Gemmology Canada - Special Issue

Devil's Advocate

Death of the Thai Ruby

by Richard W. Hughes

[In Athens], we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business;
We say that he has no business here at all.
Pericles' Funeral Oration Thucydides, History of he Pelopenesian War, ca. 460-400 bc

Will time last forever?

I met him by the river, he was tryin' to sell his sister
I said: Man you must be joking.
He said: "Take her, she's a virgin."
This is the Third World calling, and time lasts forever.
Lone Kent, Setting Sun

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 bowl.

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 reach.

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 others.

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 the ready.

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.

mapsFigure 1

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

We talked about the future, and the social implications.
I asked: Is this what it's really like to see a dying nation?
"It's been like this as long as I can remember,"
He said: "Will time last forever?"
Lone Kent, Setting Sun

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):

JigclothesFigure 2

Remnant of a bygone era. A rusting ruby mining jig outside Bo Rai is now used for hanging clothes. (Author's photo; Jan., 1996)

WashTokPromFigure 3

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


Geritol-rich rubies

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

I told him I was impressed, but he didn't seem to appreciate I was only tryin' to help.
"Well people have been doin' that for ages," he said.
Lone Kent, Setting Sun

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.

The shape of things to come
"Some things never change and, you know, well time lasts forever."
Lone Kent, Setting Sun

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 gone.

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

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.

Bo Rai

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 Boredom.

MilitSignFigure 4

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.

ChcurveFigure 5

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.

Bpai Kow

Never get off the boat.
Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now

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 fruitful.

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

I told him that his day will come: You've just gotta keep the faith.
"Well we've been doing that for a long long time.
"There's a whole new generation that's just waiting for an answer.
"And time lasts forever."
Lone Kent, Setting Sun

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 me.

And I said: Keep the kid smiling, the sun is settin' down on you.
Keep the picture rosy, well the sun is settin' down on you,
Don't you roll off the horizon,
The sun is settin' down on you,
Yeah the sun is settin' down on you,
Yeah the sun is settin' down on you
Lone Kent, Setting Sun

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' [1433]. Cambridge, Hakluyt Society, Extra Series, No. 42, 393 pp.

Additional photo captions

Figure 6

Living on borrowed time? Stone buyers in Chanthaburi's weekend market. (Author's photo; Jan., 1996)

Figure 7

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)

Figure 8

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; Jan., 1996)

BoRaiFigure 9

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, 1996)

JigrifflesFigure 10

A jig lies fallow and rusting, with the riffles which once trapped gems now catching only dirt and weeds. (Author's photo; July, 1996)

RubMinSignFigure 11

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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