Tricks and stones: the gem traders of Chanthaburi – by Luke Duggleby (South China Morning Post – August 9, 2014)

Unregulated mining stripped Chanthaburi of its authentic gemstones. Now the ethically dubious techniques that are sustaining trade in the Thai town are threatening the industry.

Every morning, in a small wooden pavilion overlooking a creek, 64-year-old Olan Phengkit eats a breakfast of steamed dumplings. Short in stature, with an admirably large belly, Olan has been involved in the mining, selling and buying of gemstones since his youth.

The creek, 20 metres below and roughly half the size of a football pitch, is full of dark, murky water. It shows the extent of his mining activities. “I stopped one year ago because I simply ran out of land,” he says, pushing his gemstone-viewing goggles onto his forehead, “so now I just buy and sell.”

Olan’s older sister’s mine, which is the size of several football pitches and up to 60 metres deep, lies a few hundred metres away. It’s one of the last active mines in the area around Khao Phloi Waen (literally “Hill of Gems”), less than 10km from the small provincial town of Chanthaburi and five hours east of the Thai capital, Bangkok.
“Years ago, the land here was full of [gem]stones, but now there’s not much left,” Olan says.

“Look at the sapphire up there in the picture on the wall,” he continues. “That came from my sister’s mine. I bought it from her, heated and cut it, and sold it on for five million baht [HK$1.2 million]. It was so beautiful that, before I sold it, I got a photographer to take a picture for me so I can always remember what it looked like.”

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