in the general direction of Cambodia. Despite the
warnings from those who we stopped to ask directions from, all was
smooth sailing, until .
Bounding over a hill, we came across a sight which always means
trouble, a military border post, manned by the black uniformed troops
of Thailand's special forces. Pretending ignorance, I drove past, but
the soldier's frantic waving (along with his M-16) convinced us to
halt. And thus came the inevitable interview, one which I had endured
in so many borderlands throughout Southeast Asia. They seldom proved
The commander politely explained that we had wandered where we
ought not to be. We inquired about mining in the area. Surprise,
surprise, we were told that there was no mining along this road. When
we explained that those in town had told us that otherwise, and that
we had seen a pickup full of miners coming down the road, he admitted
that there was some mining, but that they try to discourage it. "What
can we do, arrest them all? They have no other employment." Nods all
around, as we reluctantly made our departure, back from whence we had
come. A photo op with the commander was politely, but firmly,
refused, despite my protestations that I was not working for the CIA.
Of course I knew it was not the CIA that he was worried about. His
nightmare was a nosy reporter getting into the area he was
responsible for and writing that Khmer Rouge troops were there under
Thai jurisdiction. But that is another story, for another day
And so it was, that Thailand's last remaining ruby mine eluded us.
Never get off the boat. Damn right.
Pleas from a Luddite
Diamonds and De Beers notwithstanding, nothing is forever. Not
even time. Crunch time is fast approaching for Thailand, and I'm not
just talking about the gem business. Like I said before, fish no
longer swim in Thai waters, forest cover is disappearing faster than
the hair on my head, the capital city is one massive human rights
violation, and rubies are now an import only. But why should I care?
I'm not a fisherman, nor a lumberjack. I'm no miner, either, and, to
be perfectly honest, never really bought the
Thai-ruby-as-god's-gift-to-jewelry rap, either.
So why should I care? Why, indeed. Why don't I go to someplace
like Rwanda, where people are in dire need of help, why should I
waste my time on peripherals? The closest I can come to an answer is
that, in all frankness, I've never been to Rwanda. I've never lived
there, never watched the sun rise there, never laughed there, never
fallen in love with a Rwandan, never longed to return to Rwanda. So I
guess I'm just left to complaining about someplace that matters to
Gühler, U. (1947) Studies of precious stones in Siam. Siam
Science Bulletin, Vol. 4, pp. 1 38.
Hughes, R.W. (1996) Ruby & Sapphire. RWH Publishing, Boulder, CO, 512 pp.
Ma Huan (1970) Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan 'The overall survey of the ocean's shores' . Cambridge, Hakluyt Society, Extra Series, No. 42, 393 pp.
Additional photo captions
Living on borrowed time? Stone buyers in Chanthaburi's weekend
market. (Author's photo; Jan., 1996)
Gem gravel on its way for washing? Sorry, all the earth has
already been washed. It's headed for a landfill. Bo I Rem,
Thailand. (Author's photo; Jan., 1996)
Wat Tok Prom. The surrounding area was once a major center of ruby
and sapphire mining, but now all the gems are gone. (Author's photo;
The early morning rough ruby market at Bo Rai, in Trat province,
Thailand. Where once close to a thousand people gathered to trade
gems, today only a few stragglers remain. (Author's photo; July,
A jig lies fallow and rusting, with the riffles which once trapped
gems now catching only dirt and weeds. (Author's photo; July,
One of the only areas still being mined in the Chanthaburi/Trat
region is Khao Ploi Waen. But here only sapphire is found, not ruby.
(Author's photo; March, July, 1996)
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